The Genius of Twickenham

Partner Ken Grix discusses Pope’s Urn, a new kinetic sculpture celebrating Alexander Pope, installed by the Thames in the heart of Twickenham.

Copyright Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

Today, Twickenham is famously the home of English rugby but one hundred years before William Webb Ellis had picked up the ball, Twickenham was the home of the creative genius, Alexander Pope. Pope was one of England’s great poets, the most quoted author since Shakespeare, a satirist and inspirational garden designer. To celebrate Pope's work, we were invited by the charity, Poet in the City, to design an ensemble of text-based art at Champions Wharf, a new public garden beside the Thames. The ensemble includes numerous and surprisingly familiar quotations from Pope on seating and a contemporary representation of 'Pope's Urn' bearing the above quotation from Epistle IV. 

The original ‘Pope’s Urn’ was one of several interventions designed by Pope for the gardens of Hagley Hall in Worcestershire and was inscribed with a tribute to Pope upon his death in 1744. The original is now lost, however it was recorded in written descriptions and in a watercolour painting by David Parkes. Given the ambiguity of brushstrokes in the painting, the challenge in representing the lost urn was not to overstate the certainty of its details. I was interested in the honesty of a reductive, implied form rather than a disingenuous pastiche.

The general profile of the painted urn is clearly evident and allowed an idealised form to be modelled with Rhino 3D CAD software. The next step was to slice the digital model with Grasshopper add-on software. The result is an implied form with 80% void. The perceived solidity of the urn transforms through different viewpoints; most transparent from the edges of the site and opaque in close proximity. The physical reality is that 80% of the volume remains ‘lost’. The form and kinetic effects were tested with physical models.

The dimensions of the urn and pedestal are based on the original, standing at 2.5m height. The neoclassical form of the sculpture shares the language of the 18th Century architectural backdrop to Champion’s Wharf; St Mary’s church, where Pope lays buried, and Sundial House, and also more recent neoclassical balustrading which bounds the river frontage of Champion’s Wharf and York House gardens beyond . Naturally weathered Corten steel was chosen as the homogenous material of the sculpture. Corten oxidises to form a protective, maintenance free finish, evolving from rusty yellow into an attractive russet colour and providing an immediate aged appearance. The oxidation will harmonise with the red brick of much of the context, including the church, Sundial House and the garden walls.

The pedestal of the sculpture is welded throughout and the sliced discs of the urn are cantilevered from a slender tubular core and held in compression by a hidden threaded fixing in the finial. The threaded fixing allows maintenance and repair, however, at 5mm thick, the discs are unlikely to be damaged.* *

Inspired by Pope’s use of urns in garden design, the kinetic sculpture provides an intriguing focal point for the new landscaping of Champion’s Wharf. Furthermore, the focus of the arc of seating, the orientation towards sunshine and river views, the classical language, the accelerated entropy and harmonising hue, the chorus of signifiers of a Pope narrative and the close proximity to his burial place, all enhance the genius of the place.

Ken Grix

Image Captions: 

1. South elevation  ©G. Bell

2. South wide view ©G. Bell

3. Pope’s Urn watercolour by David Parkes ©Shropshire Records Office

4. Rhino 3D CAD images ©FCBS

5. Pope’s Urn model and as built ©FCBS

6. East view ©G. Bell

7. Dame Harriet Walter reading Pope  ©G.Bell

8. Aerial  ©FCBS