As the Broadmarsh Centre begins to take on its new form, what better time to take a look back over the shoulder at yesteryear and one of the shopping centre’s most beloved features – the three wooden play sculptures that used to reside there: a frog, a caterpillar and a horse.
An Evening Post supplement from November 1974, promoting the shopping centre (which finally received its official opening in March 1975), noted that, ‘Ever since the first shop opened in Lister Gate Square more than two years ago children have been swarming over, into and along the play sculptures provided for their pleasure … Shiny and smooth they give slithering delight to children who often queue up to take turns on a favoured animal.’ A special Nottingham Topic publication, meanwhile, remarked that, ‘…a series of ostensibly wooden ‘sculptures’ are, in fact, play animals which the children obviously appreciate as they scramble in and out of them quite safely.’
The Post supplement also reveals that, ‘The policy is to move the sculptures around the centre, giving each area its turn’, which explains why we Nottingham folk often have varying memories as to where exactly they were located.
The three animals were made from West African hardwood by sculptor Peter Hand, whose name deserves to be far better known in these parts, his work having brought pleasure and lasting memories to many thousands of Nottinghamians of a certain age.
Peter, who lives in Dorset, was, in fact, commissioned to produce a total of 35 such sculptures for shopping centres across the land between 1965 and 1986, among them two others that many locals will recall – the tubular grasshopper and snake play sculptures that used to be in the Victoria Centre.
Peter received his first commission – for an Arndale Centre in Poole – when he was teaching at a nearby college with a colleague who knew one of the developer’s architects. The wooden animals produced for this commission included a hippo, a turtle, a whale and a snake. The animals were removed from the centre in 1997 for – yes, you’ve guessed it – health and safety reasons, but the hippo, turtle and whale were donated to Poole Park some years later. Unfortunately, the snake was in a poor condition and had to be disposed of.
Peter himself always chose which animals to provide for a particular commission, sometimes aiming to reflect the locality – ducks for a shopping centre in Aylesbury, for example – though the Nottingham animals were not inspired by any particular local connection. He installed most of his play sculptures personally and recalls that, when the Broad Marsh (two words back then) animals were initially put in place, none of the shops had been opened. He still has the maquette (a preliminary model) of the frog, which he thinks turned out to be the most popular of the three animals. Each sculpture took around 3 months to produce.
Sometimes, after one of his creations had just been installed, Peter noticed that parents would try to stop their children from playing on it, but that their young ones soon figured out that that was what it was there for. The sculptures rarely caused any problems, though Peter does recall some parents at Brent Cross Shopping Centre being distinctly unimpressed that their children were refusing to budge from the interior of a caterpillar and had to be lured out with promises of ice cream!
Sadly, Peter isn’t aware of any of his works still being in place in a shopping centre, but he is always curious as to their fate and does find it upsetting if they vanish or are not properly cared for. Attempts are occasionally made by people around the country to discover what happened to his much-loved creations (an apparently unsuccessful campaign to discover the whereabouts of Southend’s ‘Lobbie the Lobster’, for example) – a testament to the enduring memories that people have of these play sculptures.
So whatever happened to the wooden animals here in Nottingham? No information has so far come to light about the fate of the frog and the horse (which, incidentally, was one of the sculptures that Peter was most pleased with). The caterpillar, however, was donated to Mellers Primary School in Radford, where, according to Headteacher Amanda Dawson, it was much loved and played with before finally being ‘put to sleep’ 4 or 5 years ago, after it had become unsafe and the school was unable to find an organisation willing to adopt and renovate it.
Intriguingly, Peter recalls producing a fourth Nottingham wooden play sculpture – an elephant – which he says was commissioned by the Women’s Voluntary Service for the children’s ward at the Queen’s Medical Centre. Interest in this commission led to an article in the Sunday Times colour supplement, which, in turn, led to an interview with the BBC at Pebble Mill, with the elephant and Broad Marsh frog being transported to the studios for the occasion.
The various play sculptures that Peter worked on for around 20 years were just one part of a fascinating career that has included involvement in the design of Ford’s ‘Three Graces’ (the Consul, Zephyr and Zodiac), set-production work for films such as The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958, starring Ingrid Bergman) and a number of exhibition pieces.
I think it’s safe to say that his work has had an enduring impact.
(This article was originally published in Issue 10 of Local News Bygones. For more information about Peter’s play sculptures, see the site I created at https://playsculptures.wordpress.com/ and Peter’s own site at https://peter-hand-sculpture.co.uk/)