Old Flo Returns to the East End of London


On Thursday 16th November a group of local government dignitaries, representatives of the Canary Wharf Group PLC and arts professionals from the Henry Moore Foundation assembled in in a well-known cigar and jazz venue in Canary Wharf to celebrate the return of Old Flo.

The bronze figure of Old Flo was just about visible to the crowd gathered on the balcony as they peered through the dark and rain to the far side of Cabot Square, where she has found a temporary new home after a twenty year absence from the East End.

In earlier days this coming together in the centre of London’s second financial district might have seemed incongruous, especially with Tower Hamlets’ Labour Mayor leading the cheers alongside a Managing Director of the Canary Wharf Group, but this is the modern world.

So, who is old Flo and how did this ex-resident of Stepney, formerly one of London’s most deprived boroughs, end up at the centre of one of its wealthiest quarters?

Old Flo, or Draped Seated Figure, as she is more properly known, is a bronze cast of a sculpture created by Henry Moore in 1958 and the story of her journey from the Susse Brothers’ Parisian foundry to Stepney, onto Yorkshire and back again to the East End might be viewed as a parable of the conflicting social and political forces which have driven London’s history since World War Two.

Old Flo is one of several casts made from Henry Moore’s original sculpture, which the London County Council bought for the market price of £7,000 as part of its Patronage of the Arts Scheme.

The Draped Seated Figure is a monumental female form with enormous legs seated on a plinth.  The scale of her body is amplified by the tininess of the head, and she is covered in a knee-length dress draped in the classical manner, which Moore experimented with after a visit to Greece in the early fifties, marking a notable departure from his usual modernist aesthetic.

The LCC used the devastation wrought on London by the Second World War to initiate a programme of regeneration which included demolishing streets of potentially serviceable terraced houses and relocating large numbers of Londoners to new towns far beyond the city boundaries, as well as clearing bombsites and rebuilding them.  This rationalist, scientific approach to their task might strike us as quite Stalinist in execution, but the planners, politicians and bureaucrats engaged in the project, saw themselves as bringers of social equality, and even enlightenment, to the masses.

In truth, they provided thousands of working class people with homes they could only have dreamt of in their packed tenement buildings, where several families might have shared one cold tap and an outdoor toilet and their children slept head to toe in lice-ridden bedrooms.  Sturdily-built LCC flats came with their own bathrooms, well-equipped kitchens and clean, adequate accommodation for all; inhabitants of the new towns found themselves for the first time in houses surrounded by green space with access to a garden of their own.

And that’s not all.  The LCC set up the Patronage of the Arts Scheme in 1957 to buy the work of some of the finest contemporary artists and site them in schools, colleges and municipal housing estates all over London, for the uplift of its citizens.   This is how Old Flo found her first home in the borough of Stepney, an area hit particularly hard by bombardment during the war.

Henry Moore spent many evenings during the blitz observing East Enders as they sheltered from the bombs in the underground, before returning to his  home at Perry Green in Hertfordshire where he produced the series of moving drawings which became the inspiration for many of his sculptures in the 1950’s, including the Draped Seated Figures.

Critics have made much of the stability and maternal strength with which Moore endowed the figures.  It is important to remember1, though, that Moore was deeply affected by squalor he found in the underground tunnels as he made his observations of the women and children he found there, and the pathos of the skimpy blankets they drew around themselves as protection against the freezing, fetid conditions of the underground tunnels.  Old Flo bears the traces of their poverty in her drapery as well as the dignity with which she is more readily identified.

Stifford Park’s residents didn’t always give her the welcome the Scheme’s promoters were probably hoping for; initial reactions ranged from incomprehension to open mockery.  But in naming her “Old Flo” they made her one of their own, and by the time the estate was demolished in 1997, many residents had happy memories of playing on her as children or sharing a first kiss on her plinth.

A publicity still, shot in Stifford Park for Sparrows Can’t Sing, shows a young Barbara Windsor perched next to Old Flo in imitation of her leaning pose and conveys perfectly the spirit of East London in the early sixties, which its director Joan Littlewood captured compellingly in her film and the pioneering works she created at the Theatre Royal, Stratford.  It makes a fitting memorial for Old Flo’s life on the estate.

From the late 1960’s onwards Old Flo was tossed about on the same stormy waters which steadily eroded the ideals and optimism which had buoyed up the LCC’s technocrats, members and officers in the years following the war.

The Greater London Council superseded the LCC in 1965.  Seven years after Margaret Thatcher’s election as Great Britain’s Prime Minister in 1979, it was abolished.  Under the leadership of Ken Livingstone the metropolitan authority’s programme of socialism, anti-racism and the promotion of identity politics, long before they were known as such, made it anathema to Thatcher’s ideology of monetarism and individualism, which let loose the forces of the market on British society which, she said, no longer existed.

As local authority revenues declined, high-rise housing estates, like Stifford Park, with their ground-level, wide-open spaces and lofty walkways turned into wind-swept slums wrecked by vandalism and municipal neglect, which became a kind of hell for many of their residents.  Stifford Park was demolished in 1997 and old Flo found asylum in her creator’s sculpture park in Wakefield for the next two decades.

At the time of this migration she had long been orphaned by the disappearance of the LCC.  She did not belong to the borough of Stepney which housed her, or Tower Hamlets, which absorbed Stepney as part of the 1965 reorganisation of the London Boroughs.  When the GLC was abolished, no-one was bothered about who owned Old Flo, or any of the other sculptures purchased under the Patronage of the Arts Scheme, and they all passed unnoticed to the care of the London Borough of Bromley, which wasn’t even aware of its responsibility for this extraordinary collection.

It was only when the now disgraced ex-mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, announced his decision to raise some money for the borough by selling Old Flo in a Private auction in 2012 that a small, dedicated band of activists went to the records of the London Metropolitan Archive to establish the ownership of the entire collection and then on to the courts, with the aim of keeping it safe under the aegis of Bromley for all Londoners in perpetuity.  It is a complicated story recounted by the Mark Richards, a prominent member of the campaign and former Director of the London Museum, in Spitalfields Life2.

In the end, Old Flo was returned to the borough of Tower Hamlets on the adjudication of Mr Justice Norris on the grounds of a legal technicality.  For Mark Richards the ruling marked the failure of a mission to provide Old Flo a home safe from the predations of future politicians who might not share the values of the current Mayor of Tower Hamlets, John Biggs.

I was delighted to learn of Old Flo’s home-coming and feel privileged to see her nearly every day as I pass Cabot Square on my way in and out of Canary Wharf, but I appreciate Mark Richards’ concerns for her future in London’s ever-changing political landscape.  For the time being, though, she is safe and can look forward to a period of stability under the guardianship of the Canary Wharf Group.  Her temporary home will offer her protection from thieves and vandals until 2022 when she’ll be moved on to a new one in the Whitechapel Civic Centre now under construction on the site of the old Royal London Hospital.

  1. Roger Berthoud (2003). The Life of Henry Moore.  Giles De La Mare.
  2. http://spitalfieldslife.com/2017/07/12/the-tale-of-old-flo/

Jane McChrystal © 2017.