John Owen contacted Manchester Modernist Society in response to an article featured in the Manchester Evening News (Help cast light on the riddle of the missing Toastrack sculpture, 7/11/13 – not currently available online) covering the ongoing search for Hubert Dalwood’s lost Icon.
I worked at the Toastrack as Deputy Faculty Secretary (senior admin role) between 1989-99. During this time a postgraduate architectural student from Sheffield University visited the Faculty to look for the same thing. In response I searched high and low to see if I could find it in storage using a photograph I found in a college handbook.
One day I happened to be talking to a porter about it (called Tom – who would have now retired a number of years ago). He told me that he had an answer to the puzzle. He took me to the back of the building – just off Cromwell Range where the Faculty skips were put. There he showed me a heavy, small concrete base, with one or two short metal rods attached to the base. He said that this belonged to the sculpture, and the rest had been thrown in the skip a number of years ago. If I remember the base looked like it had been there for a long time.
I was there when the reception area (where the sculpture was originally kept, according to the photograph) was upgraded. I cannot remember any sculpture being taken out prior to refurbishment, and I was directly involved in a number of refurbishments when I was at Hollings Faculty. From the evidence of what I saw by the skip, I believe that the porter was correct, and that Icon was thrown away probably in the 70s/80s. I can remember the base I saw by the skip that day corresponding to the photograph.
I am sorry to be the bearer of such bad news, but I think the sculpture is long gone.
Did you take any photographs of the remaining base?
I did not – unfortunately it was pre-mobile phone era. I just remember seeing a stone base – and Tom saying that whoever had put it in the skip had not been able to lift the base.
Can you remember how the student from Sheffield University became aware of the sculpture, and how far they had got with their research?
The student was undertaking some research for her MA on the architect responsible for the design of the Toastrack. I remember her coming specifically to visit, and the sculpture was one of the main reasons. I can now visualise her disappointment that the sculpture was missing – she had newspaper cuttings, I think about the opening of the Toastrack. This started my quest, and I contacted a number of staff working in the Faculty at that time, and drew a blank till I happened to mention it to Tom one day soon after.
In what year did your search for Icon take place approximately?
A difficult one, but I had a promotion at MMU – becoming Acting Faculty Secretary (1992-93) – a senior management post. I think it was then. I remember vividly receiving the phone call from the main receptionist regarding a postgraduate student with a strange request.
One thing I remember doing was trying to trace Icon through Faculty handbooks/pictures to try and ascertain when it was last in place in the reception area – I remember then thinking it must have been some distance from when I started my search, because even staff who were ready to retire at that time could not remember it!
I sometimes reflect on this incident with friends. It made a big impression on me at the time. How could something that was such a valuable part of the history of the Toastrack come to such a tragic end? But I do know that during my time at the Toastrack I worked with some excellent professionals and have very happy memories. At the time I remember thinking that this must have happened in an era well before the senior management team I worked with!
Hubert Dalwood’s daughter Kathy responded:
Wow! Well, you did wonder if the article would flush out any info and it certainly did – though not at all what we had been hoping for, what a tragedy. I would definitely like to know which barbarian thought it was a good idea to trash my Dad’s sculpture!
Thanks to Manchester Modernist Society for being so tenacious in this search, and even though the news is very bad, at least we know what happened and importantly you and others along the way have shown what interest there was and is in my father’s sculpture which is fantastic to know.
As for my feelings about this news, my first thought was that I hoped my father didn’t know what happened to his sculpture and that it was destroyed after he died in 1976. But then I thought, surely if he had been alive it would never have happened, because presumably he would have kept some tabs on his commissions and probably someone would have given him the heads up that the building was about to be refurbished and that his sculpture was in danger. (His sculpture at Bodington Hall, Leeds is being re-sited by the university.)
All in all I feel very sad that this excellent work was consigned to landfill when so many of us could have been enjoying it all these years.
I also think it’s a lesson to the managers of institutions with an architectural and artistic heritage not to assume that they are equipped to make decisions about that heritage and to take advice from people who are!
It’s a crying shame that my father worked so hard and thoughtfully over a substantial period of time to produce a wonderful contemporary piece of work for this iconic building, only for it be consigned to the rubbish heap through some ill-informed bureaucratic decision. I picture him in his studio, so engaged with his work and always with the ambition to push it as far as he could, embracing risks and challenges and above all enjoying the creative journey, and I think some people need to find out more about artists and how much dedication they have to make beautiful and interesting things for the world!
Since receiving John’s Owen’s email in late November 2013, Manchester Modernist Society has made many attempts through several longstanding members of staff at Hollings Faculty to trace Tom the porter, with no result.
We are now being encouraged by Manchester Metropolitan University to accept that Icon has gone.