BBC Collections - Art
Works of art commissioned by the BBC
The small art collection held by the BBC consists mainly of works commissioned as part of our buildings – from the famous 1932 statues of Ariel and Prospero at Broadcasting House, via the 1960 John Piper mosaic at Television Centre to the 2010 metal and glass sculpture Breathing by Jaume Plensa at New Broadcasting House.
In addition, artworks reflect some of the key personalities that inspired and led the Corporation, as well as the major moments of creative programming.
Prospero and Ariel statue - Eric Gill
Over the front entrance of Broadcasting House stand the statues of Prospero and Ariel (from Shakespeare's last play The Tempest), by Eric Gill. Prospero, Ariel's master, stands 10ft tall and is depicted sending Ariel out into the world. Ariel, as the spirit of the air, was felt to be an appropriate symbol for the new mystery of broadcasting.
After Broadcasting House was opened and the statues were installed (1933), concern was voiced about the size of the sprite’s genitalia. A question was tabled in the House of Commons, but the popular story, that Gill was ordered to modify the statue, is not substantiated.
The Sower statue - Eric Gill
In the main reception at Broadcasting House is Eric Gill's The Sower, a man broadcasting seed. The statue, made of English marble (Hopton Wood Stone) stands 8ft 7 in tall in a niche by the doors leading to the artists' lobby and studios. A pedestal supports the statue, and bears the inscription "Deus Incrementu Dat" ("God giveth the increase", Corinthians, chapter 3, verse 7). The art collection also includes a Gill sketch of the work.
George Orwell statue - Martin Jennings
This is the first public statue of the writer George Orwell in the UK. It stands here in the piazza of Broadcasting House as tribute to this seminal figure of 20th century journalism.
A quote from Orwell’s introduction to Animal Farm - If Liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear - is carved on the wall to one side of the statue.
The statue is in bronze and was created by acclaimed sculptor Martin Jennings, whose recent work includes the famous statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras station and the statue of Philip Larkin outside the Royal Station Hotel in Hull.
Le Poète tapestry - Jean Lurçat
In April 1949 the French government presented the BBC with a large tapestry, Le Poète (The Poet), which was hung in Broadcasting House. It was designed by Jean Lurçat and made by Messrs Aubusson, on behalf of the French people as a thank you for the BBC's wartime broadcasting. Lurçat is said to have developed the design from verses of a poem, Liberté, by Paul Éluard.
The Manchester Guardian said, at the time of the presentation, that the image represented a member of the Maquis, hidden in a leafy grotto, receiving a carrier pigeon and a fish, "symbolic of the information which arrived by air and from couriers who landed in submarines!"
John Reith portrait - Oswald Birley
Early in 1933 the Board of Governors passed a resolution congratulating Sir John Reith on 10 years' service, and they proposed that he accept an oil painting (to be commissioned) of himself. The original would be for him, and a replica would hang in Broadcasting House. Oswald Birley (later Sir Oswald) was chosen for the task.
The original has hung over the fire place in the Council Chamber in Broadcasting House for many years, although during the refurbishment of the building it was exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery. The replica is in a public gallery in Scotland. Earlier Birley, who studied under Marcel Baschet in Paris, had painted King George V for the National Museum of Wales.
John Reith bust – Kathleen Scott
John Reith was the first Director-General of the BBC, a role he held for eleven years. He created the template for public service broadcasting, and gave the fledgling BBC its mission: ‘to inform, educate and entertain’.
This bust is in bronze and was created in 1929 by Kathleen Scott, wife of the famous Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott.
Radio Theatre friezes - Gilbert Bayes
Gilbert Bayes (1872 - 1953) was commissioned to create 12 friezes for the walls of the Concert Hall (now the Radio Theatre) in Broadcasting House. The carvings on the western wall are of classical scenes such as poetry, dancing and music. Those on the opposite wall depict modern scenes.
Bayes, who studied in London and worked in France and Italy, is best-known for his Queen of Time (1908), which supports the clock above the main entrance of Selfridge's in London's Oxford Street.
Radio Theatre painting – Stephen B Whatley
This artwork by British artist Stephen B Whatley captures the iconic Radio Theatre in Broadcasting House, the largest performance space/studio in the building.
Whatley’s vibrant oil paintings of both places and people are in numerous public and private collections. All his work is characterised by a flamboyant use of colour, in particular a striking use of red – as well as his typical loose and fluid brushstrokes. See also the painting of Television Centre below.
Henry Wood bust - unknown artist
This bronze bust of Sir Henry Wood (1869-1944) used to be on permanent display at Henry Wood House, the building named after him. Since the BBC left the building, it is now on display in Broadcasting House reception.
Research continues on the identity of the artist, but the piece should not be confused with the 1936 bust of Sir Henry Wood by Donald Gilbert which is loaned to the BBC by the Royal Academy of Music for display at the Prom concerts in the Royal Albert Hall.
