Martin Holman

Embodying the abstract

The sculpture of Richard Rome

Millennium Fountain
The Millennium Fountain, 2000
Patinated bronze, 2.4x1.65x1.65m
Cannizaro Park, Wimbledon
Commissioned by The Constance Fund

The many ways to make things

This essay approaches the forty-year career of Richard Rome from an unconventional perspective. At its centre is a sculpture that might seem to embody every feature not linked to this artist. For instance, it is a sculpture in a water feature – and Rome does not do fountains. Another inescapable fact is that the work is a rounded and modelled vessel – and Rome is known for constructing planar forms. Finally, this object from 2000, called the Millennium Fountain and specific to its location in a public park in Wimbledon, is in bronze, a material less connected with Rome over more than a quarter of a century than steel.

At first sight, therefore, the organic and enclosing form of the Millennium Fountain sculpture suggests an unexpected departure from the type of work that the art world has come to expect from Richard Rome. A leading British artist whose first one-person show took place at London’s Serpentine Gallery in 1975, Rome is most commonly associated with bold and open abstract shapes, often in public spaces and often in steel. His sculpture operates on a level with that of compatriots like Phillip King, Tim Scott, Katherine Gili and Justin Knowles. They are roughly Rome’s contemporaries and Rome himself cites as fundamental to his outlook the example of Anthony Caro, a generation older and a common factor in the careers of all these sculptors.

Rome’s work is also visibly influenced by post-war modernist American art. But from a more searching scrutiny of his working methods and concerns, however, Rome emerges as a distinctly independent and pragmatic figure within the traditional modernist aesthetic of British sculpture. His inspirations are wider and, perhaps, more unanticipated than the frequently stereotyped image of the modern sculptor. Thus the ungainly hybrid in the Wimbledon fountain presents a helpful starting point after all.

Scale, volume, colour, surface and space: these are some of the persistent characteristics of Rome’s sculpture. During a career that began in the late 1960s his work has often been inspired by the human figure and its environment, but usually in a highly abstract form. Just as the appearances of people (and buildings, for that matter) are varied by colours, fabrics and size, so Rome’s sculptures blend into or stand out from their surroundings by similar attributes. And because the figure is constantly in his mind, the forms that Rome creates tend to interlock with the space around them: they inhabit their place naturally, as it were, like we inhabit ours.

This source does not mean that his sculptures are themselves figurative; the Millennium Fountain sculpture perhaps has the strongest human overtones in his work for many years. Although Rome tends to work on a scale that is guided by his own height and the span of his arms outstretched, his previous work has departed from overt reference to any specific figure, place or event in the outside world at an early stage in its genesis. But even in his most forceful forms, the idea of a body is somehow never lost in its broadest sense. The analogy builds as Rome always pulls off a precarious balancing act of parts in a freestanding form like Novington, 1985; in engineering terms, the human skeleton should never have been able to stand upright. The effect for us is that when he pushes shapes to extremes, or collages fragment upon fragment, they still strike a surprisingly intimate chord, like a memory recalled.

Rome is primarily a form-maker. That architecture comes as much to mind as the figure in the forms that he makes seems to confirm his preoccupation with a wider environment than just the figure. (His father was an engineering draughtsman and Rome’s son is an architect, so perhaps there is an inherited disposition to this approach!) Being three-dimensional, sculpture shares corporeality with the body, and architecture can also be interpreted as an extension of the body. In Caryatid: Looking South, 1993-8, this basic combination of allusions occurs, extended as the title suggests from the ancient device of a female figure used as a pillar on a temple or other public structure. Though distanced from the idealised origin of its classical source, this idea is none the less rooted in the tone of the piece, a floor-based, column-like assembly of angled and flat planes of welded steel that incorporates its own pedestal or base. There are those spectators who are justifiably satisfied with the visual rewards of its form, colour and surface; others, absorbing the evidence of their eyes, want to pursue intellectually, in the manner of looking at an abstract painting, how the artist has arrived at this sequence of shapes. The visible attributes of the work itself are then perceived, in a sense, as the ultimate destination in a process of evolution from idea to form.

