Bill Woodrow’s “English Heritage – Humpty Fucking Dumpty”

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Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

(Humpty Dumpty, English nursery rhyme)

Denslow's Humpty Dumpty
Denslow’s Humpty Dumpty

Is it an egg, or is it a man?

This is a reasonable question when it comes to Humpty Dumpty.

Bill Woodrow is an English sculptor who gave his own answer to the question, by creating in 1987 the work “English Heritage – Humpty Fucking Dumpty”.

I saw Woodrow’s work at London’s London Royal Academy of Arts in January 2014. I was impressed by his ability to play with and transform everyday life objects into a contemplative story. This is why I write this note to present and discuss “Humpty Fucking Dumpty”. In what follows I have drawn heavily form the Tate curator’s notes (1).

 

Humpty Fucking Dumpty 1987 Bill Woodrow born 1948 Purchased 1987
Humpty Fucking Dumpty 1987 Bill Woodrow born 1948 Tate Gallery, London Purchased 1987

Woodrow attended St Martin’s School of Art (1968-71) and Chelsea School of Art (1971-2) in London where he rebelled against the formalist abstraction prevalent in sculpture at that time. At the end of the 1970s he began working with discarded household furniture and other objects to create incongruous juxtapositions often giving rise to allegorical or metaphorical readings. (1)

The sculpture should be seen in the context of the elevation of history and ‘heritage’ as a political value in Britain. (2)

Bill Woodrow
Bill Woodrow

This work consists of a wooden vaulting box that has been pulled apart like a concertina. Each constituent piece of wood is propped open at alternate ends by the insertion of a small object, most of which were made by the artist. The objects are intended to symbolize human progress, creating what Woodrow calls ‘a section through history’. (1)

 

Plough
Plough

Starting from the bottom, the lowest object represents a wheeled plough which denotes both the invention of the wheel and the early importance of agriculture. In conversation with a Tate curator in March 1992, 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’. (1)

 

Book
Book

 

The second object used to wedge open the vaulting box is the representation of a book. (1)

The artist has described this as a leap forward in history, signifying ‘the dissemination of knowledge or development of the intellect … It was the beginning of some network of communication and knowledge’ (quoted in Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, Tate Gallery, London 1996, p.517). (1)

Woodrow is very keen to use books in his works. The book I recall most vividly is the bench in “Sitting on History”.

Bill Woodrow: Sitting on History
Bill Woodrow: Sitting on History

‘Sitting on History,’ with its ball and chain, refers to the book as a receptacle of information. History is filtered through millions of pages of writing, making the book the major vehicle for research and study. Woodrow proposes that although one absorbs knowledge, one appears to have great difficulty in changing one’s behaviour as a result. (3)

Clocking-in machine
Clocking-in machine

The third motif is a clocking-in machine which is intended to invoke the industrial revolution. (1)

Bill Woodrow, Elephant, 1984, Tate Galley
Bill Woodrow, Elephant, 1984, Tate Galley

Woodrow is not soft on industrialisation. In his 1984 “Elephant”, we can see the relics of industrialisation forming a deadly circle around the gun carrying elephant.

Radiation box
Radiation box

The fourth object, and the only one not made by the artist, is a box which he painted yellow and black with radiation hazard markings to ‘signify the nuclear era’, which makes reference to both nuclear power and nuclear war. Woodrow has commented that he was also thinking about the damage to the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, then part of the Soviet Union, which occurred the year before in 1986. (1)

This radiation box is the agent of instability and destruction. What up to this level has been benign, stable, and controllable, now assumes uncontrollable dimensions and has a clear touch of evil.

The Iran P5+1 negotiations on Iran’s nuclear weapons program testify to the evil factor that has been unleashed by the WWII victors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Bill Woodrow: Endeavour: Cannon dredged from the first wreck of the Ship of Fools, 1995
Bill Woodrow: Endeavour: Cannon dredged from the first wreck of the Ship of Fools, 1995

Weapons of destruction appear often in Woodrow’s work. In 1995 Woodrow sculpted a cannon dredged from the first wreck of the ship of fools.

This is the tenth sculpture in Woodrow’s series devoted to the theme of the ‘Ship of Fools’, a commentary on the foolishness of mankind, wrapped in wry humour. ‘Endeavour’ comprises uncomfortably penetrating insights into human nature, particularly, mankind’s seeming inability to learn from experience. (4) 

Bill Woodrow, The Swallow, 1984
Bill Woodrow, The Swallow, 1984

Back in 1984, Woodrow sculpted “The Swallow”, a rather ambivalent work, in the sense that there may still be the possibility of escape from the inevitability of massive destruction.

 

Humpty Dumpty
Humpty Dumpty

 

The figure of Humpty Dumpty was placed on top of the structure to further add to the sense of its precariousness. With this addition of Humpty Dumpty, Woodrow accepted that the sculpture had specifically English connotations. For him, it ‘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’ (quoted in Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, p.518). (1)

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

Woodrow seems to contemplate this great fall, and anticipates it. But he is not a doom and gloom prophet, he is simply a realist.

It is in this context that “English Heritage” comes into play.

Woodrow sounds sarcastic when he uses the word “fucking” in the title. Making a play with words, he appears to denigrate Humpty Dumpty, when in fact he does so to the prevalent notion of “English Heritage”.

Moreover, by using the words ‘English Heritage’ in the title, Woodrow refers not to the institution of the same name, but to the concept of his own heritage. He has commented on the way in which 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’ (quoted in Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, p.518). Woodrow felt that nostalgic jingoism was particularly prevalent in the 1980s, prompted in part by the Falklands War in 1982. By employing the word ‘fucking’ in the title, the artist is being openly critical of this attitude. The word is used to denote a sense of anger and despair at the state of the nation. It was also a reaction against what he saw as the moralistic atmosphere of the period. (1)

Bill Woodrow at the RA in London
Bill Woodrow at the RA in London

Sources

(1) English Heritage – Humpty Fucking Dumpty 1987, Tate Gallery 

(2) The Oxford Index

(3) Bill Woodrow: Sitting on History

(4) Endeavour: Cannon dredged from the first wreck of the Ship of Fools