Catalogue entry

T05009 English Heritage - Humpty Fucking Dumpty 1987

Vaulting box with painted box and oil on copper and steel 2390 × 3276 × 1067 (94 1/2 × 129 × 42)
Not inscribed
Purchased from Lisson Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1987
Exh: Bill Woodrow, Lisson Gallery, May–June 1987 (no cat., no number); Bill Woodrow, Cornerhouse, Manchester, Sept.–Nov. 1987 (no cat., no number, repr. on pamphlet in col.)
Lit: Sarah Jane Checkland, ‘On a Sea of Green’, London Daily News, 28 May 1987, p.22; Andrew Graham-Dixon, ‘Out of the Frying Pan’, Independent, 2 June 1987, p.12; Waldemar Januszczak, ‘Portrait of the Artist's Wife’, Guardian, 3 June 1987, p.9; ‘Bill Woodrow: Sculpture’, Cornerhouse [newsletter], Cornerhouse, Manchester, Sept. 1987, p.4, repr. p.5; Marjorie Allthorpe-Guyton, ‘Bill Woodrow’, Flash Art, no.136, Oct. 1987, p.99, repr. (col.); Neil Thompson, ‘A Foul Word of Welcome for the Tate's Young Visitors’, Daily Mail, 5 Jan. 1988, p.8, repr.; Amanda Perthen, ‘Rumpty Humpty Rumpus’, Star, 6 Jan. 1988, p.3; ‘Shelling  Out for Obscenity’, Star, 6 Jan. 1988, p.8; ‘An Obscenity’, Daily Mail, 6 Jan. 1988, p.6; ‘“Obscene Display” Warning to the Arts’, Daily Mail, 6 Jan. 1988, p.28; Michael McCarthy, ‘Minister Protests over Tate “Obscenity”’, Times, 6 Jan. 1988, p.3; Noel Fory cartoon, Star, 7 Jan. 1988, p.8; ‘Life Enhancing’, Daily Telegraph, 7 Jan. 1988, p.12; Tim Hilton, ‘The Junk Generation’, Guardian, 17 Feb. 1988, p.17, repr. as ‘English Heritage’; Hugh Herbert, ‘Humpty's Heritage’, Guardian, 24 May 1988, p.21

This work consists of a wooden vaulting box, each stacked layer of which is propped open at alternate ends by the insertion of an object. From the lowest level upwards these are representations of a plough with a wheel, of a book, and of a clocking-in machine, all made of painted metal; and a wooden box with markings signifying radiation hazard. On top of the vaulting box sits an effigy of Humpty Dumpty. The vaulting box has a pedal just above floor level on the right side which, when pressed, raises the structure off the ground to make it easier to manoeuvre. This is a standard feature of such gymnasium equipment.

In conversation with the compiler on 30 March 1992, the artist explained that he purchased the vaulting box at a second-hand shop in Brixton, London. It was a shop ‘which I used to go past quite a lot and I had noticed this vaulting box... and been quite intrigued by it. I wanted to use it but I hadn't clue what to do with it at the time’. Woodrow did not buy it immediately as it was not usually his practice to purchase items specifically for making sculpture, although on rare occasions he had done so. Most of the components for his sculptures had originated as found objects. However, Woodrow stated that ‘there weren't any rules as such and after a couple of weeks, this thing still being outside the shop, I just couldn't resist it any more and so I bought it’. Woodrow explained that the box remained in his studio, which was then in Acre Lane, Brixton, as ‘raw material’ for a few weeks.

The idea for the sculpture derived from his enjoyment of the formal properties of the box, dismantling and rebuilding it,

playing with the component parts and actually enjoying this concertina thing [the layering of the box] and wanting then to introduce other components into it, so that I could actually make it stay extended. So it had sort of wedges in it. Having decided to do that, I didn't want those wedges to consist of pieces of wood or bricks. I wanted actual objects, and so I had to start thinking of a sort of theme that would then run through the whole sculpture. I wanted to use some recognisable things as wedges that would make coherent sense, so that it looked like a wall but also like an archaeological or geological section of a piece of rock with layers or strata. So I started having an idea of a section through history, and thinking of trying to make some objects that would act as wedges that would denote, in a very simplistic way, epochs in history, the development or progress of mankind.