Novington  Caryatid: Looking South
Left Novington, 1985
Painted steel
Right Caryatid: Looking South, 1993-8
Steel galvanised
Korean, 1976-77 Steel
At University of Kent, Canterbury

One becomes aware that to make a piece is a personalised experience for the artist that goes beyond practical decisions about what goes where. It requires him to submerge himself in the traditions and the craft of sculpture; he perceives a thread of continuity that spurs his creativity and feeds into his forms. This sensation surfaces in a sculpture like Caryatid: Looking South; it embodies references that can establish a common ground in the work that spans primitive, classical and modern inspirations as well as an assortment of emotions. The affinity he claims with the American sculptor David Smith is deserved. Both have drawn on a deep well of past art; and although the spectrum of connotations is wider in Smith (Rome politely by-passes the baser emotions that charged Smith’s work with energy as much as the nobler ones), and both prise open closed forms, confronting the visitor and asking to be interpreted.

In the early 1970s Rome emerged from a difficult period for sculpture, his own as well as for the medium generally. As he remembers, in the late 1960s ‘sculpture was very much out of fashion’, and idea-based conceptual work was then prevalent in art schools. For Rome this situation opened possibilities as ‘I realised how many ways there were to make things’ and he adopted a dispassionate and formalistic practice. While the systematised nature of this approach had an appeal for him, it lacked ‘a particular atmosphere, an ambiance and a kind of energy’ that Rome associated with good sculpture.

Square/Variations, 1976
Mild steel

Doubts persisted until 1972 and culminated in a period of inactivity. Then a combination of factors, the most significant of them being the move to a new studio space in Shoreditch shared with fellow artists Derek Boshier, Lee Grandjean, John Maine and Glynn Williams. The redundant factory – it had once fabricated stained-glass windows – represented a break with past environments and anxieties and released in Rome’s practice a new directness.

By constructing simple forms in his studio from bits of wood or discarded metal parts, plaster and other scrap – elements with a history of their own – Rome sought a way round any preciousness that self-doubt might have led him into. Work with a new clarity and urgency appeared that began to express concerns that were now important to him – spontaneity, risk, chance, visual complexity and excitement. Steel girders, iron beams and other elements have subsequently featured among his most common materials. Recycled from some previous industrial use, they can still have a bearing on the final form. In Korean, 1976-7, associations with heavy industry occur. A major piece that is sited at the University of Kent, its flat steel planes and freer interconnecting forms lean forward into a pyramid-shaped object over a central, open space. The weight of these elements is both demonstrated and simultaneously contradicted; the quasi-symmetrical form, which is also resonant of a nomad’s portable shelter, is carried on five slender points around its base, lifting the bulk of the body off the ground. The right-angles and verticals that here grow out into other quite elementary shapes, like cones, spheres and squares, lie at the root of his take on sculpture. In Square/Variations, 1976, their superficial simplicity masks a surprising complexity. The four angular elements, restless on angled uprights, seem frozen in movement when seen straight on. Their implied animation is activated by the viewer walking around the perimeter of the space they surround. The greatest challenge that Rome continues to face is to retain definition within the overall assembly of these parts; and his instinct remains to reduce to this essential core of forms.

Although his approach to the materials of sculpture is fairly traditional, Rome endlessly tests their properties. Each has its own history and a craft behind it imbued with an understanding of how each substance behaves. That knowledge can influence the ‘ambiance’ that Rome seeks to instill in a sculpture; it arises from disciplines particular to different metals. A sculpture forged in steel has different properties to a form cast in bronze because the properties of steel are not the same in bronze. He likes to handle and subject them to different techniques, like modelling, casting, forging, bonding, twisting or cutting, and he colours them, heats them, bends them, and mixes or adds things to them. This degree of ‘personal processing’ places his method at variance with Caro, with Henry Moore the outstanding figure in Rome’s artistic upbringing. There is a sense in which Rome imposes his will on an object like Steel Sculpture No.1, 1979, 1979, exhibited in the cloister at Canterbury Cathedral in 1982 and now in the collection of Millfield School. Caro, on the other hand, treats his material as a means towards an on-going statement, a gesture that is essentially abstract.

