Artist Bob and Roberta Smith explains why he thinks Tower Hamlets council should keep Henry Moore's public sculpture Draped Seated Woman, known as 'Old Flo' on display in the borough.

As I write this, an important self-portrait work by Eduardo Paolozzi which has been on public display in Holborn since the 1980s is being prepared for sale by a London auction house. In February, Christie's will sell an amazing Henry Moore which has a special meaning for London's East End. 

Hitler destroyed the East End, Henry Moore, with others, rebuilt it and now a council who seem ignorant of the area's less recent past is selling off its principal monument to peace. For me it is like smashing up a war memorial.

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  • Henry Moore OM, CH, 'Shelter Scene: Bunks and Sleepers' 1941
    Henry Moore OM, CH
    Shelter Scene: Bunks and Sleepers 1941
    Watercolour, gouache and drawing on paper
    support: 483 x 432 mm
    frame: 750 x 690 x 28 mm
    Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946
  • Henry Moore OM, CH, 'Tube Shelter Perspective' 1941
    Henry Moore OM, CH
    Tube Shelter Perspective 1941
    Pencil, ink, wax and watercolour on paper
    support: 483 x 438 mm
    frame: 750 x 695 x 25 mm
    Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946
  • Henry Moore OM, CH, 'A Tilbury Shelter Scene' 1941
    Henry Moore OM, CH
    A Tilbury Shelter Scene 1941
    Pen, watercolour, crayon, and gouache on paper
    support: 419 x 381 mm
    Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946

Moore’s shelter drawings were the inspiration for this period of his work. It is terrible that the borough where scores of people died during the war in a tube station used as an air raid shelter at Bethnal Green does not have the imagination to see how wonderful ‘Old Flo’ is as a symbol of our humanity.

Old Flo is an East End survivor. She is a generous and defiant image. She is so clearly drawn from Moore’s war artist work. Sitting on her plinth I imagine her to be taking air after some horrible near suffocation. The Mayor of Tower Hamlets should take a trip to Harlow and witness how amazing this kind of sculpture is not only for its formal values but for what it represents.

Artists like Liz Frink and Barbara Hepworth wanted their art in public spaces because in the post-war era people equated public space with freedom. It was in that era that the NHS was conceived and our institutions were made meritocratic and democratic.

In 2010 Chris Stephens curated a great show at Tate Britain looking at Moore’s relationship with post war culture. My God, that was some history lesson, but obviously one which the councillors of Tower Hamlets did not heed or even care about .

Henry Moore OM, CH, 'Shelterers in the Tube' 1941
Henry Moore OM, CH
Shelterers in the Tube 1941
Pencil, pen and ink, watercolour and crayon on paper
support: 380 x 568 mm
frame: 650 x 817 x 35 mm
Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946

‘Old Flo is a Londoner sheltering from an air raid just like Londoners who died in the Bethnal green disaster of 1943’

You can see Moore’s Shelter Drawings here on the Tate website. Here you will see Old Flo’s mother, her family, her sisters. How can we stop Old Flo and other important publicly-owned art works being sold by their guardians in councils up and down the land who have forgotten or could not care less about their significance ?

I will hold a public meeting this Saturday 3pm at Hales Gallery, 7 Bethnal Green Road. We need inventive and creative ideas to stop this sale.

So, what do you think?

Many commentators have argued for and against this sale.  An open letter to the Guardian signed by prominent figures including Henry Moore’s daughter, Mary Moore and Nicholas Serota, Director of Tate urged Tower Hamlets to reconsider

Do you have creative suggestions as Bob and Roberta Smith asks? Is there any justification for Tower Hamlets Council to sell a public artwork? 


This from Neil the father of Jessica Voorsanger who took the part of Moore in our flash mob last week, "when Tower Hamlets raises 60,000 quid or whatever from the Moore sale, they will spend it not on future investment in Tower Hamlets to become more self-sufficient but on temporary needs, all of which will be needed again 3 months later - a terrible loss of an historic sculpture.