At this point Woodrow was not thinking specifically of English history. The objects ended up being ‘very basic’. The lowest object represents a wheeled plough which denotes both the invention of the wheel and the early importance of agriculture. Woodrow explained that, although ‘farming was probably invented a long time before the wheel, the two together seemed to be a very significant starting point for the development of the human race’. He had depicted a two-wheeled plough in an earlier sculpture, ‘The Plough and the Rose’, 1983 (Fonds régional d'art contemporain, Rhône-Alpes, Lyon, repr. Bill Woodrow: Sculpture 1980–86, exh. cat., Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh 1986, p.47 in col.) and subsequently in a bronze sculpture entitled ‘Un Till the Land’, 1989 (private collection, repr. Bill Woodrow, Point of Entry. New Sculptures, exh. broadsheet, Imperial War Museum 1989, n.p.). The artist describes both representations of ploughs as having strong sexual connotations. His use of the plough in T05009 does not.

The second wedge is the representation of a book. The artist described this as ‘quite a leap forward’ in history. The book signifies ‘the dissemination of knowledge or development of the intellect and not necessarily printing as an industrial process... It was the beginning of some network of communication and knowledge’. Woodrow was thinking of illuminated manuscripts more than the invention of the printed book, although he does not deny the importance of the latter or that the object he created conjures associations with the printing revolution.

The third motif, the clocking-in machine, ‘was definitely to do with the industrial revolution which specifically relates to this country but has worldwide ramifications’. The fourth object, the only one not to be made by the artist, was a box which he painted yellow and black with radiation hazard markings ‘to signify the nuclear era’, which embraces the notions of both nuclear power and nuclear war. Quite apart from the current era being frequently described as the nuclear age, Woodrow recalls that he was also thinking of the damage to the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, then in the Soviet Union, which occurred on 26 April 1986 and which had a prolonged and far-reaching effect in Europe. Woodrow used this particular box not only because it was an object of the right ‘hand-size’ scale, which happened to be in his studio, but also because ‘it was a very simple container that would give the impression of something sealed, something you could not see, that would give the impression of danger’ (conversation with the cataloguer on 23 April 1992). The markings that Woodrow has painted differ from standard official signs in that the three near-triangular, segment-like shapes painted on the yellow box do not converge on a black circle. Woodrow had previously made three works which referred to the subject of the nuclear age: ‘Life on Earth’, 1983 (repr. Fruitmarket Gallery exh. cat., 1986, p.65 in col.), ‘Winter Jacket’, 1986 (repr. ibid., p.136 in col.) and ‘Self-Portrait in the Nuclear Age’, 1986 (repr. ibid., p.143 in col.).

The wedges had the effect of almost doubling the size of the vaulting box and making a once solid object into a precarious structure. Woodrow explained that at this stage he started thinking about what to put on top of it since he felt it was lacking something from a formal point of view. Furthermore, the top was padded and was designed to be sat on or vaulted which

seemed to suggest that something should be happening up there to add to the precariousness or to relate to it in some way... It was at this stage that I had the idea of putting a Humpty Dumpty figure on top because I was thinking of a wall, and that seemed to fit in with this notion of history because the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme was something I could remember from my childhood. So it was very immediate in that sense and it was something which I thought most people from this country would know. It was at this point that [the subject took on] a specific, English sense.

Humpty Dumpty, normally depicted as an egg-shaped figure, is the subject of a well-known nursery rhyme of which the opening two lines are as follows:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall

Although Woodrow was unaware of the origins of this nursery rhyme, he vaguely recollected that it had been used as a political satire. Indeed, some scholars believe that the rhyme refers to King Richard III. However, Humpty Dumpty has his equivalents in a number of other European countries, including ‘Boule, boule’ (France) and ‘Thille Lille’ (Sweden). For Woodrow, it also ‘seemed to signify, or to be a very appropriate symbol in a way for my notions about this country and the western world in general and its idea of progress, getting better and better and yet being very unstable’. Woodrow regards the world as being in a particularly precarious position economically, ecologically, militarily and physically. The vaulting box signifies the world and ‘all its structures’, both material and philosophical.

The figure of Humpty Dumpty sports a red bow-tie. The artist explained that his memories of illustrations of the nursery rhyme depicted him with such a tie. He does not associate the figure with any contemporary politician or party and the colour of the tie has no significance other than formal. The figure was made out of a discarded hot water cylinder. The other metal objects were made from a filing cabinet and a car bonnet. It had previously been the artist's practice to retain the ‘host’ object as an indicator of sculptural origins and as part of the punning intention, but T05009 is one of the first sculptures in which the ‘host’ objects are not made evident within the work. The sculpture took about one week to make, although it was conceived over a longer period.