Rome much prefers this direct way of working to making drawings. Drawing might occupy the preliminary stage of a project; sketches are notational, crude, even scrappy. Working with clay, which is how the Millennium Fountain began life, necessitates drawings that arrive at a clear image from early on. When he is using other materials, Rome likes to translate the conceptual function of drawing into actual activity. A sculptor who joins bars or sheets of metal with welds, creating forms that are linear and planar has much in common with drawing, one reason being that decisions can be made as the work progresses. In this respect, the activity is ‘temporal’.
Steel Sculpture No 1

Steel Sculpture No. 1, 1979
Mild steel, waxed, 106.7x 142.2 x 83.8cm
(Photographed at Canterbury Cathedral Cloister). In the collection of Millfield School

Since the late 1970s, for instance, Rome has often used wax in large rectangular sheets. These sheets have been cut, bent and welded together with a hot knife; they have sometimes led on to larger steel sculptures by being cast into bronze. Shaping the forms is not unlike drawing in three dimensions, allowing the sculptor to vary lines, control contour and build up surface and cross-section. Because it will go cold and become too hard to manipulate, wax has to be worked quickly. It is a discipline that Rome likes because, as he said some years ago, it forces out decisions and ideas that might not come out in other circumstances. On this level Rome has developed a relationship with his sculpture that is tactile and emotional. Consequently, the onlooker can derive an experience from his work that goes powerfully beyond the visual: we may want to touch these pieces, and see patterns in their surfaces, and even discover a deeper rapport. What casting the wax form in metal then achieves is to crystallise the impermanence of fragile wax, like a moment suspended.

The shape he sought for the Millennium Fountain arose out of handling clay. He wanted a vessel form, one that harked back to the earliest formal gardens where water was a source of life. Modelling the clay in his hands he recalled being a sculpture student and making pots, another age-old activity. Among his heroes at that time (and still still among them) was Henry Moore, whose figures were as solid and timeless as the landscape they resembled. But Rome’s pots kept going off-centre, almost taking on a life of their own – no longer just as pots, but also as records of movement and of a space enclosed.

The issue of space-enclosing volume is arguably as unresolved in Rome’s work as it is in much of traditional modernist British sculpture. The debate between open form and space-enclosing volume lies at the centre of post-war ‘New Sculpture’. The poles are represented by the American critic Clement Greenberg’s notion of the ‘optical’, or intellectual, appeal of form, and the contrasting Greco-Roman and Renaissance traditions of tactile values. With his admiration for Smith and Moore, two artists ostensibly in these opposing camps, Rome both embodies this dichotomy and bridges it. He would argue that the issue lies not in theory but in practice, following the rules of his materials.

Nubian 1   Nubian 3
Alphabet Series: N  Bouquet
Clockwise, from top left
Nubian 1, 1979 Wax
Nubian 3, 1979
Bouquet, 1980/97
Alphabet Series: N, 1985/97

The small-scaled wax objects have played out this contradiction since the late 1970s. They also represent a forerunner of the fountain sculpture in their comparable play of properties. It was by working with wax sheets that Rome moved gradually away from the severity of surrogate industrial forms towards the more liquid shapes that permit a subjective response to the experience of handling pliant materials.

For all its ability to ‘blend in’, Rome’s work in outdoor settings continues to display the ambiguity of not being sure whether it wants to be looked at or if it is eager to flaunt itself. The broken frame around Pepper Rock, 1993-7, a steel sculpture now in the outdoor setting of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, implies a pictorial reference by enclosing the still-life elements assembled inside it. Suggested too is a Jekyll-and-Hyde alternation between an Odalisque-like figure at ease in public display and a protective arm swung across the intimate details of anatomy exposed to the gaze of a passer-by, the spectator. Whichever, the figurative allusions, typically dynamic, appear automatic alongside the abstract; neither provides the full story. Physically robust and beguilingly bashful at the same time, the sculpture raises the unsettling and rather comical notion of a dilemma in public art that would be private if convention could allow it.

This characteristic sets Rome’s public work apart from that of his peers born between 1930 and 1940. This group includes King, Scott, William Tucker and David Annesley who were prominent in gallery-based ‘New Sculpture’ as well as those artists more heavily in the shadow of Moore and Hepworth, for whom sculpture was an equivalent of statuary when in an exterior public context. While close in technique and materials to these sculptors, Rome’s work does not share the self-confidence that exudes from open-air work, mostly in steel, by William Pye, Gerald Laing or the older Bernard Schottlander.

