Page updated 25 June 2009
If ever there was an artwork to promote controversy in Exeter then the, by now, infamous, Heavitree Arch is it. Dozens of letters of complaint have been published in the Express and Echo along with almost as many in support.
Tesco were obliged to lodge a sum of money to enhance Heavitree Fore Street, as part of a planning application and in early 2008, the City Council proposed, as a part of the Environmental Improvement Scheme, a mural on the end wall of the gun-shop, at the corner of Gordon's Place, to fulfil the requirement. However, allegedly some bad will caused by the Council refusing to renew planning permission for an advertising hoarding on the building, and the subsequent loss of rent, agreement on a mural was not reached with the owners of the gun shop.
The City Council then invited ideas for a free standing 'artwork' to be erected in front of the wall. Public meetings were held, and a free standing arch chosen as the winning design. A group of locals who called themselves the Heavitree Sculpture Focus Group objected to the expense of the artwork, who preferring a mural, started a campaign of letter writing and lobbying to change the Council's mind.
Meanwhile, construction of the arch by a local engineering company commenced and preparations were made to install it. An anti-arch graffiti artist (I use the term loosely) painted a white elephant and dog on the end wall, along with the words "NOW OPEN 'THE DELHI NELLY', a reference to the arch looking like the entrance to an Indian restaurant – the detractors obviously have never seen the entrance to St Michael and All Angels Church, on which the design is based.
During December 2008 the arch was erected and the associated patterned paving work completed. The graffiti artist returned and painted a blushing, bowler hatted bureaucrat, with his fingers in his ears, who appeared to stare with a mocking expression through the smaller, rear glass arch. Local historians had been consulted about the wording that was engraved on the arch with a quote from Heavitree born Richard Hooker's Ecclesiastical Polity chosen. However, the text was not checked thoroughly enough and the word 'wanted' substituted the correct 'wonted' - "If the celestial spheres should forget their wanted motions." This was not proving to be an easy artwork to promote public concord.
A couple of weeks after the work was unveiled, a crack appeared in the rear glass panel - was it the frost or was it a vandal? The panel was replaced at a cost of £4,335 and translucent vinyl applied to the back of the glass to make it more legible or hide the graffiti, at a cost of £261. The letters of complaint to the Echo continued into 2009, with fans of the work rebutting the constant criticism. It is a pity the owners of the gun shop allowed the graffiti and did not allow the end wall to be painted either with a proper mural or the graffiti to be covered for the arch - shame on them.
To add to the on going saga of the arch, the central panel was again badly damaged by a vandal swinging a heavy object against it in late February. Just the sort of action done by people with fascists tendencies. The white elephant, dog and bureaucrat were painted over by the Heavitree Sculpture Focus Group on the 10 March.
The arch was designed by artist Michael Fairfax–not the first Fairfax to occupy Heavitree–with involvement from the poet Ralph Hoyte and blacksmith Peter Osborne. The artwork incorporates the writings and thoughts of Heavitree born, sixteenth century theologian Richard Hooker, a poem reflecting on the Heavitree yew from which sprang the name 'Heavitree' and memories of the people of area.
Extracts from Richard Hooker were used on the outer arch while the poem about the Heavitree yew is engraved on the glass of the central panel – the panel is based on the shape and size of the door into St Michael and All Angels Church. On the opposite side of Fore Street, in a small open space with seating, are the memories of local folk written on the paving which spirals around, and towards, a newly planted oak tree that has an intricate, wrought iron cage to protect its roots and trunk. The iron cage also carries words, musing on the old 'heafod treow' (head tree), a continuation on the Heavitree yew theme on the glass arch. The whole artwork, on both sides of Fore Street has been carefully designed to reflect on the history and involve the people of Heavitree. It is a pity that the detractors seem to have missed the point of the work, and have been so negative.
The arch cost £73,000, out of a total of £182,000 for the complete installation. The total for the refurbishment scheme for Fore Street was £550,000, which included funding from Exeter City Council, Devon County Council and £60,000 from Tesco.
Sources: Express and Echo - Arch at Night photo Exeter City Council
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