Woman and Fish by Frank Dobson (1886 – 1963) was a sculpture installed at the Cleveland Estate in Whitechapel. It was to be the centerpiece of the new Frank Dobson Square built in 1963. The sculpture stood at the heart of the square at the junction of Cephas Street and Cambridge Heath Road.
Now all that remains of the work is an empty plinth. It suffered damage at various intervals of its life. Formerly a fountain providing drinking water to residents of the area. It was vandalised in 1977 and stopped working. In 1979 it’s head was removed. Following other damage and various restorations it was deemed irreparable and scrapped in 2002. A sad end to a piece of public art meant to enhance the community.
The sculpture itself was created in 1951. Bought by the London County Council in 1963 it was to be the crowning glory of the new development. Named after Frank Dobson who had passed away that same year. He was a renowned British artist who had been born nearby in Clerkenwell. He was considered to be one of the pioneers of modern British Sculpture. Between 1946 and 1953 he was also the professor of sculpture at the Royal College of Art.
The woman and fish theme was something that Frank Dobson explored for a time both in sketches and sculpture. The sculpture in Whitechapel wasn’t the only variant of this theme. A different version of ‘Woman and Fish‘ can still be found in Northamptonshire. This was created at the same time as the London version though presents the woman in a more upright pose. It was bought after being exhibited in 1951 at Battersea Sculpture Park. Placed originally in St Katherine’s Gardens in the centre of Northampton. It was eventually moved in 1978 and it can now be found in the grounds of Delapre Abbey.
Woman and Fish
Frank Dobson square though now stands without its central feature. There have been some calls to move the replica version back to the where the original once stood. It is uncertain however given the history of the original work that this would ever happen. The plinth on which it stood is still there as is the footprint of the old fountain. It all looks quite forlorn.
A copy of his work does exist. In 2006 a replica of the Woman and Fish was commissioned by the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Created by Antonio Lopez Reche. That piece still stands in Millwall Park on the Isle of Dogs. It can be seen near to the Island Gardens DLR station. Reche worked to be as faithful to the original piece as possible though his version does not act as a fountain.
The version in Millwall Park is set in an enclosed garden space. It has the backdrop of the city against it which makes the piece stand out even more. Serene against beds of planted gardens the replica still does have an East End history. It was forged in the bronze foundry at Limehouse. It’s making at least still remembers the industrial history of the area.
The setting though is a far cry from the vision of incorporating public art into the fabric of daily life. Whether that matters is another point. Woman and Fish might not be the same but at least it still stands. By re-creating the piece in Millwall Park it still pays tribute to the history of the area and that aspiration of bringing public art into the places which need it most.
The woman and fish plinth in the Cleveland Estate and the replica sculpture in Millwall Park were both visited during July 2020.