William Gordon’s Relief – Strathclyde University


Sculpture Placement Group (SPG) were approached by artist Ally Wallace regarding the planned removal of a sculptural relief by ceramicist William Gordon currently located within Strathclyde University. The relief was installed in the university’s Colville Building in 1967 and was due to be removed in summer/autumn 2018 during a renovation of the building. 

SPG undertook a site visit to the building in May 2018 along with Ally and Graham Forsyth, Project Manager at Strathclyde University. The relief was found to be large in scale, intact and fully integrated into the fabric of the building. Overall it appeared to be in good condition and was firmly fixed to the wall. The removal of the relief was planned for August 2018 and Graham confirmed that the plan was for the contractors to remove the wall as they would any other wall without specialist help or advice. We assessed that it was very likely that the relief would be fully or partially destroyed during this process. SPG agreed that we would explore options for removing this work sensitively and storing or rehoming it. 

Issues/ Concerns/Challenges/Ethics Identified

Difficulty in Removing the Relief

As outlined above the work appeared to be in good condition and intact. It was made up of different sized and shaped ceramic tiles that were cemented onto the wall, we presume using tile adhesive and grouted into place. The tiles were quite thick and sturdy and were firmly embedded in the fixative. Our initial concern was around the difficulty of removing a work so permanently attached to the wall. It was obvious that to remove all of the tiles in tact would be a painstaking and labour-intensive job and one that would require specialist advice and assistance. 

Cost Implications

If a specialist team were to be appointed to assess, survey and eventually remove the relief it was likely to be a time-consuming and costly project. The university confirmed that the current plan was for the contractors carrying out the renovation work to remove the wall ‘as they would any other’ this meant that the relief was likely to be smashed up during its removal. We wondered if there was a ‘half-way’ measure where by a team could be assembled to remove the wall more carefully but not requiring a specialist conservation team which would be outwith the resources available to SPG and the university at this time

Timescale to Rehome

We were contacted about this piece in late May 2018 and the site was due to be handed over to the contractor in August 2018 leaving only around 3 months to undertake research and to explore options for its removal and rehoming and to raise any funds to support this work if possible. At this time Sculpture Placement Group had no funding to pay its members for time spent on the project so time spent on SPG was limited. 

Ethical Concerns

SGP had some ethical concerns over the removal of this work in the way that was proposed. Ideally care, attention, specialist advice and skill should have been employed to assess the work and remove it intact. 

Actions Taken 

Consultation with Strathclyde University

In anticipation of the removal of the artwork the university lasered surveyed the entire relief and also documented it through photography which are now part of the university’s archive. This ensured that there was a record of the work that could potentially be consulted in the future if the work did not survive the redevelopment of the space, which seemed unlikely. 

The university has an art collection but had had no dedicated curator for some years. A limited amount of admin that was previously delivered by this role has been taken over by the university’s archivist Victoria Peters. SPG consulted Victoria about the process undertaken to decide the future of the relief. Victoria confirmed that she wasn’t part of the decision-making process which had been the role of the Estates Department of the university. 

Victoria’s understanding was that it wasn’t possible to incorporate the relief into the new design of the space and that changing tastes may also have played a part in this decision. She also asked if it might be possible to box so that mural so that it survived for the future but was advised that this was impossible due to issues with the planned use of the space. Victoria confirmed that the Estates department discussed whether they could dismantle the relief and put it into storage but this was discounted this as an option for a number of reasons including the risk of damage when taking it down, a lack of long-term storage locations, the risk of losing components of the relief whilst in storage and finding a suitable location to reinstate it on campus. Victoria said that they felt, understandably, that there was a danger of it languishing in storage for many years with no clear plan for relocating it.

Desk-based research and William Gordon and his work

There is a limited amount of information relating to William Gordon and his work online. William Gordon (1905- c.1993) was a ceramicist who took up the running of the pottery The Walton Pottery Co. in Chesterfield pre and post-WW2. The Walton Pottery closed in 1956 and focused on the creation of industrial ceramics often working in an architectural context and worked with contemporaries including Sir Basil Spence and the Spanish Ceramicist Artigas, a collaborator of Joan Miro. Notable commissions included a large mural commission at St Aidan’s Church in Leicester, the 1958 Basildon Bus Station Mural (now lost) and The Thames and Hudson’s Steps located near the British Museum. Gordon’s work is also included in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. According to online sources, despite Gordon’s work now being quite collectable he remains largely overlooked as an artist. 

Contacting Artists’ Estate

We also researched if there was any estate to check if any person or organisation was administering the estate of William Gordon. Online checks did not yield any information for William Gordon’s estate, including a search of the DACS database. We also contacted DACS directly to request advice or support on this matter but received no response. 