Once the sculpture was made Woodrow began to think of a title, an element which he always considers to be integral to a work. With the addition of the Humpty Dumpty figure, Woodrow accepted that the sculpture had specifically English connotations. He knew that he wanted the title to include the words ‘English Heritage’ and to make reference to Humpty Dumpty. By ‘English Heritage’ he was not referring to an institution but to the concept of his own heritage, ‘everything that's gone in the centuries before’. Humpty Dumpty itself was a part of that. By employing the word heritage in the title, Woodrow was referring to the way in which present-day society invokes the history of bygone times to disguise current imbalances and imperfections in the fabric of life, including war and unemployment. Woodrow stated in conversation with the cataloguer on 17 July 1992 that references to ‘Britain's glorious past are used to take your mind off present difficulties and hardships. It is an escapist device and there seemed to be a lot of it around at the time’. By employing the word ‘fucking’ and depicting a seemingly unstable edifice, Woodrow was being openly critical of this attitude. He felt that jingoism had been particularly prevalent in the 1980s, beginning with the Falklands War in 1982, and that the invocation of past national achievement to justify present-day actions served merely to distract the attention of the public from the full implications of action being taken or not taken, as the case may be. Although he does not associate the sculpture with the Falklands War, he accepts that this episode in British history can be seen as relevant to the themes of the work. The notions of Second World War heroism associated with a wooden horse which was used by British prisoners to disguise the digging of of a tunnel are inevitably implied here but the artist stated that they were not uppermost in his mind when he was making the work. ‘People of my age, the Airfix generation, knew about the Great Escape’ but such notions ‘were not something I wanted to involve myself in. However, I knew that people would make the association’ (conversation of 17 July 1992). For Woodrow the vaulting horse has stronger associations with institutions ranging from schools to corrective establishments.

Woodrow did not finalise the title for a few weeks. The inclusion of the word ‘fucking’ was a reaction to the ‘moralistic atmosphere around at the time... There seemed to be a debate about censorship starting again’ (conversation of 30 March 1992). Woodrow recalls how he took his children to the cinema one evening to see a film called Stand by Me (certificate 15). Directed by Rob Reiner and released by Columbia and Act III in 1986, Stand by Me was about a gang of boys who find the body of a missing teenager. The film is mostly concerned with the friendships and tensions within the group and evokes nostalgically the decade of the 1950s. The boys portrayed in the film were younger than Woodrow's own children who were fourteen and fifteen.

My son had already seen the movie with some friends and when we went as a family to a cinema in the Haymarket we weren't allowed to go in, because the ticket clerk thought our children were under age. So they got the manager out and he asked, ‘Are these your children?’, and I said ‘yes’. Then he said to my son ‘How old are you?’ and he said, trying to deepen his voice, ‘I'm fifteen’. It didn't quite come off and they weren't convinced and said, ‘Sorry we can't let you in’. So I didn't make a big scene about it but I was very, very angry at this sort of morality-somebody else pushing corporate ideas through a managerial position down to me. To say what I can or can't see or my children can or can't see. And subsequently I saw the movie and I couldn't understand why we hadn't been allowed entry. The only reason was that the word ‘fucking’ was in the script.

These boys of twelve or thirteen had used this word among themselves and yet a child or young adult, who was older than those in the movie, was not allowed to watch it and it was language they use everyday anyway. And this whole thing really got to me and I was just determined that I would use the word ‘fucking’ in a piece of work as a ... personal thing for myself, as if to say that these people can't get me.

This incident occurred in the same year that Woodrow made the sculpture but sometime before it.

The final decision to include the word ‘fucking’ in the title came to him quite suddenly. The word is used adjectivally to denote a sense of anger and despair at the prevailing moral ethos and the state of the nation. It is not used in the sense of Humpty exploiting or physically abusing Dumpty although the artist does not deny that it could be read that way. However, he intended the word simply as an expletive.

The response provoked by Tony Harrison's poem ‘v’. was another part of the widespread debate surrounding the alleged decline in standards of morality and the use of obscene language. Since the mid-1970s and the beginning of the Punk era, words previously considered to be obscene and provocative in polite society were used increasingly in everyday language with a degree of normality. Harrison's poem, like the title of Woodrow's sculpture, drew attention to this fact. The poem was the basis for a film by Richard Eyre commissioned by Channel 4 in 1987 and the full text of the poem was published in the Independent on 24 October 1987 (p.12). Written at the time of the miners' strike in 1984, it describes the poet's return to a Leeds cemetery, situated above an old mine, where his parents lay buried. Many of the grave-stones were daubed with graffiti, some obscene, including the offering of a Leeds United football supporter who uses the abbreviation ‘v’. which stands for versus. In his poem Harrison reflects on the other struggles and oppositions within society. Harrison's use of ‘bad’ language makes the point that such language is in common usage and is often regarded as unworthy of special note. Woodrow told the cataloguer (17 July 1992) that he had not read this poem and did not consider that it bore any relation to his work, although he acknowledged that the controversy aroused by the poem was similar to the response to the title of his sculpture. ‘The poem is far more insistent on the use of such language. I made a piece of sculpture which has a title. It is not a piece of sculpture about a title, whereas the poem seems to be about the use of language’.