· Public art expands the soul and history of a community. When the object is sold off, you are selling the collective future soul of your community to a lessor consciousness of drabness, meaningless, and the humdrum'.

Here is the thing. If artist's and civic minded people in London cannot prevent the sale of 'Old Flo' then every art work, every public asset under the guardianship of all UK councils are up FOR SALE at auction houses across the UK. Every picture, every treasure in publicly funded local council museums is in danger. Our government wants to promote philanthropy. If we cannot protect the generosity and vision of the past what incentive is there to give today? Our society faces new battle grounds: not left and right but those who believe in civic virtue, the public realm, the nolan Committee recommendations, local accountability and those who think in difficult times everything is for sale at an auction house. The struggle to 'save old flo' is about much more than it seems.

bobandrobertasmith can't be more eloquent about this subject and this issue : Tower Hamlets should already be ashamed. Or rather I wish they had the human potential to express shame. The seeming glee with with they have shown in their planned sale of Old Flo is what I find most depressing and disturbing. She is NOT a financial asset of the borough but a cultural one. Every council in the land has policies on culture, inclusivity and diversity and I'm sure Tower Hamlets would say they are very proud of their achievments here, but their proposed sale of Old Flo reveals their absolute lack of genuine cultural understanding and a shocking ignorance of essential local history.

I have one other thought : If Tower Hamlets think the magnificent Old Flo is not worth keeping, can you imagine the kind of art they would think worth buying ?!

In 1977 when I told my dad I was going to Victoria Park in 1977 to CARNIVAL 1 to protest about the murder of Altab Ali my dad was oddly excited. He said he had been at Cable Street and had thrown potatos which had razor blades in them at Mosely's right wing Black Shirts. I was horrified, I said, 'We are not doing that, we are going to see The Clash and X ray speX. We are not going to get violent'. Old Flo sheltered in a Tube station to escape the Blitz on London. In 1941 Buckingham Palace was hit. The Queen Mother said 'Now we can look the East End in the face.' In the public imagination the East End has always been at the vanguard of the fight against intolerance. We have to keep Old Flo in the East End and under the steward ship of those who live in the east end to protect the legacy of a PEACEFUL society. To sell her is madness. In fairness to the Mayor of Tower Hamlets he and his advisors do not know the history of OLD Flo. The fact that they don't is to the detriment of people doing the job of cultural advisors in Tower Hamlets over many years. They have also been duped into thinking that the sculpture is worth 20 Million by a leading Auction House who should know better . The previous Moore that sold for that kind of money was a much more abstract work of a later period that did not have the difficult associations of Public virtue that is associated with Old Flo. My sources tell me OLd Flo will do well to make 2 million. After shipping her around Britain the Council look set to raise only a few thousand from her sale. They are blundering into a world of Art Auctions of which they know nothing. Who owns Old Flo is an open question. Moore parted with her for £6000 which equates to the costs of production. He clearly saw the forfeiting of the additional value as a GIFT to the people of London. Surely Boris Johnson and the London Assembly has just as much say over Flo as anyone. But in truth she belongs to YOU. Proof positive that Moore saw her as a image of Peace. There are a number of casts Old Flo' (which makes her less valuable) one is in the German town of Wurpertal where Moore struck a similar deal for PEACE. Ask the Mayor of Wurpertal if he is selling? I think not. Here is a link to OUR OLD FLO FLASH MOB.!

I am a curator at cre8 lifestyle centre, a new creative hub based in Hackney Wick and willing to have Old Flo at our space.We have enough space to keep her and safeguard this important sculpture.She must stay in the East and we must stop this silliness that we have get rid of art works because of cuts or the recession.lets stopthis cultural rape!


'Ownership' doesn't make art public, generosity of spirit and accessibility does. Public art reminds us that we are fortunate enough to live in a democracy, that we are entitled to freedom of speech and that we are able to create art for all to enjoy regardless of our social, cultural or economic background. The 'management' of them as cultural 'assets' (their value, care, maintenance, protection, insurance, custody) is our responsibility - a 'burden' that may weigh heavy (to some) but no greater than maintaining our welfare state or our 'public' education system that is being systematically dismantled before us....if we want it badly enough then we'll have to fight for it, it's no good complaining about it when it's gone. Art isn't a passive activity - it never was and never will be - as 'consumers' we need to get involved, speak up, participate in the debate - take to the streets if necessary - most importantly we need to do this for the future so that our children and their children can enjoy art that is part of the everyday - (public) art is not a luxury it's a necessity.