Consulting with Sculpture Conservator

In order to assess best practice and what would be required to safely and responsibly take down the relief we took advice from Glasgow Museums’ Sculpture Conservator Stephanie de Roemer. We asked Steph for her opinion on a number of questions or scenarios that we had imagined in relation to dismantling or repurposing the work as follows, Steph’s responses are included below the headers: 

How best to dismantle the work in order that it could be reinstated elsewhere

‘1/ Record the installation in situ: photographs and measurements of wall space/ height. Ideally a schematic drawing and sketch noting also colours of individual components. Take as many measurements as possible: square dimensions (cm2) of each part (or diameter depending on shape) but also depth (cubic dimensions cm3). Ideally you end up with a map and a cross section (to show depth). You can also record the outlines of components with Melinex (see through sheet) and permanent marker pen. You never can take enough photographs (!) but do remember when taking pictures to have something to orientate the detail of the image to the overall artwork. 

2/ Assess feasibility of removing the entire wall in sections instead of individual components from the wall. This is faster and more suitable when there is a lot of time pressures. You require heavy masonry cutting equipment, but you also need to protect the artwork by cladding the front with suitable materials prior to their removal: this is not a DIY option! You’ll have to get people to do this who are trained in the use of the equipment and the appropriate safety and preparation measures.’

What are the ethical issues around repurposing the work or the materials it is made of?   

‘This is where the detailed recording would become invaluable: you can use the recording (hotographs, dimensions, sketches, angles etc to reconstruct the iteration of the artwork from that space. It is a restoration of a historic iteration only, and you would have to label or communicate it as such. This obviously raises questions as to its authenticity. However recording the story behind the change in site and location and restoration would become your link to the physical altered appearance and on more intangible, conceptual and philosophical considerations transition the authenticity through the narrative and changes in values (demolishing of building and art work), which means the art work continues to exist – maybe not as a physical entity – but in drawings, records, filming? Interviews with current stakeholders? Artist? Estate? Visitors? etc

Alternatively with all the information available from a thorough documentation and recording and in conversation with the artist/ artist estate there may be an interesting project in thinking of updating the physical iteration of the artwork in a new space and by remaking and re fitting remade components. The physical correctness in line with traditional ideas of ‘restoration’ is not relevant in this case. It is much more about having conversations as to what the artwork expressed in the first place (artist intent) and how this translates into 2018: this would provide much scope for discussions and engagement opportunities with many stakeholders, future stakeholders, etc which would provide the objectives as to what may be done and/ or happen with the art work or in many ways even re-animate the installation as art at work.’


What is required for the university to fulfill its duty of care to the artwork?  

‘The only thing I could think of is if they fulfilled their duty of care for this artwork by going through a de-accessioning process which means that first there is a case made to offer the work to other institutions, organisations, galleries, museums, etc. However if this work has never been accessioned fully as an ‘art work’ then it doesn’t have the status of one, and will be fully ok to be removed as part of a refurb of the space and it’s furnishings and fittings.’


Research with Platform about the Easterhouse Mosaics

Platform are an arts organisation based in Easterhouse, Glasgow. In 2012 they commissioned Glasgow-based artist Alex Frost to create his first permanent public artwork in response to the Easterhouse Mosaic (1983-2004) a celebrated community artwork. In response Frost created ‘The Old & New Easterhouse Mosaic (and everything in between)’, an ambitious new project that included ‘The New Easterhouse Mosaic’, a permanent mural outside The Bridge; a series of wax crayon on paper rubbings taken from over 60 existing mosaics in the area; a field guide to these mosaics and an archive dedicated to the old mosaic.

We thought that the approach adopted by Platform to this new commission based on a lost artwork was interesting and of relevance to the potential and imminent loss of the relief by  William Gordon at Strathclyde University. To find out more we contacted Platform’s curator Margaret McCormick to find about why they had decided to commission a new work, rather than reinstate the original mosaic. Margaret highlighted that the issues around the loss of the mosaic were still a very sensitive within the local community: 


History of the Original Easterhouse Mosaic

The original Easterhouse mosaic was created in collaboration between artists and young people from the Lochend area and was at the time,  the largest mosaic in Europe at one point. There is an essay written by David Harding that gives a really interesting insight. The project was part of a YTS project but once that finished the artists and young people continued to work on it to complete the finished piece. It became loved by the community and local residents and was never damaged with graffiti or vandalism. In 2004, the mosaic was taken down to make space to build new houses at which point some of it had begun to crumble due to dampness in the wall that it was adhered to. Even though the council were advised the best way to take the wall down, they bulldozed it resulting in each section being pretty much destroyed. At the time, local people were of the understanding it would return but this did not happen.  Because no one knew what happened to it, when Platform commissioned the project with Alex Frost, many locals were upset to hear that it was pretty much destroyed and that only limited sections of it still exists. 


About the New Commission

As the main arts company in the area Platform were given the mosaic to ‘look after’.  They took professional advice and and were told that recreate the mosaic would cost thousands. this along with the fact that its original site was now new housing deemed that the original mosaic would not be able to be reinstated.  Platform still have large pallets that Glasgow City Council stored the remnants of the the mosaic in and sadly, much of it is rubble. Platform advise that on examining some of the sections, you can see how detailed and beautiful, a wonderful presence it must have had within the community. 

