For a market town, Rye is perhaps unusual in not having any statues, or maybe not. In fact, despite having long been recognised as a haven for artists and literary figures, we have almost no public art at all, that is to say no art in the public realm.
There are two notable exceptions however, the War Memorial in St Mary’s churchyard, designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield, and the Millennium Wall with its figure-head sculpture representing “The Spirit of Rye”. This can be found (see photo above) somewhat in need of a facelift next to the Strand roundabout.
It seems we have nothing for our modern day iconoclasts to worry their heads about. We must have lost some medieval stained glass windows in St Mary’s church during the Commonwealth period (the 1650s, after the English Civil War), but that was another sort of madness, when emotions ran high. What had been taken for granted for many hundred years had lost its hold over the new generation. They similarly disclaimed their past and sought for a new cultural identity.
There were political pressures at work to encourage resistance to an authority perceived as outdated, out of touch with people’s aspirations. Rewrite history so as to rewrite the future! It is a perennially young belief.
When we feel disenfranchised, unable to influence events or even to assume responsibility for our own lives, we suffer all the emotions of frustration, anger and loss of freedom. Apart from issues of personal health and well-being, one of the casualties of unsettled times is the loss of attachment to one’s surroundings.
The sense of place which is so important to a settled community gets distorted and diluted. With a diminution of self-respect comes a weakening of respect for cultural landmarks and we become estranged from those once familiar aspects of where we live. We no longer feel a sense of ownership. What can we denigrate or trash next?
Not to get too serious though, perhaps we should look around for some other cultural objects to which we in Rye can take objection. This is of course a matter of personal opinion, but I would single out those huge billboards that confront us almost unexpectedly, that we haven’t quite got used to. They seem so old-fashioned and offensively “in your face.” I am referring to the billboards at the junction of Wish Street and Wish Ward, and another on Station Approach. They are hugely commercial and intrusive, out of keeping with a heritage town you might say.
For me they constitute litter on a grand scale. Maybe we get so used to them that we don’t notice them any more? Maybe the disconnect between our sense of place and our visual awareness is reflected in our ignoring litter dropped so regularly on our pavements. Think small like a gardener, love your town and keep it looking good. That’s what our visitors come for.
As a further note on the Millennium Wall: it was the idea of Ron Dellar, an artist who lived at Western House on Winchelsea Road. With Bob Baldwin and myself, he travelled in 1999 to Portland, an island south of Weymouth, Dorset, renowned for its architectural stone. There he selected in person the piece of stone which he wanted to carve.
Bob was a renowned specialist in the use of bricks and he enlisted the aid of the Hastings College of Technology. Rising to the technical challenge posed by the profile of a ship’s hull, the college seconded some students to build the wall. The Rye Conservation Society agreed to fund the project and liaised with the site owner and the local planning authority. The wall was completed in spring 2000 to commemorate the start of the new century.
Image Credits: Kenneth Bird .