After braving the elements in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park for the last fifteen years, the colossal Henry Moore sculpture ‘Draped Seated Woman’, although commonly known as ‘Old Flo’, is facing a controversial move. The sculpture has been reclaimed by its owner, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, who plans to sell her to offset funding cuts.
As a piece that has been on our doorstep in Yorkshire for fifteen years, you are probably aware of the conundrum and have perhaps even witnessed the semi-abstract sculpture yourself. The extensive rolling moors and the rich green pastures of the greater Wakefield area are quite in contrast to Old Flo’s initial home, Stepney’s Stifford council estate. Given Henry Moore’s status as one of Britain’s greatest sculptors, art in such an environment – especially when we are used to our art put on both literal and metaphorical pedestals, divided from us by ropes, glass, and even electric beams, seems rather wonderful. Such accessibility to the artwork was Moore’s exact intention in selling the sculpture to the council of Tower Hamlets in 1962 for a price only marginal to its worth. In giving Old Flo to an area of such deprivation, the artist believed the sculpture exceeded its usual audience, providing aesthetic pleasure for those who may not have a chance to see such works otherwise.
Old Flo allowed for the interactivity of its viewers
Although facing considerable vandalism and corrosion in the process, Old Flo allowed for the interactivity of its viewers (certainly more so than other works in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park where a notice clearly states ‘please do not climb’). The fun ended in 1997 with the demolition of the estate, and Old Flo was relocated to Yorkshire for safekeeping. It was Tim Archer, councillor for the conservative party who began to campaign for the restoration of the sculpture to its East End roots.
However, the mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, has other intentions. Rahman has made the somewhat unpopular decision to sell Old Flo at Christie’s in February, where it is expected to fetch between £4-7 million. The council’s justification for the proposed sale is its need to reach the saving targets demand of £100 million by 2015.
surely his intentions were that art should be available for all
But what about the moral price? The decision to sell Old Flo has faced considerable opposition from Boris Johnson, Danny Boyle and many others. Henry Moore’s own daughter has commented, “While we understand the financial pressures that Tower Hamlets faces, we feel that the mayor’s proposal goes against the spirit of Henry Moore’s original sale”. A flash mob was even started in protest with demonstrators donning Henry Moore costumes and adopting ‘Old Flo’s’ distinctive pose.
The debate continues. Undoubtedly, Henry Moore was a man of charitable nature, giving his masterpiece for a small sum. But surely his intentions were that art should be available for all- to improve the aesthetics of an east London estate and to educate, not fund, a council. However honourable the intention of not cutting key council services, ultimately this was not why Henry Moore gave the sculpture.
As both a resident of Tower Hamlets and a student of Art History at Leeds, I cannot stress what a privilege it would be for the borough to once again be in possession of such a prestigious piece. I believe too for the residents it could increase awareness of the artist, and in turn raise questions in viewers about art and its broader context. But in a society of continual financial decline, sacrifices have to be made, and art, it seems, has fallen victim.