It was hoped they would encourage the appreciation of contemporary art. But instead four iron sculptures by Sir Antony Gormley appear to have bitterly divided public opinion in the Suffolk seaside town of Aldeburgh.
Caroline Wiseman, a local art dealer, bought the pieces – titled Oval, Peg, Penis and Snowman – that were designed by Gormley in 2001 for a regeneration project in Peckham, south London. Placing the objects near the South Lookout tower on the shingle beach outside her studio last year, the collector wanted the 100kg art installation to be of “cultural benefit” to the upmarket town.
Those aspirations were dashed, however, after she admitted to not having obtained planning permission for the pieces, which, in any case, Gormley’s representative said were designed to stand upright rather than lie horizontally. Writing to East Suffolk council in objection to Wiseman’s retrospective planning application, Gormley – the creator of the Angel of the North – said his work for an urban environment had been misrepresented.
Wiseman’s application has now been withdrawn and the works are due to be removed next week, but the matter continues to be a source of contention.
“The placing of Antony Gormley’s work on a public beach not in the form he intended is offensive,” said Helen Napper, who has lived in Aldeburgh for almost 30 years. “It’s not a good idea when someone autonomously decides what the town needs without public consultation. A public piece of work should have a broader consensus.”
Napper was among those who objected to the sculptures resting at the site permanently. Opponents raised concerns around upkeep of the artworks and accessibility issues. However, many people expressed support for the works, which are collectively titled Quartet: Sleeping.
One local resident, who gave her name as De Gard, 54, said: “I felt the sculptures were ambiguous. This is where all the fun was had because people were saying things like ‘are they sex toys? Seals? Bombs?’ It was just a bit of fun. There was also an educational purpose as they added a curiosity by acting as a point of discussion around art, landscape and the environment.”
Another local, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “I liked the layers of the stone and thought it brought a lot of positive attention to the area, rather than the focus just being on the fish and chip shops.”
The works are not the first in the town to polarise artistic sensibilities. In 2003 a 12ft-tall steel artwork was unveiled at the northern end of the beach as a tribute to the composer Benjamin Britten, who wrote one of his most famous operas, Peter Grimes, about the life of a fictional local fisher.
Created by the Suffolk artist Maggi Hambling, the work, known as the Scallop, was criticised by lovers of that stretch of coastline vehemently against siting it on the unspoilt beach.
Drawing comparisons between the two public works, Caroline Gay Way, a member of the Arts Club Aldeburgh Beach along with Wiseman, said: “When a sculpture is put somewhere unexpected, some people may say that the work ruins the look of a pristine beach. But at the same time the artwork draws people to visit because it is a talking point.
“The Gormley sculptures were low-key compared to the Scallop, which was very large, has been weathered and has become part of the Aldeburgh experience. Lots of people now come just to see it.”
Wiseman, who has sold the sculptures, plans to produce an “Angel of the East” using sea bricks on the site where the Gormley artworks soon will have once rested. “It is going to be a perfect circle of beautiful red stones found on the beach so we can all celebrate the rising sun and being alive in the universe,” Wiseman said.
Responding to criticism over the alleged lack of public consultation, she added: “I think I didn’t need planning permission to have the structures anyway. I believe the council would have likely refused the application, which is why I withdrew it.”
Gormley declined to comment when approached by the Guardian.