I wonder why people decorate buildings? OK it may seem a tad random, but while on a break from a meeting in Leeds, I happened to wander out of the meeting room and along an adjacent street only to find myself looking at the Welsh terracotta of the former Leeds and County Liberal Club. On closer examination, and who wouldn’t, I noticed a series of faces peering back at me from various parts of the plasterwork. Why? The faces didn’t add to the weather proofing or structural integrity of the form, they didn’t seem to perform a function at all, or did they?
The main square is littered with statues of luminaries from the past but all too few of them have anything to do with the city. The most imposing of the bronze on display is that of Edward the Black Prince. The hero of Crécy and Poitiers had little if anything, that I can recall, to do with Leeds but there he sits astride his horse in a place of alarming prominence. Why has the city so planned the central square and what have the four antique attendants in his train got to do with the municipality? I think it has something to do with the human psyche and how it goes about handing down meaning through the generations.
As you read this, you are decoding a series of signs. Cyrillic or kanji characters may leave you perplexed, but these you decode with easy familiarity. The signs are arranged in groups or ‘words’ and they create meaning when placed in context with other word groupings. All pretty straightforward, or is it?
Think about how many times you have misunderstood someone, made a mistake or freely admitted ‘that’s not what I meant’. There is often a disconnect between what we say or write and what we understand or the meaning we sought to communicate. The arrangement of the signs is not fool proof, so how much more open to interpretation is a symbol? The iconography of the architecture and the municipal decoration are intended to communicate meaning, a meaning that in many ways like all Art transcends the denotative meanings of natural language.
Ian Ronson described the attempt to influence objects by staring back at them in his book, ‘The Men Who Stare At Goats’. The outcome would have been none too good for the goats but the ineptitude of the men granted them a merciful reprieve. How much are we like those staring at goats? What did the noble burghers of Leeds have in mind when they had the various statues erected when they wheeled out the Black Prince or chiselled the terracotta? I am pretty sure they did not expect the solipsistic staring of Ronson’s reporting.
In a city developing rapidly as a consequence of the industrial revolution, the decoration was intended to show how a great city was taking its place in the Empire. The classical form of the town hall with its Corinthian columns and lavish acanthus leaves sits deliberately on a height created for it, and with an aspect and attitude that commands understanding as opulent and the product of industry and endeavour. The statuary in the square offer models for the citizenry to admire but more than that, to imitate.
There is more to this semiology than the passive communication of an idea, it is about a call to action. The city is speaking to all who pass encouraging endeavour, industry and now providing a resting place for the homeless. Times change, meanings get lost and new eyes see old realities differently. I suspect the statuary is like the branding we see in evidence so much today. The Nike swoosh may sound the note of Athena in Victory (Nike is Greek for victory), Adidas may recall its inventor/creator, but what do they stand for?
A logo, brand, badge of identity must stand for something beyond itself. The successful motif does just this. There is virtue in the Victorian desire to inspire action. Their motive was to empower and embolden. Is the same true of our modern iconography?
In the role models for our children, in their life experience, we need to be wary of the allegiance to a brand or to identification with it. The world would have us believe that adherence to a brand is a promise of a lifestyle or a comment on our relative successes or indeed perceived lack of success. If we are not careful, we will fall into the trap of looking for meaning in the meaninglessness of shallow commercialism.
The folly of Ronson’s men was in thinking that their desire for something to be the case made it so. That looking and staring to something long enough affected the phenomenon at hand. But it need not be so and the Victoriana of the square in Leeds is a case in point. I should hope that we all look at this sort of branding or iconography with new eyes and appreciate the motives behind it. That we enjoy the civic decoration and see within it the virtues of a civilisation and the values of integrity, invention and moral courage that those of Watt, Priestly and the Black Prince espouse. To do anything else makes us no more than those who stare with witheringly vacant hope at goats.
Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Hampshire Collegiate School (@HeadmasterHCS)