Save Old Flo and keep our plinths full!

johntonta Wonderfully expressed. It is such a difficult time. The danger to our public realm from ill-informed and careless local politicians is compounded by an inept and visionless government who will reform secondary education so that Art, design and culture become marginal. This on top of the changes to the tuition fee which effectively privatises all arts and humanities departments and art schools spells a dramatic diminution of culture in this country. The major galleries will have to take note. How will they attract visitors if culture relevance is sidelined.

I was at an odd event last night. Anish Kapour was dancing Gangnan style in his studio. He was working with 'Index on censorship' and 'Amnesty International' to raise awareness of the clamp down on freedom of expression around the world. Increasingly artists are translating their cultural power into political muscle. Anish Kapour and Ai Weiwei understand that art is about free speech but does the Mayor of Tower Hamlets?

We are suffering from a crisis of value.

We are suffering from a mindset that sees making *things* as progress and growth (irrespective of their damage to the less easily-measured infrastructure of people, plants, ideas and non-human spaces). Whatever *makes* money is practical good sense, whatever costs money, is at best a luxury, at worst, a frippery. Never mind the fact that it's not clear what we mean when we talk of 'making' money. It's certainly not exactly the same as making value. Money and value are swapped around strangely in exchange for things, experiences and hopes (eg knowledge, appearance, excitement, security... ). But we're not clear on how much money and/or value relate to each other when they're swapped, nor how much their total amount can or should grow. in 2009, the international bank of settlements assessed the size of the global derivatives market as 1.4 quadrillion dollars. That's roughly 20 times more than the 'value' of all the world's real estate. What had been 'made' there?. The collapse of this mirage of value is at the heart of today's budgetary problems in lots of places.

This crisis of value is getting more bitter with some people clinging more desperately to the sinking idea of narrowly measured, mechanistic sense of money as value. Anything that doesn't fit the conveyor belt system of short term cause and effect (art, imagination, creative solutions, peoples spirit) is a distraction from weekday work. It's a very 19th Century mindset. Solid, hard work during the week to make things you can bang on the table - that's real! Airy Fairy indulgence at the weekend, if you can afford it (ie if you're middle/upper class).

Art suffers because of its strength. Art is uncertain, indeterminate, it captures spirit and connects with the loose ends in us. It is not easily measured though, unless it's rubbish, so in desperate times the narrow metrics of our system in crisis can't grasp its value. Yet these are exactly the values we need to invest in.

Tower Hamlets needs to be more culturally confident, more imaginative, more creative. It needs an Old Flo party at the heart of the borough, because when the cash runs out a little art goes a very long way.

As a public piece it’s accessible to so many people, many of whom may never set foot in a gallery. In private hands it may only been by those fortunate enough to have access to it.

If the art community is to continue to 'bring art to the masses' and remove the, lets be honest, virulent elitism that is rightfully associated with the visual arts then the sale of public works should not be permitted. The connections with the history of the local area just re-enforces this.

Every interaction (whether it be sticking gum to it, sitting on it or running hands across it) made by a member of the public with works such as this is another interaction with the visual arts, another point of access for someone who might otherwise disregard the Arts as something inaccessible.

If we start by selling public art work to cut debt where does it end. Let's have a colourless city because magnolia is the cheapest paint with which to decorate public buildings? Let's dig up a park and sell the land to Tesco because it only gets used by a small number of people in the year and it costs a lot to maintain? All public buildings should be made of the cheapest possible materials even if we know they'll fall down in 30 years time, because it saves money in the short term?

