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The scallop at the edge of the world containing an artist, a composer and a poet

02/05/2010

The Scallop (Britten memorial), Aldeburgh 2009 via Commons Wiki

Reading Hilary Whitney’s fascinating interview with Maggi Hambling on the Arts Desk site, I was struck by the artist’s enduring relationship with the sea – elemental, devotional and sensual all at once.  Suffolk-born and returned resident, Maggi Hambling tells us she talked to the sea as a child; now, she listens. The elements of this relationship – a sense of  harmony combined with exhilaration, respect and awe – are all expressed by Hambling’s  monumental commemorative statue, ‘the Scallop’. This huge structure (12′ high at the highest point) is breathtakingly beautiful. Really the statue has to be seen to be experienced.  Majestic it certainly is; but it is also approachable. As Ms Hambling points out, most respond readily to it: people make love beneath it; children play on and around it, and some are moved to leave flowers there.

These responses are interesting, as a large-scale sculpture in the landscape must possess the power to impress profoundly as well as please – its significance both transcends the merely decorative and plumbs the depths of human consciousness.  Henry Moore understood this, with his highly symbolic and roundly reassuring outdoor sculptures, as does Anthony Gormley, whose sentinel figures stand like ancient markers of the strong, fearful and sometimes tenuous links between man and nature. And Maggi Hambling is evidently acutely aware of this, too.

I remember the furore when the statue was unveiled (2003): there was resistance, with some dismissing the work as ‘ugly’ or ‘unfitting’.  Taste – always notoriously an individual quality.  And, of course, it hasn’t been immune from vandalism. But it seems obvious now that this sculpture has weathered (I saw it in 2005, the picture above shows it in 2009) it has staked its claim to the landscape, not only inhabiting it but also contributing spiritual force and tangible beauty to an otherwise bleakly impressive scene. Seeing it can evoke soaring emotions, and all manner of imagery according to the viewer’s standpoint. It’s redolent of the sea, of man and his relationship with the sea; of pagan beliefs, myth and magic ( Venus rising from the waves in her shell) and of the the Christian tradition so rooted in European art (the cockleshell symbol of St James, worn by pilgrims to his shrine at Santiago). On a more mundane level a scallop is deliciously nourishing, too. A world of meaning in one artwork.

Benjamin Britten (1913-76), 1945, Bibliothèque nationale de France

This sculpture is a true homage – not only to Britten, but also to the sea and the land he loved so much – and which played such a major part in his work, combining the musical with the visual to such gorgeous effect.

The words you can see on the statue are from the libretto of Britten’s Opera, Peter Grimes, itself based on the work of George Crabbe (the Aldeburgh-born naturalist and poet whose poetry was much admired by Byron). If you can’t quite make them out, they are saying  “I hear the voices that will not be drowned.”  Britten did; Maggi Hambling does – and thanks to them both so, in our own ways, can we.

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