Director’s blog: spotlight on the Royal College of Art

Kate Harding, Artistic Director, Harlow Art Trust

Meat Porters, Ralph Brown, 1959

Each year, we award a graduating student from the Royal College of Art (RCA) a year-long residency, to nurture and inspire new talent in and through Harlow. The Sculpture Town Artist in Residence gets a studio, subsistence, travel and material budgets for a year, and in return creates a piece of work to donate to Harlow’s collection.

This month – as we look forward to two back-to-back residency exhibitions in the Gibberd Gallery this autumn, and as we welcome our 6th Sculpture Town Artist in Residence – we’re looking back at the history of the relationship between Harlow Art Trust and the RCA. 

Harlow has had a long and productive relationship with ex-RCA students and teachers since the early 1950s. Prominent collection artists Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ralph Brown and Leon Underwood each attended the sculpture department at early stages in their career.

While Hepworth, Moore and Underwood were well established artists by the time they joined the collection, Brown’s piece Sheep Shearer was bought by Harlow Art Trust from a Young Contemporaries exhibition in 1955, when the artist was only 27 years old.

The skill and ingenuity evident in Sheep Shearer encouraged the Trust to take a further risk on Brown and choose the young artist to complete a major public commission for a significant site in the town centre. His monumental Meat Porters was unveiled in 1957 in Harlow’s Market Square, reportedly drawing some hostility from the local population, but garnering acclaim from the wider public area.

The sculpture, inspired by Brown’s trips to Smithfield meat market and depicting two porters hoisting an Ox carcass, was certainly progressive. At the time, there was little sculpture in Britain’s developing New Towns and what there was often reflected the conservatism of the development corporations. Meat Porters challenged received aesthetic values.

The commission came at a crucial phase in Brown’s artistic development and a fortunate moment in his career, on the threshold of a new phase in professional aspects of his life. It is the largest sculpture in his work and still perhaps his most important.

It is this sense of adventurousness, progressiveness, and risk that the Sculpture Town Artist in Residence programme seeks to develop, to support artists in the 21st century to make public works.

The Harlow Sculpture Town collection now includes work by former Sculpture Town Artists in Residence, Finn Thompson, Paloma Proudfootand Camille Yvert. Meriel Clarke (2019-20), Romane Coudacher (2020-21) will exhibit in Harlow from September 2021.