Sam Davies

All That Glitters

No-one has ever contacted me asking for public art as a contribution to their quality of life. They ask for pavements and potholes to be repaired; bins to be emptied; action by Environmental Health, the police or health services; trees to be planted and hedges to be cut back; housing to be repaired; planning applications to be supported or objected to; planning conditions to be observed; and many other things.

If I am ever contacted about public art, it’s in a wry, questioning “how did that happen?” kind of way.

Mostly recently it was the huge sculptures which have sprung up on Hills Road bridge, described by the artist as referring to dancing Breton villagers and “the human struggle to achieve excellence” represented by a man in a pointy hat holding up an elephant.*

Before that it was the dead tree at Trumpington Meadows; the fibreglass tents outside Royal Papworth Hospital which have frequently been mistaken as a settlement of rough sleepers; the Southern Fringe apple tree project; and the inaccessible tiled installation at The Marque. In fact, all the way back to the hemi-spherical seating at Wulfstan Way.

I’m not going to comment on the ‘art’ side of the equation, to avoid the risk of sounding like the Monty Python sketch: “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like”. But I do have views on the importance of getting the ‘public’ element right.

Hazy interpretation

Public art is supposed to be one of the benefits/mitigations of development, funded by S106 contributions and defined as: “New and original, high quality public art, which is accessible to the public, involves an artist, engages the community and has a lasting legacy”. However, even though the relevant Supplementary Planning Document has been in place since 2010 and has therefore had plenty of time to bed in, the practical interpretation of that requirement to ‘engage the community’ seems hazy.

I wouldn’t argue that all public art has to be instantly popular – of course there can be a role for it to be challenging, thought-provoking, even uncomfortable at times. But surely there does need to be some attempt to build public consensus and understanding if it’s to have any legitimacy?

No prior conversations

You may have read this week about the ‘To The River’ project which is currently the subject of a consultation launched by the City Council. As far as I have been able to establish, this proposal has a budget approaching £100,000 to create a gold metal edge to a stretch of the River Cam’s bank at Sheep’s Green, yet has been launched without any prior conversations with local Residents Associations, the various Friends groups active in the area, or even local Councillors.

Any one of these groups could presumably have pointed out that Sheep’s Green is a designated Local Nature Reserve and that this intervention, far from celebrating the River Cam, would in fact threaten the natural landscape and views which are so highly prized for their intrinsic qualities.

At least a couple of respondents have suggested that a more sensitive and appropriate way of celebrating the river would simply be to install more benches so more people could sit and enjoy it.

I’m also reminded of the fundraising campaign started by Carter Jonas back in 2016 to restore Hodson’s Folly, the classically-inspired but now tumbledown ‘Swimmers’ Temple’ near the Sheep’s Green bridge. The last donation was made 28 months ago, when the campaign had reached only 25% of its £16k target. I’d love to know what happened to that aspiration. Has it just quietly been shelved?

The bigger picture

But I think it’s also worth reflecting on the bigger picture for a moment. We take developers’ money to offset the damage they do. Our chalk streams, including the Cam, and the ecosystems which depend on them, are incurring huge damage from over-abstraction and pollution. And yet we choose to neither restrict the causes of that damage, nor repair the damage that has already happened, but instead concoct some arbitrary ‘celebration’ of what’s left.

I understand that the terms of the ‘public art’ funding pot means that it needs to be spent on public art and cannot be diverted towards other purposes, no matter how pressing or worthy the need. But ‘To the River’ seems like the most obvious example yet that we do not have a robust and credible process for defining how these highly visible interventions in the fabric of our city take place.

As things stand, it’s yet another example of things being done to, not with – or better still by – residents. And I don’t think that’s good enough for ‘public’ art.

*After this blog was posted, the Public Art Officer at the City Council helpfully clarified that the Hills Road sculptures “have nothing to do with PA (public art) policy. The Landowner has installed them”. This just then prompts another set of questions about how they got signed off – a very quick scan of the Planning Portal doesn’t throw up any applications. Any clues?

Sam Davies


  • The concept is so utterly ridiculous I can’t believe it is real. And what is ‘an artist is residence for the river Cam’?

  • If S016 funding covers Public art New & original, high quality public art, which is accessible to the public, involves an artist, engages the community and has a lasting legacy. The key seems to be engages the community so art could possibly be a community project. As the Government defines public art as “Visual arts are creative works that are primarily visual in nature, such as drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, design, crafts, photography and ceramics”. Perhaps something maybe an artist could produce in collaboration with the people in the area the art is to be placed so it has some relevance to them?

  • Thanks for the update on art and sculpture features around Cambridge. I had not appreciated that the tents around Papworth Hospital are sculptures. It would be better if the requirement for S106 funding included “engages the community in a positive way”.

    As for the River Cam proposals, surely there is no need to mess up the riverbank with man-made features when nature does it better.

  • £100000 to disorientate local wildlife? How on earth was this both proposed and agreed? There is nothing natural about it so, in my humble opinion, would actually blight the landscape.

  • It’s extraordinary how, when we have so many pressing needs for basic services such as keeping pavements in good repair, emptying bins, and (not least) social care, that large sums of money can be found for this so-called “public art”. It’s only public in the sense that the public is forced to see it, whether we want to or not. Those sculptures on Hills Road Bridge are ludicrous and grotesque – a further awful addition to an already shambolic visual environment. The question we always have to ask when our taxes are being spent is: Who benefits? Obviously the people who have been appointed by the Council as resident artists. But this is a completely subjective business and should not be left to the questionable aesthetic judgement of councillors. Can they please get on with the job of providing the services that we all need, which is what we want and expect from them when we vote. The river bank should be left in peace – how arrogant to think you can improve nature with expensive visual trash!

