Scythian pagan rituals may have informed this rarely seen set of monumental sculptures, cast using experimental concrete techniques.
In 1964, acclaimed British sculptor William Mitchell created a magnificent work of art for the British Cement Association in Wexham Springs, Buckinghamshire. Seeing photos of that sculpture on the internet for the first time was somewhat unsettling : those haunting, scarecrow-like figures fixing their ceramic stares at me sent a slight shiver down my spine, like primitive spirits channelling their supernatural powers through the mist of epochs forgotten. Who were those giants, fanning out their plumage, their ancient barnacles threatening from decades-old, faded polaroids and slightly blown exposures? Was there a method to this madness?
William Mitchell in the 60s
In the 1960s, the London County Council – Britain’s most powerful and visionary municipal authority – had embarked on a wide ranging housing and urban transformation programme. With new towns and high rises emerging in London and the periphery, public art was seen as one of the pillars of the new social identity forming in the nation’s rapidly changing neighbourhoods. On that basis, the progressive work of sculptors like Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, and William Mitchell was in high demand at municipal projects in London and elsewhere. Modern works of art imparted an aesthetic enrichment to contemporary urban living, and became cultural centrepieces designed to bind those newly formed communities together. In 1959, Mitchell was appointed a Design Consultant in LCC’s Housing Department, collaborating directly with architects to create works of art for public housing. In his own words, art needed to “give a sense of the international, community and place” to these emerging public spaces.
The British Cement Association (today NBS) was the trade and research body that represented the interests of Britain’s cement industry. The BCA had been founded in 1935 to “provide a technical information service to cement users and to encourage and promote a high standard of concrete design and construction.” Concrete was in vogue as a construction material at the time, and the BCA at the epicentre of the ongoing research and utilisation of the material. When they decided to commission new artworks for their wonderfully landscaped research station in Wexham Springs – originally designed in 1947 by Goffrey Jellicoe, Sylvia Crowe et. al. – they invited William Mitchell. It is possible that Mitchell’s involvement with the LCC prompted the invite to create his astonishing free standing sculpture at the BCA site, which according to Pevsner & Williamson (1994) became “.. his principal freestanding work, a piece of powerful and bizarre imagination.”
The station was partially demolished in 1995, and its grounds shared between the Teikyo School and the Wexham Springs Business Park, both privately owned. Thankfully, Mitchell’s work for the BCA became Grade II listed in 1998 – albeit hidden away from the public eye, somewhere inside a privately owned conservation area. So it took me a fair amount of digging, mapping, and begging to finally be able to set my eyes upon it.
Legends of the Corn King and the Spring Queen
It was nearing noon as I stood in front of the sculpture of the Corn King and the Spring Queen. At nearly 5 meters tall, the concrete menagerie loomed ominously over me, like concrete totems of a superhuman scale. What kind of dreams, or nightmares might have conjured these strange apparitions, and what’s the story behind them? Well, it is possible that William Mitchell’s inspiration for these mystical, powerful figures came from a 1931 book by Scottish novelist Naomi Mitchison.
Mitchison was a prolific writer of historic fiction, and 1931’s The Corn King and the Spring Queen was widely acclaimed as her most sensational story. It is set in the fantastical Scythian chiefdom of Marob, somewhere at the coast of the Black Sea around the 2nd century BC. The fate of the Marob tribe waxes and wanes as it becomes entangled in the politics and warfare between the ancient superpowers of Sparta and Egypt. Aided by her vivid imagination and a good grasp of classical antiquity, and through constant correspondence with historians, polymaths, and other novelists, Mitchison was able to piece together the life and customs of an ancient Scythian culture about which very little was known in 1931. In fact, many aspects of Scythian culture still puzzle researchers to this day.
The heroine of the book is Erif Der. She’s a young witch, married by her father to the powerful warrior Tarrik. The couple become leaders of the Scythian tribe of Marob, and assume political and ceremonial responsibilities, leading the tribe in times of war and peace. The tribe’s wellbeing is dependent on farming for corn and flax, so the Corn King and his Spring Queen are expected to perform a series of seasonal pagan fertility rituals effectively, if the crops are to be successful… the survival of the tribe in the harsh oncoming winter depends on it.
Dressed in ceremonial gold-plated gowns and masks decorated with flowers and ears of corn, the Corn King & Spring Queen perform a meticulously choreographed procession and dance. Every man, woman, child, and animal participates in the Harvest Day celebrations, engaging in symbolic chanting, ploughing and reaping. During the Harvest Day ritual, Erif Der and Tarrik become psychedelically entranced, transmuting to powerful deities. In their new form, they perform arcane rites that culminate in intercourse and sacrifice.
