Birkenhead’s Cammell Laird, one of the mightiest names in shipbuilding, not only built two Ark Royals, a fleet of submarines, cruise liners and destroyers, it practically built the town around it. Its industrious workforce might well want to be remembered as muscle bound shipwrights, hammering steel and iron in the dry dock furnaces of Birkenhead. But when they weren’t riveting warships together they were making dinky little buckets which splashed and sprayed like a baby on freshly laid Pampers.
And so, with some irony, the great shipbuilder’s legacy in Liverpool is not some moored-up Dazzle Ship or the scything profile of a great liner, but Beetham Plaza’s ‘Bucket Fountain’. For it was the men of Lairds who welded this sculpture to life, over forty years ago.
Yet it’s a miracle the Bucket Fountain is still with us. In the crazy 60s, kinetic sound-sculptures like this could be found soaking civic squares from Wellington to Seattle. But delicate-eared locals objected to them, complaining that they sounded too much like flushing toilets.
To us, they had an altogether different resonance. They represented the turbulence and unpredictability of waves – or, at least, that’s what Welsh sculptor, Richard Huws envisaged when he created the piece. And us, being the poetic, seafaring types, bought it – hook line and plunger.
“It is a waterfall of a strange new kind,” Huws told the Merseyside Civic Society when the piece was installed. “Instead of streaming steadily, water hurtles down unexpectedly in detatched lumps in all directions.”
Huws was a man with previous form. He created a stunning 43-foot high water sculpture at the Festival of Britain in 1951 and, today examples of his work can be seen in Tokyo and New York, although precious little remains intact in the UK.
Water was, most definitely, Huws’ thing. Which is another irony in this little tale. For Huws, and his patchwork-artist wife Edrica lived in darkest Anglesey with neither electricity nor running water, throughout the 1960s.
“The sight and sound of waterfalls is so spellbinding that they have always been centres of attraction in the landscape, and in the places where we work we are prompted to create them artificially,” Huws said, adding that the ‘perpetual bubblings’ of man-made fountains bored him to tears. For him, there had to be a twist.
“To make it more exciting we contrive various means of providing additional animation, a very simple device which interrupts the regular flow, so as to create a round of action. The sound and movement of which is no longer that of the ever-monotonous bubbling river, but that of the restless, temperamental sea…”
Recently the sculpture has been given a lick of paint, and a new lease of watery life. And, if you’re lucky, it’s sometimes turned on!
Originally destined for some nameless new town in Lancashire, the Arts Council stepped in and contributed £750 towards the Merseyside Civic Society’s campaign to have the sculpture relocated along the banks of the Mersey – on the site of the old Goree Warehouse. And, should you be brave enough to get close, you’ll notice an African shield on the base. If you’re not, the shield’s inscription reads:
“Originally two arcaded warehouses in the middle of the old dock road was named after the island ‘Goree’ off the west coast of Africa. On the 14th September 1822, the Piazza was gutted by a spectacular fire, described byThomas De Quincy. In 1817 Washington Irving worked at the American Consul in Liverpool, had his office at Washington House – Goree.
“The old Piazza wa severely bombed in the air raids of 1941 and finally demolished between 1948 and 1950. In 1967, to mark the completion of the new piazza this plaque was kindly presented by Cammell Laird and Co, builders of the fountain.”
What a shame the tipping buckets weren’t around then. Could have saved a heck of a lot of trouble. Although, chances are, they’d have been turned off then too.
• Piazza Fountain (1967) Drury Lane (Beetham Plaza), off Fenwick Street.