    Thank you so much, Sam, for keeping us informed and for watching out for our genuine civic needs.

  • I find the circus statues on Hills Road a light relief from the eyesores that constitute the Leisure Centre and its buildings, and the grotesque Marque building.

  • Thought-provoking as always – to the extent I often seem to follow up what you’ve analysed/discovered with more digging!

    This time I had a look at the public art consultation processes at and linked them to further broken systems and structures up the line. I also wondered whether any activists would like to create a ‘broken bridge’ creation to add to the scene of the golden banks with the ‘poohnami protest’ art pieces of 2021 floating past a golden bank made of stakes and golden wrapping paper, with an old college in the background.

  • Hi Sam, it’s good to know you care about local matters. You ask about the Hodson’s Folly refurbishment idea. I am thrilled that someone in local government has noticed and remembered. I was active in trying to get some community/friendly life into the area (as Chair of ‘Friends of Hodson’s Folly’). I was fed up with seeing fires, broken bottles, beer cans, used condoms, abandoned handbags (with membership cards but no bank cards), graffiti and an occasional needle/syringe. My saxophone quartet had a wonderful gig there three summers ago with about 120 people listening. Since then I arranged a constitution, set up a committee, held a meeting, got signatures of support from 80 local residents, an offer of £4000 from a local resident to improve boundary security, and much local interest in a non-amplified music concert there every summer month, including a concert by children from Newnham Croft Primary School. Insurance was costed out, risk assessment studies and event management plans were drawn up. Reception from the City Council officers (‘asset managers’) was disturbingly apathetic. (The Tree Officer was the wonderful exception and had a dead tree removed.) Where once the Folly had been locked to stop cows getting in, apparently a change in policy meant that there was now no way the gate would be locked in the future (‘right of public access’). I offered to arrange a rota of local residents who would lock every night and unlock every day. But no, that was not acceptable. When I contacted every single councillor in Newnham and Trumpington wards explaining the position, outlining the group’s plans and asking for help in changing the policy, I did not receive a single reply. Not one! I think we can safely say this is demotivating. Since then obviously Covid has put everything on hold. Is there a chance the City Council (officers *and* councillors) might actually support a project like this? N.b. You or other interested readers can contact me through the ‘Friends of Hodson’s Folly’ website.

    P.S. let’s stop the horrible and meaningless ‘statue’ on Sheep’s Green. I have previously begged officers for a few waste bins on the Triangle opposite Hodson’s Folly. Any response? No … yet £100,000 for an ugly ‘statue’?!

  • As an artist it would be lovely to collaborate with other Cambridge-based artists and the community for local projects. At the same time though I think it would be great to get local schools & colleges involved. By letting younger people have the chance to work on a funded arts project, you’re encouraging them not only to think together of visually engaging work using sustainable resources, but also that by them doing it they will have more consideration for their surroundings. It’s always such a shame seeing the level of litter that’s in our public spaces (I’m not saying this is purely done by younger people at all) just that when a group of people have been involved in something they then actively want to keep that space clean for everyone to enjoy.

  • I’m sure you are right that no-one ever asks directly for public art, but it does have a value in terms of making a place more interesting and higher quality. Things like bridges with art on them rather than the cheapest possible surface covering do add something. I guess the question to ask is would most people like to see it all taken away? We have a lot around Cambridge – the Mill Rd mural, the cycle arch over the Jubilee Cycleway, something new coming on the Chisholm trail underpass, a collection of classical statues and busts, whatever that thing in Fisher Square by the library is, and so on. We don’t _need_ any of it, but I do think it adds something to the place.

    I like the Papworth Tents, for example – they are amazingly realistic, and the sort of crazy thing only an ‘artist’ would think of. No doubt we could have had a lot of potholes filled or a couple of zebra crossings for the same money but these things are not directly interchangeable and simple cost is the wrong way to think about this stuff IMHO.

    The whole process of how S106 money gets allocated to various schemes seems very opaque and I’m sure could be much improved but it’s probably a good thing that a small chunk is ringfenced for public art. Obviously art at Sheeps Green doesn’t help at all with the massive problem of water stress and overdevelopment, but it might well still be worth having if it’s more interesting that the iron piling currently visible.

  • I found this article while attempting to clarify who paid for these statues. I first noticed them after returning from China, where I spent the entire of the pandemic. Returning to a country that is still experiencing a ‘cost of living crisis’ to see that huge amounts of money were being paid for to install not one but a handful of enormous sculptures right outside the AstraZeneca building, I did question the wisdom of whoever had commissioned the second one. And then the third. And so on.

    If it were the Council, then why did they feel the need for more than one at that single location? Would it not make more sense to install them in several different locations to spread the (debatable) ‘benefits’?

    But then I read that ‘the landowner has installed them’. Who is/are this/these landowners, and what possessed them to turn that little patch of land beside a railway bridge into their own personal art gallery? If it were AZ, for example, it could be said that they were indirectly paid for with public money! It would be even more aggravating if a company which made 4bn of profits from a recent product that was largely funded by public (our) money decided to flaunt the fact by spending so much on in-your-face statues that they will soon run out of space to install any more. Please do let me know if you find out more.