An east London statue which is also a monument to the work of an earlier sculptor.
Woman with Fish, (1951) was acquired by London County Council in 1963, and was the work of Frank Dobson (1886-1963), raised in east London. Most famous for his bronze heads, including Osbert Sitwell, and for London Pride, one of very few survivals from the 1951 Festival of Britain that is still on the site at South Bank.
Woman with Fish was installed as public art to enhance the Cleveland Estate in Whitechapel, as part of LCC’s Patronage of the Arts scheme – (both LCC and the Scheme are long defunct).2Dobson created another Woman with Fish which was exhibited at the Battersea Park Public Sculpture Exhibition in 1951, and later removed to Delapre Abbey Northampton, where it is still situated. For more information about the LCC scheme, see ‘The LCC and the Arts: The Open Air Sculpture Exhibitions’, Municipal Dreams, 2015.
The statue’s purpose was functional as well as aesthetic – the fish doubled up as a water fountain – but it seemed to have its detractors, as it was subject to numerous acts of vandalism until its final removal in 2002.
This may explain why the replacement was installed in the quieter location of the southern tip of the Isle of Dogs. Woman and Fish by Antonio Lopez Reche (2007) commissioned by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, was cast at the Bronze Age Casting Foundry in Limehouse, bolstering its east London credentials.
While it is sympathetic to the original work, the figure has more rounded features, and the fish doesn’t dispense any water. Antonio Lopez Reche completed his work after studying London Pride and other works by Dobson and offering his own interpretation. It’s an homage, not a replica.
Its setting is also less densely urban. It is surrounded by its own small garden and sits against a backdrop of the green space of Millwall Park, one of the early homes of Millwall FC. (The area at the time was confusingly known as North Greenwich, after its railway station.)3Millwall Extension Railway, Isle of Dogs: Past Life, Past Lives, 2016.
Behind it, a row of trees leads up to the famous Mudchute Park and Farm. Beyond that are the towers of Canary Wharf.
To the left lies the second attempt at Island Gardens DLR station. The first was carried along the nineteenth century arches of the Millwall Extension Railway, until the extension under the river in the 1990s demanded a station below ground.
The people of Whitechapel want their statue back, and with justification.4Plans for the redevelopment of Frank Dobson Square and surroundings include a photoshopped Woman and Fish on p6, hinting at a possible revival. If it comes to pass, it will be a replica of the original Dobson work, leaving this woman and her fish in the tranquility of the park.