Woodrow considers that ever since his sculptures began to be made from ‘host’ objects, they have been vehicles for some kind of social comment. Referring to ‘Twin-Tub with Guitar’, 1981 (T03354, repr. Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1980 – 2, p.223), he told the cataloguer on 30 March 1992 that it was just a

bizarre juxtaposition of everyday objects that had some relevance to most people. I mean the guitar was sort of like a pop icon and the washing machine was an everyday, domestic item of white goods and so it was bringing the two things together like a sort of slice of life. I think [this and others in the series] were making comments but it wasn't something I was particularly aware of at the time, because after making that first series of works I started to understand the potential of making very specific comments at some stage of development of the work.

The artist also commented that ‘Car Door, Ironing Board and Twin-Tub with North American Indian Head-Dress’, 1981 (T03355, repr. Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1980 – 2, p.224) was probably the first of his sculptures to make such social comments.

When T05009 was first shown in a public institution at Cornerhouse Gallery, Manchester, the title provoked a certain amount of comment. In a brief interview broadcast on Radio Manchester on 21 September 1987, Woodrow explained why he had chosen to use the word ‘fucking’. Shortly after the work first went on display at the Tate Gallery, London in December 1987, and at the time of a Beatrix Potter exhibition taking place elsewhere in the Gallery, it became an object of notoriety. A small minority of visitors objected to the title and the issue was taken up in the national press. Woodrow stated that it was not the sculpture as such to which some people objected but the use of the swear word. ‘I was making my point [regarding hypocrisy and moral censorship] and on that level I was not displeased, but I had not expected anything of the sort would happen. It was not my intention to get that kind of response either. I had used the word for my own personal reasons [to get the incident at the cinema] out of my head’.

The display of the sculpture was reported widely. Woodrow finds it ironic that the Daily Star, for example, recorded highly selective public reaction to the title on the same page as it depicted a pin-up model (6 January 1988, p.3). The artist stated that ‘they couldn't see or they didn't care about the irony of that combination on that page and I thought if they could put those two together then I'm still winning’. The leader in the same newspaper described the work as ‘foul’ and ‘tasteless’. ‘Innocent youngsters must pass this ugly expletive, which as a family paper we have deleted.’ Woodrow's position is that this word is part of the English language ‘and not something which you can say does not exist’. He believes that such a reaction testifies to the power and immediacy of language. He considers the newspaper reaction to have become part of the history of the work and to exemplify the selective morality to which he objects.

T05009 was one of the last sculptures Woodrow made in the assemblage idiom before he began to make works to be cast in bronze. Two earlier works provided precedents for the stacking idiom: ‘Time and Place for Nothing’, 1985 (repr. Fruitmarket Gallery exh. cat., 1986, p.117 in col.), which consists of, among other items, two dressers, a bookcase and part of a filing cabinet, transformed into a clock, stacked in a perilously leaning configuration and ‘Collection’, 1985 (repr. Natural Prodúce: An Armed Response. Sculpture by Bill Woodrow, exh. cat., La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, La Jolla, California 1985, p.17 in col.), in which eight luggage trunks are stacked one on top of another. In both these sculptures, as in T05009, the stack becomes an edifice or wall.

Woodrow returned to the Humpty Dumpty motif when he was commissioned by Momart Ltd to make a Christmas card in 1990. He made a medallion which, on one side, depicted a tank around which is tied a ribbon. On the other side sits Humpty Dumpty on top of a wall clutching a key in one hand and a padlock in the other. This side of the coin is inscribed ‘H.F.DUMPTY:DEI: GRA:BR:OMN:REX...’, the inscription being based on that of the side of an old penny which bore a representation of a king's head. In a letter to the cataloguer of 25 July 1992 the artist stated that, ‘The key and the padlock signify power and choice - simply - a key can open or close the lock - to bar or open the way for one - to lock out or in dangers - the objects themselves are neutral-the use given them positive or negative values. The inscription gives H.F the role of a leader (perhaps the leader of “progress”) in all its precariousness’. The artist commented on 17 July 1992 that he did not want to repeat the word fucking ‘since it would have been going over old ground’ but the reference to the earlier sculpture was intended. He stated that ‘this seemed an appropriate image on the eve of [Operation Desert Storm in] the Gulf War [which broke out in January 1991]. It seemed like it could lead to another strata in the wall of progress in that it might have marked the beginning of a new era or might have been just another fiasco’. The artist also stated that he realised that the figure of ‘H.F. Dumpty’ was one which might ‘reappear from time to time at the right moments when appropriate’ as a reminder of the existence of the sculpture and its connotations.

This entry has been approved by the artist.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996