Henry Wood conducted the first Proms season in 1895, and then made the Proms his life's work and for many years was the sole conductor. The BBC took over responsibility for the Proms in 1927. Queen's Hall, home of the Proms for many years, was destroyed in the London Blitz, as was St. George's Hall which also used to play host to BBC orchestras.
Breathing sculpture - Jaume Plensa
Breathing is a 10 metre high (33 feet) inverted glass spire, rising from the fifth floor roof of the Peel Wing wing of Broadcasting House. The sculpture is by Catalan artist, Jaume Plensa, and is shaped like a listening glass, reflecting the artist's interest in a building which is 'a house of sounds'.
During the hours of darkness the cone is lit so that it glows; then in tandem with the 10 o'clock news bulletin, a fine beam of light projects 900 metres (3,000 feet) into the night sky. Importantly, the sculpture stands as a very specific memorial for the many news reporters and crew - both BBC and non-BBC - who have died while on location for their work.
World pavement – Mark Pimlott
World is a pavement artwork in the public piazza of Broadcasting House, created by the Canadian artist Mark Pimlott. It is inspired by the role of BBC as a global broadcaster.
Its surface describes an imaginary fragment of the globe, marked with lines of longitude and latitude and the names of hundreds of places. The names inscribed on the pavement have been chosen and positioned by the artist based on his personal knowledge, memories and fantasies. As the visitor walks across its surface, he or she is likewise invited to think about how they make sense of the world.
Lights scattered across its surface suggest the habitats of Man as they might be seen from high above, or the stars of the Milky Way in a flight of one’s imagination.
Broadcasting House watercolour - Cyril Farey
Cyril Farey was one of the leading architectural draughtsman of his time, as well as a practising architect and watercolourist. This is one of the earliest images of Broadcasting House: a pencil and watercolour dated 1938, and one of the gems of the BBC Art Collection.
It shows an atypical perspective of the building: from the West, with no prominent facade or statuary. Instead, we see the sleek elevation of Portland Place, replete with gliding cars and the bustle of visitors to the Radio Theatre.
Helios sculpture - TB Huxley-Jones
Helios, the sun god of Greek mythology, is a 3 metre high gilded bronze figure designed by TB Huxley-Jones. It symbolises the radiation of television light around the world and stands the centre of the BBC Television Centre courtyard. Below the fountain bowl are two reclining figures which represent sound and vision.
It remains as the centrepiece of the "doughnut" at the redeveloped Television Centre complex and is now part of the public space, having reverted to its original function as a fountain.
Television Centre mural - John Piper
This mural was commissioned by the BBC, as part of the original design for Television Centre (completed 1960). John Piper chose deliberately abstract visuals for the mural, and wanted it to be indivisible from the fabric of the space. He said at the time of its inception: 'It does something physical towards uniting decoration and architecture because it is, in itself, a building material part of a wall and one with the wall'.
John Piper (1903-1992) was a prolific painter, war artist, and stage/set designer is considered to be one of the most significant British artists of the 20th Century. His mural is part of the wider listed area of Television Centre and, along with Eros, has been preserved as one of the main features of the re-developed building.
Television Centre watercolour - Frank Weemys
Television Centre, designed by Graham Dawbarn, was the first ever purpose-built television building to be commissioned in the world, although ABC Television in Australia, and the Granada studios in Manchester actually opened before. This picture depicts the architect's original visualisation of the Centre. The BBC's quest for a new site on which to build new studios began almost immediately after WW2, in 1946.
Progress was slow, however, and it was not until the early 1950s that plans evolved. In 1956 Frank Weemys, produced this watercolour of what the building might eventually look like, hinting at the space age design and glamour that would characterise the centre. The picture was exhibited in The Royal Academy exhibition of 1956.
Television Centre painting –Stephen B Whatley
This artwork by British artist Stephen B Whatley captures the iconic BBC Television Centre (painted in 1994).
Whatley’s vibrant oil paintings of both places and people are in numerous public and private collections. All his work is characterised by a flamboyant use of colour, in particular a striking use of red – as well as his typical loose and fluid brushstrokes.
Television Rehearsal - Harry Rutherford
One of the earliest paintings to depict the new world of television, Television Rehearsal was painted by Harry Rutherford (1903-1985) in the late 1930s and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1939. It shows a costume drama in mid production at Alexandra Palace.
Harry Rutherford was an unusual artist, who worked across fine art, commercial illustration and topical cartoons. He was introduced to the new world of television when he was working on a cover illustration for The Listener. An enterprising BBC producer then asked him to illustrate the TV show, Cabaret Cartoons as an on set illustrator. Then, following WW2, he hosted his own children's TV show, Sketchbook, pioneering art live on TV.