THE TOTEMS OF SALFORD UNIVERSITY
WRITTEN BY Hayley Flynn
READING TIME: 4 minutes
"I don’t give a hoot if you don’t like them, just as long as you look at them"
- William Mitchell
Whilst on The Crescent in Salford, continue towards Salford University’s Allerton Building and there you will find the striking Minut Men by William Mitchell.
Perhaps the first critique of this concrete trio was by Prince Philip, in 1967 when he opened what was then the Technical College, and exclaimed:
“What the hell is that?”
The three figures are cast concrete and designed in a kind of Aztec style and inset with mosaics. Each figure, sometimes referred to as Faith, Hope and Charity, stands 15 feet in height and weighs around 5 tons. William explains:
"The pavement was important to the positioning of the figures as they were etched to resemble a chess board, and the figures placed not only according to light which shone on the ‘faces’ at a particular time of day but were also related to the patterns carved into the pavings."
The Minut Men were Grade II listed at the beginning of 2012.
The Minut Men are strapping men indeed, and all of Mitchell’s work has this heft to it - even when it takes the form of a relief it still invites you to look at the edges and see the depth of the work, Mitchell embraces the three dimensional and thinks that the act of using just the face of a wall is wasteful: "Why not show the thickness of a wall?"
A specialist in post-war architectural sculpture and recipient of the silver medal, Mitchell is a great believer in art and architecture merging as one and many of his works can be found in functional buildings around the country such as office blocks, educational facilites and hotels.
In Manchester you can find his works, including a giant mural made of old pianos and bottles tops, in the foyer of the Mercure Hotel (formerly Piccadilly Hotel); the gable end wall of City Tower; a fibre glass mural in the reception and a carving at the entrance of CIS Tower; around the lift shaft at Gateway House; sculpted panels on the exterior of the Humanties Building off Oxford Road; and a bit further out of Manchester there’s a frieze at the Turnpike Centre in Leigh.
Always experimenting with new techniques and materials, according to an interview with The Shrieking Violet, Mitchell realised after making his Minut Men statues that he would have to set fire to them on site in order to remove the plastic moulds.
Mitchell has never quite been recognised; seen as too experimental by some and too closely linked with architecture by others. It seems that finally this viewpoint is changing, with one of his works in Islington becoming the first mural to be listed in its own right (independently of a building).
This style of post-war art is often destroyed along with a building, and many pieces stand uncredited. Mitchell’s work was so prolific that he himself has trouble recalling his back catalogue.
Towards the end of 2011 another Manchester-based sculpture was finally credited as Mitchell’s work after being spotted in the background of a BBC show. It was then, in the summer of 2012, that it appeared again as the backdrop in yet another BBC drama 'The Acussed'. I sent a screenshot to Mitchell but his reply suggested that it wasn’t actually his work, rather an imitation, stating that he rarely worked in the round nor would he leave so much flat space:
"it could be ‘school of’ - a copy by one of the other ‘artists’ at the time."
There’s since been a bit of debate over this piece but it’s seemingly more and more likely that it is indeed Mitchell’s work, with Mitchell himself reneging on his initial assessment. This kind of limbo of uncertainty is typical of this period and form - after all, these works, like good architecture, are merely the backgrounds to people’s lives and as such lend themselves towards eventual anonymity.
Mitchell, to me, is that moment when you’re met by the face of someone you know in an unfamiliar place; a welcoming embrace at a strange train station.
I feel glowingly positive about any city that greets me with the welcoming arms of Mitchell’s textured concrete. In the cold form he works with there’s a warmth, in the sharpness and roughness of the edges there’s an invitation to touch them intimately and explores the grooves.
Mitchell’s work has a life of its own - reach out and touch it.
Michell was a presenter of Tomorrow’s World, an inventor of new forms of concrete, and is currently working on a book. You can see William, looking most dapper, in this British Pathe video from 1960.