This tale includes public toilets, a yellowhammer, an eider duck, some annoyed parish councillors, and (possibly) Banksy in a place that (probably) few of you will have visited.
The toilets’ duck
This spring, a rather unexpected thing happened in Seahouses. It got some official street art, on the public toilets building. Temporary artwork for the summer 2010 season appeared on panels screwed on to the walls of the public toilets building in Seahouses.
Normally, this building is noticeable by its prominent position, by the entrance to one of the car parks, close to the fish and chip shops, and by the roundabout with the war memorial in the centre. It is not a distinguished building. It looks like a late 20th century municipal public conveniences building: utilitarian rather than pretty: a relatively large, one-storey, flat-roofed building with pale buff-coloured brick walls.
Stuart Mugridge’s artwork was installed on the exterior of the building in spring 2010. On the side of the building that faces the car park, there was an eider duck, representing the sea. A yellowhammer, representing the land, is on the side facing the sea.
Councils not concurring
Not everyone considered that it improved the place. “Mixed reaction over toilet duck art in Seahouses” said the BBC News and quoted parish councillor Mr Bill Weekes:
“I can’t see the village being improved by slapping up plastic sheeting on what was a traditionally built building.”
His comment conjures up the image of a rather attractive stone-built building, with windowframes of painted wood, interiors with traditional tiled floors. He is also quoted as wishing for “a restoration of the walls to their traditional redbrick format.”
It was not long before the Berwick Advertiser (a lovely and venerable example of a local newspaper) reported:
Hideous’, ‘awful’, and ‘a monstrosity’ were among the comments made at a meeting of North Sunderland Parish Council on Monday in relation to the installation of eight-foot high billboards of an eider duck and yellowhammer on the outside of the toilet walls…
While expressing their displeasure at the new look of the exterior of the public toilets, parish council members were equally appalled that the art installation did not require planning permission and that they had not been consulted on the work.
‘Residents in a flap over art installation at Seahouses public toilet toilets,’ Berwick Advertiser, 12th May, 2010.
The County Council had been responsible for commissioning the artwork for the public toilets which it owns, as part of a scheme to improve the overall appearance of central Seahouses. One might have thought that the parish councillors might be pleased that the much larger local authority was spending money on improving their area. The County Council had also paid for some improvements to the interior of the building.
It was the lack of consultation that seemed to contribute to the parish councillors’ aesthetic shock. The County Council also claimed that the artwork was an advertisement, which was an interesting way of thinking about it. They also seemed to have considered that the form of an advertisement required some clarification.
A spokeswoman for the council responded that, under advertising regulations, local authorities could have any advert they wanted on their own buildings.
And, according to the council, the fact that the artwork is just pictures does not mean it is not an advert, citing a judge’s ruling in a case in 2001 involving Brighton and Hove Council.
‘Giant paintings are not art – they’re advertising, rules Northumberland County Council,’ Berwick Advertiser, 19th May 2010.
The County Council told the parish councillors rather firmly that they could decorate their own building as they pleased.
However, a county council planning official added that as the toilet block was not in an area of ‘special control,’ whether it was classed as an advert or not made no difference, as local authorities could paint anything on their own property they wanted, without the need for planning permission.
She added: “Property owners can pretty much paint what they want on their walls, and they do.”
‘Giant paintings are not art – they’re advertising, rules Northumberland County Council,’ Berwick Advertiser, 19th May 2010.
An exotic spotted in Seahouses?
Sometime between 1st and 16th July, a chimpanzee appeared alongside the yellowhammer. I photographed it when I visited Seahouses on 26th August, instantly recognising it as looking like a a photograph of a painting by Banksy. I was unsure that it was a Banksy, however, because of the placement of it, the way in which it was painted, and lack of the sandwich board that bears the wording on the original.
It would be quite difficult to paint a picture unseen within full view of the road there, and in early July, there are few hours of darkness. The toilet building is almost directly opposite the road down to the harbour where fishing boats come in at all hours of the night. There are people with vans or lorries coming and going within sight of that building to collect or check the catch and rush it to its destination. It is next to a caravan site, so people will wander past on the way back from pubs late at night.
Of course, Banksy is the expert at placing artwork in the street under what seem to be impossible conditions.
It is the random placement of it on the panel, the colours and the way it has been sprayed makes me think it was put there by someone other than Banksy, using a stencil made from the Banksy painting.
Regardless of who put it there, it still had the same effect: continuing the dialogue about what is and is not art in public spaces. You have to see Seahouses to see why the use of smooth plastic panels, with the kind of flat images more usually associated with commercial than fine art, is relevant. It is not the kind of fishing-village-for-tourists that you get in, say, Cornwall. It has gift shops, cafés, fish and chip shops, and ‘amusements’ for the visitors but has been pragmatic about useful buildings and using easy-clean signage in bright-coloured plastic.
Seahouses is an unpretentious place that generally says ‘take-us-as-you-find-us.’ Most people are so focused on the sea view and the endlessly fascinating movement of boats and water in the harbour that they are just grateful that they have somewhere to buy their ice creams, cups of tea, or fish and chips.
You might think that Seahouses found the idea of a tourist trade a novelty. In fact, it has been an important element of the local economy since at least the early 19th century (Bamburgh was a focus of power in and before the medieval period). By the early 1800s, naturalists and painters were visiting the area regularly for its scenery and rich coastal fauna.