Opportunities in the form of commissions and purchases by new towns nurtured their outlook in 1960s and ‘70s (at Harlow and Milton Keynes, for example). Intriguingly, Rome’s work in the mid 1970s ostensibly gravitated towards the position occupied by these older practitioners. With its industrial forms, bold constructive methods and modernist impulse, W1, a steel construction from 1977, exemplifies this proximity. But it lies mainly on the surface; as for others at this time, the identification was largely convenient and superficial. While sharing the sense of (and actual) scale found in their sculpture, Rome’s work lacked their knowing swagger and grandiloquence. The horizontals and diagonals of W1 imply kinetics in momentary suspension; it adumbrates a child’s early apprehensive stride into surrounding space for support and to activate it. In effect, his sculpture was amalgamating several standpoints. In its multifariousness, foundation on simple shapes, volumes and materials, and with its deliberately blurred cultural clarity, his work occupies some common ground with contemporaries born, like he was, in the decade after 1940.

W1, 1977
At Museum of Steel Sculpture, Colebrookdale, Shrophshire

Among this age group are Kenneth Draper, Michael Lyons and the late John Panting, makers of complex, seemingly unsteady assemblages in steel with striking silhouettes; and also David Nash and John Maine. The sculptural interests of this last two belong more to the sculpture park than the hard-paved shopping mall. Marking a post-Minimalism shift towards craft and away from production, to implying usefulness more than objecthood, they curiously but convincingly emerge as distant cousins of the heavy-metal Rome, keen to get inside the natural properties of their materials and the processes of making.

The appeal of the Millennium Fountain perhaps lies for visitors in its resonance with its location, Cannizaro Park, a semi-enclosed 34-acre public garden on the edge of the much more extensive and wilder Wimbledon Common. This remarkable and diverse landscape has been carefully cultivated for almost two centuries and is now a place of history (the adjacent mansion once housed Classical antiquities and entertained William Pitt the Younger and Oscar Wilde), rich colour on account of its rare trees and exotic shrubs and, most often, popular animated leisure. There is an echo of all in this sculpture; the height of an adult, it openly displays its functions, joyfully projecting water (and inevitably sound) from its rounded body. Water sustains life and the bloated body, curved in comfort on its base, has a vibrant quality made luxuriant by the film of water that flows steadily over and around it.

The sculpture has to be walked around to take in a profile that changes with every different angle; it requires that we move and look and hear. Rome conceives of his forms in the round; they cannot be apprehended from a single viewpoint. He sites his sculptures carefully and likes the backdrop of nature. Because mood and atmosphere are important elements in this artist’s work, colour is calculated for its effect. Sculpture has a long history of being coloured: the figures on the façades of Gothic cathedrals were ablaze with it until the Reformation.
<em>Pepper Rock</em>

Pepper Rock, 1993/97
rusted and varnished
Photographed at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

But its modern revival in Britain is an innovation of Caro, William Turnbull and their followers. Rome has never gone to the extreme reached by some of his peers who used colour to make associations with product design, but his application is almost painterly. In the varnished rusted red surface of Pepper Rock it fuels a contrast with grass and shrubs, but at the same time is as integral as a natural patina. The choice of bronze partly reflects Rome’s desire for an equivalent of the coloration of the place. The verdigris colour found on stone and some bark too, is a playground for the phenomena of light and the seasons; and not being fixed but prone to change with exposure to rain, wind, sun and time, it approximates with a life cycle (although in the case of bronze, it is linear. This sculpture reflects a demeanour: it is that of the visitor to the park and its residents, too.

Rome’s sculpture is a product of its era; it belongs to an Anglo-Saxon paradigm of modern art constructed on certain assumptions about form, line, colour and space, and about progress. The distinct quality in Rome’s approach, however, is to moderate a mechanistic, futurist conception with humanism. His recurrent references to the body aside, Rome literally measures the scope of a piece against the extent of his own reach. Thus, it can be argued, he works within himself whereas more ambitious artists with aim beyond their frame. The strength of Rome’s work is in knowing its boundaries but, somehow, refreshing the territory within.

