Physician's eye view of city heritage

SHAUN LOWTHORPE For many years the famous statue of Sir Thomas Browne has looked lost in thought amid the bustle of Norwich's Hay Hill. But now a major new art project is creating a room for some views for the rest of us based on the renowned physician's works.

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

By SHAUN LOWTHORPE

Public affairs correspondent

For many years the famous statue of Sir Thomas Browne has looked lost in thought amid the bustle of Norwich's Hay Hill.

But now a major art project is creating a 'room' with some views for the rest of us, based on the renowned physician's works.

Designed by French sculptors Anne and Patrick Poirier the aim is to produce a room incorporating the spirit of Dr Browne, whose body is buried in neighbouring St Peter Mancroft.

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The £199,000 scheme, which will be their first UK work, was paid for back in 2003 thanks to a £148,000 grant from the Arts Council, plus £31,000 from the city council and £20,000 from the county council.

Based on the works and musings of Sir Thomas, who lived in Hay Hill until his death in 1682, it features a giant marble brain, and large eye with granite seats and tables engraved with some of his writings and phrases.

His coffin was accidentally reopened by workmen in 1835 and the skull removed until reinterred in 1922, although the artists do not specifically state that the giant brain sculpture reflects that incident.

The different elements are arranged following the 'quinconce', or five-shaped principle, one of the concepts Sir Thomas studied, with four pieces at each corner marking out a rectangle and another in the middle.

Pink and blue lighting aims to create a mystical effect at night.

Currently stored in Italy before installation next year, the work will be shipped to the city to coincide with the start of Contemporary Art Norwich festival.

It was the Arts Council which first approached City Hall with the grant offer for a major public art work back in 2000 as the council was vying to be a city of culture.

Hay Hill was the third choice venue for the scheme, which was redesigned twice, after plans to site it at the Forum were rejected and a second attempt to site the project in the Market Place hit the buffers after the £4.5m refurbishment project was beset by delays.

That saw a switch to Sir Thomas as the main theme of the work and, in a description of the project, the artists said they wanted to create a room for reflection and thought.

"Hay Hill is a very important historical place in Norwich and the personality of the foremost physician is deeply attached to this area," they said. "Our wish is that people will have the curiosity to stop and sit, reflect, eat or read a good book, maybe by Thomas Browne, and to have their own thoughts," they said.

"We want to create a new space, another spirit for Hay Hill, a place to dream, a strange mystical atmosphere incorporating the spirit of Thomas Browne."

Brenda Ferris, deputy leader of Norwich City Council, said the scheme would give a new focus to the area.

"I think it's very exciting that we are getting this major new work of public art, the first by these artists in Britain," she said. "It will complement all the good work going on at the moment to raise Norwich's profile as a cultural capital of East Anglia.

But she admitted that the work would have its fans and detractors while its arrival marks the end for those market stalls currently on Hay Hill - though City Hall had already planned their relocation as part of the market revamp. And it is still to be seen whether the sculptures will stimulate the imaginations of vandals and graffiti artists. However, it is hoped that the area will be monitored by CCTV.

"Contemporary art is always controversial," she added. "But this is aimed at enhancing one of Norwich's prime public spaces.

"I remember when it looked very different, with limes and the lawn in the middle. We are a dynamic city and Norwich has always been good at combining old and new. There will still be people using the space for performances and they could include it in what they are doing.

"We're very pleased and proud that we will be getting this work."

And maybe Sir Thomas himself would have raised a wry smile at the idea.