When Grace and William Darling rescued the survivors from the wrecked paddle steamer, the Forfarshire, they coincidentally made the area famous nationally. The Seahouses and Bamburgh fisherman earned some of their living from providing transport to and from the Farne Islands. Grace Darling’s celebrity brought lots of visitors to Seahouses and Bamburgh, during and after her short life. The current Seahouses lifeboat is named after Grace; the boat tours still offer trips to see where Grace Darling lived, worked, and rescued.
The hole in the public toilets
When I visited Seahouses on 30th September 2010, I was rather shocked to see that someone had removed the chimp.
It is obvious that whoever did it tried hammering the panel below right of the chimp painting. I suspect that they had expected the panel to be plaster or plasterboard that they could smash and prise off. When hammering achieved nothing more than dents in the panel, they got out the Stanley knife and cut it out.
Did nobody hear the hammering and find it odd enough to look? Apparently not, but it can be noisy at night when the boats are in and unloading their catch.
So, one of the parish councillors had his wish for the “traditional redbrick format” partially fulfilled a bit sooner than expected. I very much doubt that the parish council approve of this apparent theft. I would like to think that someone loved that chimp painting so much that they were prepared to risk their liberty for it. However, I think that someone was clearly a lot more convinced than I was that the chimp painting was an original Banksy. They may not have stopped to think about how they would sell such an unusual Banksy (if it were by him), a painting that would be clearly and instantly identifiable by its green background.
When people damage their neighbourhood for the sake of inidvidual monetary gain, it does not seem to fit the ‘Big Society’ concept. It makes installing public art more difficult (and sometimes more expensive) than it needs to be, trying to find materials and methods of creating art that will be vandal-resistant and deter thieves. Such vandalism and theft seem more common in areas of relatively higher levels of deprivation and unemployment. Unfortunately, there is so little funding for arts research these days that I doubt that anyone has gathered such data and made a neat chart of it.
There is a lot of information gathered on stolen art, however. The Art Loss Register shares information internationally, and makes it much harder for dealers to claim that they were unaware that an item was stolen property.
The legal situation of stolen street art is less clear. Defining what is street art can be difficult. I now use the term ‘street art’ very deliberately to cover obviously commissioned art in public places as well as what would have been seen just as graffiti a couple of decades ago. The fact that ‘street art’ of the unofficial type has a market value shifts its position from ‘outsider art’ to art, although I think that some of it (maybe much of it) is good graphic design rather than art.
Then there is the question of who owns it. The artist might be regarded as causing damage to property when they spray-paint or paste something onto somebody’s wall without permission. If it is an original work of art, the artist still owns the copyright, however.
or the [w]hole image summarised
Northumberland County Council commissioned an artist, Stuart Mugridge, to create artwork to cover two walls of one of their buildings, the public toilets in Seahouses. They did not consult with the parish council about this.
It seems that the county council did intend to provoke locals and visitors to think about the appearance of Seahouses’ centre. They also implicitly acknowledged that their own building was designed to be practical but not particularly aesthetic.
The parish councillors felt that “plastic sheeting” on this “traditional” [late 20th century] building devalued their environment (an environment that includes many large, shiny plastic signs in bright colours). Possibly they felt that the county council’s lack of consultation with them devalued them as representatives of their community.
The county council then made the suggestion that the artworks were advertisements. Certainly, they could be regarded as advertisements for the area, depicting two species of birds quite common around there (though not unique to the location). Placing two bird images on the exterior of the public toilets did put Seahouses into the national news and made more people aware of it as a potential holiday destination.
Then we had evidence that the county council and parish council did provoke someone to think – and to act. Someone added an image that is a version (or pastiche) of an identifiable work by an internationally famous artist. This could be seen as damaging Stuart Mugridge’s work. It raised the question of value again.
Another person or people subsequently thought that their personal needs were greater than those of the community in which they lived or visited, and stole the [probably illegally placed] image. Their reason might have been that they loved the image, or because they thought it was worth a lot of money and that they could sell it. Whichever reason prompted their act, it is difficult to see it as inspired by the Big Society spirit (if that exists).
I look forward to see what Northumberland County Council might do next year in Seahouses if they still have any money to improve townscapes.
Sources and links
Northumberland Coast’s web page about Seahouses (includes lots of useful links) <http://www.northumberland-coast.co.uk/seahouses.php last accessed 02/10/2010>
‘Seahouses,’ Northumberland Communities – information about the history of Seahouses with online historical photographs, documents and maps <http://communities.northumberland.gov.uk/Seahouses.htm last accessed 02/10/2010>
Paul Conneally, ‘Public art toilet: Stuart Mugridge Seahouses loo wall art‘ 6th May 2010 <http://www.nowpublic.com/culture/public-art-toilet-stuart-mugridge-seahouses-loo-wall-art last visited 30/09/2010>
‘Mixed reaction over toilet duck art in Seahouses,’ BBC News, 6th May, 2010 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/tyne/8665472.stm last accessed 01/10/2010>
‘Residents in a flap over art installation at Seahouses public toilet toilets,’ Berwick Advertiser, 12th May, 2010. <http://www.berwick-advertiser.co.uk/news/Residents-in-a-flap-over.6289911.jp last accessed 01/10/2010>
‘Giant paintings are not art – they’re advertising, rules Northumberland County Council,’ Berwick Advertiser, 19th May 2010. <http://www.berwick-advertiser.co.uk/news/Giant-paintings-are-not-art.6304022.jp last accessed 01/10/2010>