Although it would not be possible to reinstate the original mosaic Platform looked to sensitively celebrate the past mosaic which this led to them commissioning Alex Frost to make a new public artwork. Frost found during his research found that there were many mosaics in and around Easterhouse that were produced through various community projects. He also tried to contact everyone that was involved with the original mosaic.  This posed some challenges as some artists felt that it was their artwork / mosaic (singular) whereas other people were vocal in saying that the artwork was collectively created and that it belong to the  people of Easterhouse.  

The archive material that Platform has on the original mosaic is really limited and we felt we couldn’t get involved with individuals from the original project as it was very much a group project involving many people which they did not have the capacity to replicate. 

As part of the Frosts’ commission Platform tried to celebrate the old mosaic and did restore some larger pieces that people could view.Ideally, we were looking donate them to local schools and so on. A local housing association has taken some parts as part of their community garden.

Research with Edinburgh University about the Paolozzi Mosaic

Edinburgh University have become custodians for sections of mosaic by the important Scottish artist and sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi. These were originally installed as part of a large (950m) public artwork created by Paolozzi at Tottenham Court Station in 1986. As part of the plans for enlarging the station in 2017, two arches that formed part of the mosaic were required to be removed.  An additional section of the mosaic was also carefully removed and re-sited in another part of the station. The ‘arches’ were removed and given into the custodianship of Edinburgh School of Art where Paolozzi studied and taught. ECA was deemed and appropriate custodian for the work due to its long-standing relationship during the artists’ lifetime and subsequently with his estate. We consulted with Liv Laumenech, Public Arts Officer at Edinburgh University to find out the background to this acquisition and their approach to preserving the re-presenting these parts of the mosaic.

On consulting with Liv she informed that when the announcement of the redevelopment of the station was announced in 2011 the Paolozzi Foundation consulted with Transport for London and agreed that the arches would be removed. In early 2015 the arches were closed. At their next meeting with Transport for London, The Paolozzi Foundation were informed that the arches had been removed without further consultation, proper planning or a conservator on site.  They were informed that a photographic survey of the arches was undertaken in 2011 but to date, this has not be shared with anyone. 

Following this, the 20th Century Society put out a call to find a new home for the arches to which ECA responded and was selected based on the case that their former Head of Collections Neil Lebeter made. At this point the mosaics had not been seen since March 2015 and were laid out on pallets attached to concrete. Upon assessment, it was found that there had been no consistency as to how they had been removed and most of the remaining sections were around hand-held size and had obvious traces of their removal such as chisel and angle-grinder marks. The sections had not been labelled or ordered and what arrived at in Edinburgh was like a giant jigsaw puzzle that needed to be put back together. The pieces were photographed by ECA’s School of Infomatics who put the images through image matching software to identify how to reconstruct the arches. This process confirmed that only 33% of the arches had survived the dismantling process. Given that such a small amount of material survived stretched across the two arches it would be difficult to reconstruct them as you lost any sense of the design. 

The next step was for ECA to decide what to do with the remaining sections and to do so they consulted with students, experts and members of the public. They hosted talk sessions with various organisations including the British Association of Modern Mosaics. They raised the issue at the Vandalism and Arts Conference through the submission of a paper, in order to try to gain a consensus. Lastly, they hosted a symposium event in February 2017 with key figures in the production and preservation of mosaics and the 20th Century Society, university staff and the public. 

The consensus that emerged through this research and consultation was that to remake or reconstruct the arches was not a viable option as so little of the original material survived. There was also a suggestion that they could construct a ghost arch to show how the originals would have looked, incorporating the surviving material and leaving gaps. However the preferred option was to use the material to commission something new. 

This could perhaps be viewed as a controversial option. However, it was deemed appropriate due to Paolozzi’s democratic way of working, his use of reconstruction and his reuse of materials. ECA now plan to launch an invited competition for an artist to create a new work from the surviving mosaic pieces. This new public work will be sited at ECA and Liv is currently exploring options for an appropriate site. 


Summary of Findings & Learning for SPG

This case has allowed us to assess the list the challenges that the dismantling of permanent public sculptures, integrated into the fabric of a building can pose. It has highlighted issues of conflicting priorities between the need to conserve such works and the priorities of property or estate development. Often the value of such works, to communities and the cannon are not fully appreciated or overlooked in favour of economic factors and the requirement to deliver such developments in a timely fashion. As demonstrated in the small sample of works we examined the the results of this can be catastrophic for the artwork and the community it serves. Key issues identified by SPG that contribute to this are as follows: 

  • A lack of guidance or control when works are not accessioned
  • The favouring/value of one particular type of work over another which is often subject to personal taste or fashion 
  • A lack of transparency and communication with professionals or interested partners or stakeholders
  • Economic factors including prohibitive costs of assessment, dismantling and re-siting works by trained professionals
  • Ethical issues surrounding the resisting of works or reuse of materials, particularly when the artist is deceased.