About Richard Rome

Richard Rome was born in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, in 1943. After two years working in the building industry, he enrolled at St Albans School of Art and completed the postgraduate course at Chelsea School of Art in 1966.

He has exhibited regularly in Britain and abroad; his first one-person exhibition took place at the Serpentine Gallery in 1975 and he was selected for the Hayward Annual in 1979. He has made and shown sculpture in North America, and his work is in the collections of Yorkshire Sculpture Park and the Arts Council. He was a member of the visual arts panel of South East Arts in 1986-92 and received a major award in 1976 from the Arts Council of Great Britain.

Rome has been involved with education throughout his career. After teaching in Brighton, London and notably at Canterbury College of Art in 1975-89, he became course leader in site-specific sculpture at Wimbledon School of Art in 1989-91, based in the studios in Cannizaro Park. Since 1991 Rome has been tutor in bronze casting at the Royal College of Art, London. Recent research by the artist into the techniques of casting has been published in his first book, Fine art metal casting: an illustrated guide to mould making and lost wax processes (London, Robert Hale, 2003).

Didactic Mother and Child, 1980-2002
Richard Rome   Richard Rome
Richard Rome left in 2001 and right working on the full-sized plaster of the Millennium Fountain in his Kent studio, August 2000

One-person exhibitions
1975 Serpentine Gallery, London
1976 Large Outdoor Sculpture, University of Kent, Canterbury
1982 Six Bronzes: Nubian Series, The Vicarage, London; Gillian Jason Gallery, London

Selected group exhibitions
1966 Young Contemporaries
1978 Yorkshire Sculpture Park (and 1985, 1989-91, 1996, 1998-9)
1979 Hayward Annual, Hayward Gallery London
198 53-83 Three Decades Show, Royal Academy of Arts, London
1983 Triangle Workshop, New York
1999 Sculpture Show, Royal West of England Academy, Bristol

Arts Council Collection, Hayward Gallery
Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Bretton Woods
Ironbridge Open Air Museum of Steel Sculpture
Millfield School, Somerset
Private collections in the United Kingdom, Netherlands, USA, Canada

Selected open-air commissions
1975 Serpentine Gallery, London
1978 Yorkshire Sculpture Park
1982 Canterbury Cathedral cloister
2000 Cannizaro Park, Wimbledon

Brief bibliography
Hayward Annual 1979, exhibition catalogue, 'Five interviews' by David Robson
'Article on my sculpture' by Richard Rome, Artscribe magazine, 1977
Open Air Sculpture in Britain, by W.J. Strachan, London, A. Zwemmer & Tate Gallery 1984

