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Mystery as missing housing estate sculptures turn up in West End gallery

27 February, 2015

THEY were installed on Somers Town’s housing estates nearly 90 years ago, the work of a leading sculptor charged with brightening up balconies and courtyards.

This week, they are standing on public view in a fine art dealer’s gallery in Mayfair and are seen as a prize catch for collectors.

But nobody, the New Journal can reveal, knows how they got from A to B. 

There is no dispute that the finials, friezes and roundels created by Gilbert Bayes, a big name in the British Art Nouveau movement of the 1920s and 1930s, once graced estates in Drummond Crescent and Chalton Street. 

Some examples of the series – more than 50 pieces based on nursery rhymes and biblical takes – remain in place.

But others have disappeared, the washing posts that once propped them up standing bare.

Worth anywhere between £5,000 and £15,000 each, the Fine Arts Society’s current exhibition includes three of the missing Bayes finials, three roundels and three bronze friezes.

The Bayes finials on display

The St Pancras Housing Association, which manages the estate and is now part of the Origin group, say their records show they removed an unknown number of the artworks because they were damaged or because they were donating them to the Camden Local Studies Archive in the 1970s or 1980s for safekeeping.

The pieces on display come from a collection owned by John Scott, who describes himself as “a scavenger and hunter of interesting architectural pieces”. He bought them from an art dealer in the 1980s – but does not know how they left their original setting.

There is no suggestion of any wrong-doing by Mr Scott, who believes they were taken down as a job lot. He said: “They must have been removed by the council, as many pieces became available at the same time. They had been taken down and sold off, perhaps not always legitimately. I think it is a disgrace that anyone would have taken them from their rightful place. I am afraid it is something that happens too often. The next generation destroys what the previous generation before them has made. I feel strongly that this should not happen.”

Art specialist Rowena Morgan-Cox, from the gallery, told the New Journal that Bayes was a key figure in the British art scene of the early 20th century. 

She said: “By the time he was given this commission, Bayes was already well known for public sculpture.”

The sculptor was not called up during the First World War for medical reasons, and was later commissioned to make memorials. 

Ms Morgan-Cox added: “It meant when he was given the chance to create art that had a social conscience, he threw himself into it. He happily did the work for [housing reformer] Father Jellicoe as a kind of way of making up for this. They were clearing slums and improving people’s lives and he very much wanted to make accessible art that would make the area a nicer place and a help create a better quality of life.”

Research by the New Journal has found that public areas in the York Rise estate, Dartmouth Park, have lost their versions – while in Somers Town others are still in place. 

Ms Morgan-Cox said: “It is not known how many are still in situ. Some are still there, others have been reinstalled. We don’t really know why they were removed. We believe they were taken down in the 1980s. A lot of architectural salvage would have a price on it, so perhaps they were taken without permission.”

The show at the Fine Art Society, 148 New Bond Street, runs until March 19.



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