Henry Moore had great plans for old flo! Originally she was part of a proposal for the UNESCO building in Paris. He certainly saw her as an Icon for PEACE! His gift of the sculpture for cost price to the LCC was a generous act. As for the cost of maintaining her in the public realm, the Museum of London and the Henry Moore Foundation are ready to sort that out. The Tower Hamlets Mayor's argument of further costs is void. He has been poorly advised by his officers in the council who have a duty to know about the assets of the council.

Kirstie Beaven1's picture

Ah good - this answers another question from Twitter: @BSheermanMP says:

"Good debate to host.First can we establish agreement under which it became Council property,did Artist sell in simple commercial deal?"

Rowan Moore in the Observer put it like this:

' "goes against the spirit" of Henry Moore, who sold it to London County Council at a price – £6,000 – far below its then market value. It demonstrated the "belief that everyone, whatever their background, should have access to works of art of the highest quality". Moore, they say, was "delighted" that it was installed as the centrepiece of the Stifford estate, a group of tower blocks in Stepney.'

You can see the rest of this article here:

Kirstie Beaven1's picture

Great comments so far. I just wanted to pull in some comments from elsewhere as well.

Whether money is any sort of justification is a live topic, not just here but on Twitter. Alongside this question on what any money from a sale would be spent on @kw1330 has tweeted on the cost of preserving Old Flo in the public space:

"there's a constant cost and risk to keeping it. If the council can't afford to keep it, then what?"

The cost of insurance and maintenance has been raised as a reason to sell by the council - see this BBC article from earlier in the year:


'times are tough and people are suffering. How about the money gets spent on homes for homeless families? Art is dear to my heart but so is having somewhere to call home. Xxx'

only a very optimistic person would think the money from the sale of Henry Moore;s iconic tribute to the people of the East End 'Old Flo' would go to house homeless families. In truth the money will go to reduce the councils deficit. The mayor will be able to say to his constituency 'I am a little less incompetent than you thought'. People in the borough interested in history, art, knowledge, education and vision will draw another conclusion. Irresponsible politicians often whip up the public by saying 'Do you want Art or Kidney machines? but the real analogy is 'Do you want to sell your kidneys?' Sell of Old Flo and you rip the heart out of Tower Hamlet's and the East End's regeneration and miss a great opportunity to say to future generations that as Old Flo sought shelter from the violence of war so many diverse communities and sought sanctuary in Brick Lane. Old Flo is being persecuted by the same fascism, the same men wearing swastika's that killed Altab Ali. The Mayor of Tower Hamlets has to have the imagination and vision to say All people of the east end should come together to say we want to save oldflo because she is a great emblem for peace telling us What unites human beings is great and wonderful, what divides us is small and mean.

If art is in the public realm then how can it be sold? Does Tower Hamlets have a disposal policy for public art/efacts? Were local residents consulted? There are so many ethical questions!

Public art is donated to people NOT councils or guardians.

Sometimes public sculpture becomes a part of the subconscious and only when it disappears does it become conspicuous and that, sadly, is when it's too late.

" era people equated public space with freedom." they also understood that being able to express yourself in public was an ultimate freedom. No more apathy, please.



Councils should only sell publically owned artwork, if the public chose what to spend the money on! In an ideal world, no council should be allowed to sell artwork - unless it is to be used to purchase more artwork - we all need beautiful things to look at and things to make us think. No one really wants to live in a cultural black hole! Having said that.....times are tough and people are suffering. How about the money gets spent on homes for homeless families? Art is dear to my heart but so is having somewhere to call home. Xxx

We are familiar with the 'Tomb of the unknown soldier' but less so with the 'shelter of the women civilian seeking sanctuary'. Today 'Old Flo' reminds us exactly who is under that 'not so smart bomb'. She reminds us that drones 'kill families' and that war is indescriminate. In her way she is an image of every refugee who has sought sanctury in the East End. 'Old flo' is an image of collatoral damage. Old Flo is innocence but she is also a witness to the violence of politics. She could be Marie Colvin killed in Syria. This morning I heard the voice of a young female reporter on the BBC. There was the sound of a siren and John Humphries told her to look for shelter.