Artist as constructor: An interview with Richard Rome

In January 2001 Martin Holman asked Richard Rome about his approach to making the Millennium Fountain sculpture, and about its relationship with his earlier work
    What was it about Cannizaro Park that was helpful to you in making this fountain?
  • My experience of the place. Whilst teaching at Wimbledon School of Art I spent two or three days a week in the MA studios, which are in the Park. I was in Cannizaro at all seasons and in all kinds of weather. The tranquillity and beauty of the place especially in spring and autumn made a deep impression on me. Another factor was the use of the Park by small children with their mothers. I felt that a fountain should appeal to these children as well as to adults.
    Throughout your career you have preferred an open-air setting for your sculpture rather than a gallery. How important is the background of nature to the presentation of your work?
  • It’s true that I do prefer an open setting for my sculpture; however not necessarily a pastoral one. I am equally interested in an architectural context, but out of doors with natural light. That element is important. I also prefer my sculpture to be fixed rather than portable. Of course this is an ideal and only applies to larger work. With my small sculptures, context is unpredictable, and this adds other possibilities because by definition they are portable.
    This is your first fountain. Has it had an influence on your way of working?
  • I have designed two or three before, in the 1970s but they were for competitions where I was not successful. But it is a type of sculpture that has interested me. The organic nature of the forms used in the Millennium Fountain refers back to sculptures that I made in the 1960s when I was working in plaster and casting in GRP and bronze. I may well make more ‘organic’ sculptures in the future as a result of this commission.
    The shape of this sculpture is rounded and quite organic. But you are best known for forms constructed from forged and welded metal parts that appear abstract. Is there a link?
  • The forms in this fountain sculpture are somewhat organic. However the sculpture is still constructed from discrete parts. It is this, which is in common with my welded steel sculptures. Also its size which is a little taller than I am. This sense of scale and physical presence is similar to that which I have aimed for in previous sculptures, whether welded constructions or modelled.
    So what thoughts lay behind the shape of this sculpture?
  • The urn has been used in sculpture (and painting) since classical times. It symbolises the source of life, often with a figure of a river god or nymph. Urns also have a long history as points of focus in parks and formalised landscapes. My fountain sculpture relates to these traditional forms, but in a contemporary way – and an urn which has a sense of organic life, from which water flows in a calm and soothing manner. Asymmetry will give the sculpture a strange and slightly humorous quality. Equally important has been my observation through a long familiarity with Cannizaro Park that it is much used by children and families for play, picnicking and strolling. The fountain is a focal point, a place to pause between Park and Common. It is therefore very important that the sculpture should appeal to children, for whom moving water always has a magical quality.
    How do you start, with drawings or by handling materials to make models?
  • When working with steel or wax I have usually allowed the materials and my intuition to lead me when I start a new sculpture. But it is different when modelling in clay. Then it is necessary to have a clear idea to start with, and that is usually supplied by a drawing. This fountain began with a series of drawings, most importantly to convey an idea at the competition stage. The three-dimensional maquette that followed was based on these drawings.
    How did you decide on the scale of this piece? Do you always have a big sculpture in mind when you start?
  • The scale was determined by three factors. Firstly, the dimensions and shape of the existing pool; then the two main vistas looking along the pathways radiating to the gate and the park; and finally, I also wanted the sculpture to be a bit taller than myself with my arms raised, that is, about human scale.
    The fountain has a green patina. Are surface and colour important in your sculpture?
  • They are vital. A patina on a bronze sculpture determines to a large degree the mood and character of the sculpture. The fountain has to be lightish green to stand out at a distance, and to harmonise with the formal garden setting. I hope it will remain light in tone in the future.
    As if to show how many ways there are to make objects, you have worked in the past with wood, wax, steel, bronze and clay, to name only a few. With which material and technique do you most like to work?
  • I do not really have a preference. It is important to make changes, and one way of working complements another. I am a constructor/modeller, rather than a carver. I like to be able to add rather than to take away, or reduce, material to uncover the form.
    How would you explain your objective as an artist?
  • To produce the best sculpture that I am capable of making.

The Constance Fund

The Millennium Fountain was commissioned by The Constance Fund, a trust that has endowed public places in Britain with new sculpture since 1944. The function and objectives of the Fund are inspired by the original ideas of Sigismund Goetze (1866-1939), the British painter and philanthropist. Goetze’s own work, conceived on a grand scale and in an academic style, was informed by his devout Anglican beliefs; it is best represented by the wall paintings he executed for the Foreign Office in the years surrounding the First World War.

In 1910 he devised a scheme ‘to further the love and appreciation of sculpture by erecting in public parks, gardens and open spaces, works of art of a lofty conception and noble ideal, original creations of a true artist and accomplished craftsman…’ Goetze and his wife were keen horticulturalists, and maintained an impressive garden, punctuated by sculpture, at Grove House, their home in Regent’s Park. In 1939 they hosted a garden party in aid of new social housing in St Pancras that was attended by Queen Elizabeth. Among the gifts that Goetze made in his lifetime were the large basin and fountain in Regent’s Park which he intended should be surmounted by monumental sculpture, the bridge leading to the Rock Garden, and an avenue of 400 cherry trees leading to Queen Mary’s Garden. A friend of Alfred Gilbert, the sculptor who created the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus, Goetze gave museums work by Gilbert that he had bought from the sculptor’s estate.

The Fund was set up, as originally intended, in the name of Goetze’s wife, Constance, a gifted pianist. She continued to direct the Fund until her death in 1951, as well as taking a close interest in other benefactions initiated in her husband’s memory, such as a student travelling bursary at the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Details of the Fund’s operation have inevitably been adapted to changing times. The goal of the Fund, however, remains unchanged - to facilitate the creation of new public sculptures, unique to their settings with which they form ‘a harmonious whole’. Since 1946, the Fund has chosen to commission fountains, a genre of sculpture that, while not being neglected in contemporary practice, has often been overlooked.

