At large in London: the public Rodin that nobody owns
Government departments and agencies all deny The Burghers of Calais is theirs
By Martin Bailey. News, Issue 229, November 2011
Published online: 14 November 2011
Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais, which is among Britain’s most important public sculptures, does not appear to have a legal owner. It stands outside the Houses of Parliament and across the road from Henry Moore’s Knife Edge Two Piece, which is similarly ownerless.
The Burghers of Calais was donated to “the nation” by the National Art Collections Fund, now the Art Fund. Depicting six life-size figures in chains, it commemorates the heroes of the 1347 siege of Calais.
Cast in 1908, the London version is one of only four bronzes made during Rodin’s lifetime. In 1911 the National Art Collections Fund bought it for £2,400. Two years later Rodin visited London to discuss its siting in Victoria Tower Gardens.
The Burghers of Calais was finally unveiled by the government’s Office of Works in 1915. This department became a ministry during the second world war and, after a long series of bureaucratic changes, most of its “works” functions were hived off to various agencies, with some residual responsibilities eventually passing to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Last month a spokesman denied that it owns the Rodin.
So who does own it? Although adjacent to the Palace of Westminster, the Parliamentary Art Committee says that it is not theirs. Victoria Tower Gardens belongs to the sovereign, but is managed by Royal Parks. This has led to the assumption that Royal Parks owns the work. The Burghers of Calais has in recent years been lent to two exhibitions—the Art Fund-sponsored “Saved!” (Hayward Gallery, 2003-04) and “Rodin” (Royal Academy, 2006)—with Royal Parks being credited as the lender.
A Royal Parks spokesman says that, although it looks after the Rodin, it does not own it. It said the owner is the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). The Art Fund’s database also records the DCMS as the owner.
The DCMS, which oversees Royal Parks, contradicted its own agency. “It’s not ours,” a DCMS spokesman said, after double-checking.
By the 1990s, The Burghers of Calais was in “desperate need of conservation”, said the Art Fund, whose then chairman Nicholas Goodison launched a campaign. Wanting to get the work done promptly, he and his wife Judith undertook to fund it, to mark his retirement as chairman. The conservation project was a major event in the fund’s centenary year in 2003.
The conservation was arranged with Royal Parks, since the Art Fund was led to believe that The Burghers of Calais was owned by its parent body, the DCMS. The key point for Goodison was that Royal Parks undertook “to maintain the sculpture and be responsible for future conservation”.
Unsuitable black wax was removed from the sculpture, graffiti was cleaned off and the bronze was given a new protective coating. The sculpture was mounted on a more appropriate plinth in 2004.
An Art Fund spokeswoman says “we clearly need to do everything we can to identify the current owner of the Rodin”.
On 1 November, after we went to press, a 1989 cast of just one of the figures of The Burghers of Calais was due for sale at Christie’s, New York, estimated at $800,000 to $1.2m. The London sculpture, with six figures cast during Rodin’s lifetime, is worth very considerably more.
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