The Scallop sits on the beach at Aldeburgh, in Suffolk. It is a 13 foot-ish (4 metre) high monument, by local-born artist Maggi Hambling, to the late Benjamin Britten, composer and past Aldeburgh resident, who used to take his afternoon walks along the beach. The sculpture consists of two, broken, interlocking scallop shells. Cut into the rim of the upright shell are the words “I hear those voices that will not be drowned” from Britten’s opera Peter Grimes. The Scallop was installed in 2003. It is rumoured to have cost around £75,000 and was paid for by donations, largely due to the fund-raising efforts of the Chairman of Adnams plc (who brew rather fine ales).
I think this is an arresting piece of art and, during an A Bit About Britain expedition to East Anglia, the team made a point of visiting it. On a warm September evening, The Scallop looked simply beautiful, its surfaces catching and reflecting the sunlight. We crunched our way across the shingle toward it and it tolerantly allowed a queue of people to take its photograph. I’d like to see The Scallop in different seasons though, especially when the North Sea is at its worst. Maggi Hambling described it as “‘a conversation with the sea”.
“An important part of my concept is that at the centre of the sculpture, where the sound of the waves and the winds are focused, a visitor may sit and contemplate the mysterious power of the sea.”
So The Scallop is, appropriately, a piece of audio art as well as a visual one. It has been suggested that the ear is like a shell, so the Scallop is an image of listening. From personal experience, I can also say that you want to touch it; I did, anyway.
Just to show I’ve done my homework, and in case anyone’s bored, a scallop shell often symbolises the feminine, fertility and love. It has been used as a symbol of the Goddess Venus, of pilgrims, pilgrimage and saints – particularly of the Camino de Santiago in Galicia and St James himself – and it often appears as a heraldic device.
In any event, I rather liked Maggi Hambling’s Scallop and was very surprised to discover that its installation at Aldeburgh caused considerable controversy. Some felt that it would ruin the beach, or be unsafe. As to the latter, it is made of 10mm thick stainless steel and designed to withstand 100mph winds; it ain’t going anywhere in a hurry. With regard to its opponents, The Daily Telegraph in 2004 reported Jacki McNeil of the Aldeburgh Gazette saying:
“There has been so little support for this thing in the town. The depth of feeling cuts right across every section of this town, from the fishermen to people like knights and peers of the realm. It’s seen as an act of sheer arrogance to place this in the middle of one of the only bits of untouched beach in the area, and a bit of coast which is very deeply loved by local people. I’m incensed by it. Who do they think they are?”
Strong words. Humphrey Burton, the former head of music and arts at BBC Television (so he obviously knows a thing or two), wrote in a letter to The Guardian:
“It’s hard to keep silent when one’s regular walk by the open sea has been so casually violated. A peaceful and honourable solution ought to be found before vandalism rears its ugly head. I’ve heard talk of its being toppled, Saddam-like, at dead of night.”
It seems Mr Burton was prophetic. The Scallop has been vandalised several times, with someone daubing imaginative and witty expressions of distaste on it, such as “It’s an old tin can” and “Move it.” On one occasion, the vandal left an opened tin of paint behind (magnolia non-drip gloss, in case you’re interested), as well as the screwdriver used to open the tin. Police are hunting someone who last decorated their house in the 1980s; I’d start with Mr Burton.
The Torygraph’s retired drama critic, Charles Spencer, described The Scallop as “ugly”, “kitsch” and, without a trace of theatrical hyperbole (or accuracy), went on to refer to it as a “hideous pile of rusting scrap metal on that beautifully desolate curve of shingle.”
Well, arguably, the point of art is to create debate. Or is it? And, of course, the appreciation of art is a matter of personal taste. Sadly, the object of the art in this case, to commemorate Benjamin Britten, might have been forgotten in all the excitement. Amusingly, Maggi Hambling actually published a book about The Scallop’s story – good for her – art on art – hopefully, profit on profit. Curiously, the internet revealed few quotes from supporters; but there’s nothing controversial about being nice and, anyway, the sculpture’s still there so the critics lost.
But the brouhaha caught my eye, initially because in this troubled world of ours it is so clearly a trivial matter. Our civilisation can afford the luxury of debating the perceived relative merits of baubles. Then, having visited Aldeburgh, I got to wondering what all the fuss was about. It is a lovely stretch of beach and the sea, depending on its mood, makes it both serene and exhilarating; but, to be fair, as decent beaches go, Aldeburgh’s is fairly unexceptional. Moreover, if you look north past Thorpeness, you get a great view of the very fetching Sizewell B nuclear power station further up the coast. Hmm. Most importantly, Aldeburgh itself, great place though it is, is far from perfect. Nothing that a selective bit of bulldozing and refurbishment wouldn’t cure, but you get my point. A sense of proportion thereby restored, I think The Scallop actually enhances the beach and, moreover, that the good folk of Aldeburgh (population 3,000+) are lucky to have this additional crowd-puller. Most people love it.
While we’re about it, something should be done about people leaving decaying fishing boats on an otherwise unspoilt beach. Or is it art?