This interest in water features also recalls the moment when the idea of the Fund was formed. ‘We were touring in Italy,’ Constance Goetze later remembered, ‘and stopped at Bologna to see [Giambologna’s] famous Neptune Fountain which is erected in the midst of the picturesque flower market. The day was a perfect one, and the bronze seemed alive under the sprinkling water, bathed in sunshine, against a dazzling background of exquisite flowers. We were spellbound by the loveliness of the scene, to which a busy crowd added a peculiar charm. And it set my husband wondering why our sculptors in England are so rarely given the opportunity of displaying their works in open spaces, in parks and recreation grounds, where the man in the street can enjoy them and, may be, gain love and understanding for works of lasting value and real artistic merit.’

The first commission, inaugurated in Regent’s Park in April 1950 after a spring snowstorm, added to the embellishments first envisaged by Sigismund Goetze in 1912. These already included the rose garden, and gates that commemorated George V’s silver jubilee in 1935. First proposed in 1944, William McMillan’s sculpture completed the design of the pre-war pool. In the words of The Times which reported the opening, it is ‘a traditional embodiment of the spirit of the sea in the guise of a merman holding aloft a spurting conch… The merfolk are caught in swift movement, not in dalliance; and as their limbs gleamed wet for the first time under the cascades released by the Minister of Works, the whole group came to life with such grace that the real fish, lurking gold and fat in the blue waters of the basin, were shown for lazy laggards.’

Today, the Royal Society of British Sculptors is the Trustee of the Fund, and its committee of the Fund comprises representatives of this body, the Royal Academy of Arts, the Royal Horticultural Society and the RIBA. After the Triton fountain in Regent’s Park, six further commissions preceded the Millennium Fountain, and they can still be seen in Victoria Park, Green Park and Hyde Park in London, and at Chester Zoo, Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh, and Exeter University.

The commission for the Millennium Fountain broke new ground for the Fund, in that instead of being entirely the Fund’s idea, it was initiated and organised by the Friends of Cannizaro Park. An independent voluntary group established in 1996, it exists to promote and protect the interests of Cannizaro Park as a Grade II* listed garden. As well as the Millennium Fountain, the Friends have published two booklets about the Park, organised free talks and walking tours with guest speakers, and provided regular information on seasonal plantings for visitors. A major project in 2001 raised several thousand pounds to buy new azalea plants for the area called the ‘Azalea Dell’, one of the highlights of the Park.

On this occasion the Friends collaborated with the Royal Society of British Sculptors. A professional membership society, the RBS was founded in 1904 to ensure widespread debate on contemporary sculpture and to promote excellence in the art form. And throughout the project support was provided by the London Borough of Merton which administers the Park through its Leisure Services division. It has been the established practice of the Fund since its inception to make over each of its commissions as a gift to the owner of the park where the sculpture is sited in return for a commitment to maintain the work. This tradition has been followed in Wimbledon, and the Millennium Fountain was transferred to the care of Merton Council at its inauguration.

For more information a brief illustrated introduction to the life and career of Sigismund Goetze appears in Sigismund Goetze 1866-1939, the catalogue of a memorial exhibition at the RBS Galleries, London, in 1948.

Fountains commissioned by the Constance Fund

Triton by William McMillan, 1944-50. Inaugurated 25 April 1950 Queen Mary’s Garden, Regent’s Park, London
Little Tom by E. Bainbridge Copnall, 1950. Inaugurated 27 June 1950 Victoria Park, London
Diana of the Treetops by Estcourt J. Clack, 1952-4. Inaugurated 30 June 1954 Green Park, London
Joy of Life by T.B. Huxley-Jones, 1957-63. Inaugurated 25 June 1963 Hyde Park, London
Noah and the Four Winds by Sean Rice, 1972-7. Inaugurated 11 June 1977 Chester Zoo
Cippico Fountain by James Butler, 1982. Heriot Watt University, Edinburgh
Minprio Fountain by Vivien ap Rhys Pryce, 1989. Exeter University
The Millennium Fountain by Richard Rome, 1999-200, Inaugurated 27 January 2001, Cannizaro Park, Wimbledon

