Impressions of Harlow by Meriel Clarke

In this short blog post, Sculpture Town Artist in Residence Meriel Clarke recalls her first impressions of Harlow and how its architecture and design informs her new exhibition at the Gibberd Gallery, A Slip Between, the Glass and the Lip.

On occasion, I experience art that brings me such exceptional joy that it evokes an intense and reaffirming deepness of feeling; it reminds me why I love art. It’s rare that an exhibition will trigger such a reaction but when it does, it’s something that stays with you. This is something I experienced at the Agnes Martin retrospective at the Tate Modern in 2015. Having no knowledge of Martin’s work beforehand, I entered the room and fell deeply in love with every delicate graphite grid and pastel shade. I was overwhelmed with the beauty of her paintings, I still am.

On my first visit to Harlow, I could not help but see the town through an Agnes Martin lens. Standing in Market Square, I took in the sun-bleached minty greens of under-window spaces, and the narrow rows of faded yellow tiles. While walking I’d often spot a building that would remind me of her work, a panel of richly golden tiles or a long balcony of blue intersected with tan-brick beams. I couldn’t help but see a connection between Martin’s systematic repetitions and the formal minimalism of Harlow’s post-war architecture, colours muted with time. Spotting these moments have been some of my favourite during the residency. As much as I enjoy the formalism of this architectural era, it does not mean that I do not relish moments when this has been disrupted. These moments of break in a system take many forms. Like the individual decisions made by architects, who, using common materials and practices, chose to produce areas each with a distinctive style. But also, the decisions made by residents to adapt these spaces, making a home built in a style that was not their taste, or not practical for them.

The Chantry, Harlow (1951) by Fry, Drew & Partners

Half-way through my residency, the pandemic hit. I noted how strange it felt to be learning about a town formed as a result of the last major global event, but from lockdown in another country. I exchanged my walks for scrolling through the streets on Google Street View, but the experience was screen-flattened. Writing blog posts for this website challenged me to get to know Harlow virtually and allowed me to learn about the town’s sculptures in a different way. I still think about the stories on the Photos of Harlow New and Old Facebook page, those waiting for their dates under the clock in Market Square, the meaty belly of the ox carried by Meat Porters, echoing the butterflies in their stomachs.

Market Square in Harlow, showing Ralph Brown’s Meat Porters and Adams House

For the exhibition I wanted to embrace the aspects of Harlow’s architecture that I find so appealing, the tiles and panels that remind me of the paintings I love so much and adapt them to a domestic scale. After months spent researching through a computer screen, I began to think about how this screen-square of glass has been my window into Harlow during this time, furthering my thoughts that windows could be a focus for the exhibition. Mostly I want to honour the human decisions to adapt and make one’s own, the places where formalism, straight lines and grids have been changed. Disruptions in pattern, and the little moments of break in everyday spaces that trigger a double-take.