It is uncertain how Mitchell got acquainted with Mitchison and her work. There’s a certain kinship between them in their mastery and presentation of the abstract as a whole : they both excelled in combining and augmenting extant fragments to present expansive narratives : him in art form, and her in literary form. Naomi Mitchison was a Fabian Socialist, a feminist and an activist who travelled and campaigned tirelessly for causes she believed in. Her fascination and attraction to indigenous lore saw her involved with the Bakgatla people of Botswana, who proclaimed her a tribal mother in 1957. She was certainly a woman who “broke the mould”, not unlike Mitchell who’d set fire to his casts to reveal his work underneath. It is entirely possible that their paths crossed at some point, or at least that they moved in similar artistic, literary, or political circles. Whatever their connection was, it is evident that Mitchell was able to capture Naomi Mitchison’s Scythian fantasy with his artwork, borrowing directly from her imaginary tribal lore, including the very title of her book for his sculpture.
The leftmost creature looks partly avian – its plumage fanning from one side – and displays a single mosaic eye. The strange legend of the Arimaspi comes to mind, the legendary one-eyed tribe that battled with Gryphons, the fantastical part-eagle, part-lion creatures who laid nuggets of gold in their nests. This old Scythian mythological story has survived through the histories of Herodotus, who also described the ritual consumption of cannabis in Scythian death rituals :
…when, therefore, the Scythians have taken some seed of this hemp, they creep under the cloths and put the seeds on the red hot stones; but this being put on smokes, and produces such a steam, that no Grecian vapour-bath would surpass it. The Scythians, transported by the vapour, shout aloud.
Histories, Herodotus 450 BC
Evidence of Scythian tribal spirituality and their engagement with psychotropic substances has been supported by recent archaeological finds, vindicating many of Naomi Mitchison’s assumptions. It is impossible to ascertain the exact overlap between the work of Mitchison and Mitchell, and whether it had a more layered connection than just a shared title. It is evident, however, that Mitchell’s fascination with the themes of the Corn King and Spring Queen endured. His one-eyed Arimaspi and Scythian wizards appeared again in 1968, this time as Salford Uni’s Minut Men – the three totems dubbed Faith, Hope and Charity, created in an manner often referred to as his “Aztec style”.
The Aztec connection isn’t without merit. Much of Mitchell’s work is evidently inspired by Mesoamerican polychromatic relief art, which often depicted an Aztec culture of psychoactive substance-induced trances, culminating in bloodletting and sacrificial rituals. The Corn King and Spring Queen sculpture was once set atop a stepped pedestal which afforded it a prominent position in the BCA lawn – akin to a Mesoamerican pyramid, allowing for some artistic license. The absence of trees and foliage once enhanced the visual narrative of the artwork, while rays of light shining through from behind created a kaleidoscope effect when one looked into the crystal eyes of the middle creature. Scythian, Aztec or otherwise, the mystical ensemble is a showcase of Mitchell’s experimental work, and testament to the creative possibilities of concrete : colourful, inlaid with ceramic, flint, and pebbles, moulded into extraordinary shapes and patterns, sprayed with zinc and polished, or rough and Brutalist.
Unfortunately, the area where the Corn King and Spring Queen is displayed has changed dramatically since the mid 60s. Today, the monumental sculpture is somewhat tucked away in a verdant corner of the lawn, interrupted by innocuous fencing, and in a state of relative disrepair, with visible cracks and fallen-off elements. Yet it remains an extraordinary piece of abstract art which deserves to be reinstated to prominence, hopefully in the near future.
William Mitchell returned to the BCA in 1971 to create another hidden masterpiece. Aptly named Vortex, it is a cylindrical monumental object made of Faircrete, a mix of resin, fiberglass and concrete that allowed the resulting material to be finely sculpted to any shape. Faircrete was invented by William Mitchell, and featured in much of his work, most notably at his Stations of the Cross murals at Clifton Cathedral.
Each panel of the Vortex comes with a different texture. Ribbed and fishbone patterns give way to more elaborate shapes inspired by anything from Mesopotamian cuneiform clay tablets, to Arts & Crafts Damask lozenges – another testament to Mitchell’s far and wide ranging influences. The Vortex is again a monument to the versatility of concrete, and must have fitted right in at the grounds of the British Cement Association’s research facility. This artwork is in excellent condition, without visible cracking, weathering, or deterioration, which might have something to do with the inherent properties of Faircrete. Here’s a sample of the Vortex’s tapestry of textures :
Mitchell’s artworks at Wexham Springs were never commissioned as works of public art, and have always been intended to be displayed privately within the grounds of the British Cement Association. This is why the Corn King and Spring Queen and Vortex are among William Mitchell’s rarely seen works, a fact that certainly adds to the saga. I am hoping that they will be well looked after, and they will continue to manifest the imagination of the artist and the ambition of the period they represent.
- British Cement Association
- Buckinghamshire (1994), by Nicolaus Pevsner and Elizabeth Williamson
- Framewood Road Conservation Area Character Appraisal by South Bucks Council
- Professional Boat Rocker : Naomi Mitchison in Africa by Jenni Calder
- The Corn King and the Spring Queen, listing by Historic England
- William Mitchell : an unacknowledged genius at Joe Blogs : Musings from the Riverside
- William Mitchell : artist, designer, inventor from The Modernist, second issue
- William Mitchell ; The Winstanley Estate and other related articles at the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association
and various other sources and references linked directly in the above text.
Special thanks : Mr Ron Parrish at Vine Property Management and his staff at Wehxam Springs for their assistance