Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Decorating the Central Belt 1: Kilsyth and Tom Whalen

Kilsyth Academy (now in North Lanarkshire) was designed by Basil Spence and constructed either side of the Second World War. In September 1948, just as building recommenced after a nine year break, a model of the school was shown at the 'New Schools' Exhibition at the McLellan Galleries, Glasgow. The exhibition organisers, the Scottish Committee of the Council of Industrial Design and the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, were 'both convinced that Mr Spence's design may well set an entirely new standard for school construction in the country. Emphasis is all on sunlight both in classrooms and in the grounds...' (The Scotsman, 16 September 1948).

On a hilltop overlooking the town and Kilsyth valley, the Academy appeared as a functionalist castle rising up from a series of landscaped terraces and dominated by a high cuboid clock tower.

The rendered latter was adorned with an emblematic clock (note the symbols of learning), and a relief of 'Education' by Tom Whalen.

The relief, with its flattened symmetrical figures, acts as a counterpoint to the large rectangular hall and stair window beside it. Both are enclosed within the same cement surround. Whalen's large carving shows a couple in profile standing on a voluted pedestal presenting their infant son to the sun (world, universe...). The full frontal nude boy is lifted effortlessly up, his arms and face raised to the sky. Defying gravity he perches on the fruitladen boughs of a stylised tree (of knowledge? of life?), with fluted column trunk.

Whatever their religious-secular-education associations, the simplified figures recall Whalen's pre-war 'Mother and Child' fountain at Prestonfield Primary School, Edinburgh (see post of 3 February 2011) while the 'sun-worship' posing suggests that of the symbolic bronze ballerina with which he adorned the then new (now demolished) Dalkeith High School in 1960 (moved to new Dalkeith High School in 2004). Taken together these three commissions, completed over a period of twenty-five years, mark Whalen out as the foremost sculptor for mid-twentieth century Scottish schools.

The photographs of Dalkeith are reproduced courtesy of RCAHMS. Andrew D and I visited Kilsyth on 30 September 2011. We are grateful to Headteacher Gillian Caldwell and Depute Head Paul Reilly for their invaluable guidance and insights.

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