Chronology of a project

1997 Plans first discussed by the recently-formed Friends of Cannizaro Park for a new fountain.  Consultation with officers of Merton Council follows

SEPTEMBER 1998 The Friends devise a two-staged project for an artist-designed fountain

APRIL 1999 Following a successful bid by the Friends, The Constance Fund guarantees £50,000 towards a new fountain.  The award is announced by Roger Casale, MP for Wimbledon, at an evening reception in the Park to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Cannizaro Park‘s opening as a public garden

NOVEMBER Sixty-three proposals are received in response to a nationwide competition that is advertised in the art journals Art Monthly and      AN, and to studios and artists in Wimbledon

DECEMBER A shortlist of three proposals is chosen.  The selected artists are Barry Mason,  Charlie Hooker and Richard Rome.  Each receives £1,000 to develop his design and to make a   working maquette

MARCH 2000 The shortlisted designs and   maquettes are exhibited for eight days at Wimbledon Library Gallery. The exhibition is subsequently seen at the Old Brompton Road  gallery of the Royal Society of British Sculptors

APRIL Richard Rome is named as winner

JUNE-AUGUST At his studio in Kent, Rome enlarges the urn form using his 1:10-scale maquette as a guide.  Taking hundreds of accurate measurements, Rome builds up the basic shape with polystyrene blocks fixed to a plywood armature.  The next stage is to model plaster on top of the polystyrene core, finishing it to a smooth surface.  The same process is followed to make the handles and water spouts.  Once these are combined into a single form, the sculpture is varnished  and made ready for transport to the foundry.  During this time the water flow rates from the four spouts and top rim are assessed and the hydraulic apparatus designed

SEPTEMBER- NOVEMBER The sculpture is cast in bronze at the Nautilus foundry in Essex, using the sand moulding process.  The sculpture is cast in thirteen separate pieces: the main body, the cylindrical base, the three handles and the four spouts.  Each spout is cast in two pieces to give access to the internal water jet nozzles.  Each part  is then weldedtogether.  After the internal pipe-work is installed, a solution of copper nitrate  is  used  to give an overall, variegated green    colour to the sculpture 

DECEMBER To install a new pump and hydraulic system, work gets underway at the site of the fountain.  On completion, the sculpture is delivered to the Park, entering by Camp Road gate and then driven past the Daffodil Walk and Rose Garden.  In a three-hour operation, it is gently hoisted on to its base within the restored pool

27 JANUARY 2001 The Millennium Fountain is inaugurated by Professor Sir Christopher Frayling, Rector of the Royal College of Art.  As part of the ceremony, the sculpture is transferred as a gift from the Constance Fund to Merton Council, represented by the Mayor of Merton, Councillor Ian Munn

Getting to Cannizaro Park
Cannizaro Park is open every day except Christmas Day throughout the hours of daylight.  Closing times vary with the seasons
By bus: Routes 93, 493 to Wimbledon High  Street & 10 mins walk
By Underground: District line to Wimbledon station, then bus (as above)
By train or tram: South West Trains (from Waterloo) or Tramlink to Wimbledon station

Embodying the Abstract
The sculpture of Richard Rome
First published in the United Kingdom in January 2007
by BROKEN GLASS, 3 The Grange, Wimbledon, London SW19 4PT +44 (0)20 8946 5206 Copyright © 2007 Broken Glass, Richard Rome (all images), Martin Holman (text)
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording or any other information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher
Photographic credits: Pepper Rock by Paul Bonner; Richard Rome studio shots by Martin Holman; all others by Richard Rome.
Designed by Martin Holman
Printed in England ISBN 978-0-9551138-2-6
All dimensions are height x width x depth
Illustrated works are in private collections unless stated otherwise

Martin Holman is a freelance writer and arts consultant. Previously he was head of development at London's Whitechapel Art Gallery and Camden Arts Centre. He has contributed to publications about the artists Mark Gertler, Peter Lanyon, Kim Lim and Terry Setch, as well as to many periodicals. Brought up in Wimbledon, he has known the town for over 40 years and is a member of the executive committee of the Friends of Cannizaro Park