In praise of Peter
Anthony Smith is entranced and moved by a small piece of public sculpture in Norwich’s Lanes
Public sculpture is not something that one thinks about every day, but without it, our cities and towns would be a lot duller. Also, it is one of the few areas of art that those who are visually impaired have an opportunity to experience and explore.
I must say that I have not always looked at public sculpture with affection. Often I found memorials to ex-mayors or generous benefactors to be, frankly, dull; a form of immortality-seeking that will, inevitably, fail.
There’s a lot more to public sculpture though. Some pieces certainly were created and installed as monuments to some great and heroic individuals; I am thinking of Nelson, Edith Cavell and George Vancouver and others, while other works have been created to simply give us pleasure or a sudden realisation of the beauty around us.
On my first visit to Thetford many years back, I was surprised and delighted to see the sculpture of Arthur Lowe as Captain Mainwaring from Dad’s Army. It brought back memories of the TV series but also, the relevance to Thetford was the remarkable and pertinent factor to me. A superb sculpture by Sean Hedges-Quinn in its own right, made more magical in its totally appropriate setting.
Brain, the large, realistic sculpture in Norwich by Anne and Patrick Poirier as homage to the 17th century physician and author Thomas Browne, the Stock Fish Rack in Kings Lynn by the British Artist Blacksmith Association as well as so many other contemporary public sculptures are familiar to us as well as an amazing heritage of art deco works.
Yet for me, it is the small and somewhat insignificant that take my eye and draw me to them. I have a favourite.
It’s small, not particularly beautiful, but draws me to it every day as I walk past. This one, together with those that are associated with it, tops off a bollard in one of Norwich’s historic lanes.
The subject of it is Peter, the wild boy. I’m sure that you are already familiar with the story of this 18th century boy who was brought from Hanover by George I as a ‘curiosity’ and many years later appeared, as an unrecognised adult, in Norwich where he was kept at the Bridewell, at the time the equivalent of a correctional facility until a fire there.
His was really one of life’s sad stories, humiliated and treated like an animal in a circus or freak show. Yet he survived. His life and the stories of him have also survived when many of those around him who, at the time, were important or wealthy, have faded into oblivion.
Peter’s story touches something in me and brings to the fore questions of life, belief, faith and the human capacity to survive. Here, a person whose only claim to fame was simply survival, is remembered in a small, but quite beautiful sculpture of a naked boy in an almost fetal position, as if protecting himself from torment or ridicule.
How appropriate and sensitive a rendering. It touches me as few other sculptures or artworks have ever done.
ABOVE: The small sculpture of Peter the wild boy which tops a bollard in Norwich