Fringe Box



Exclusive: Interview with Sculptress of Controversial Bonfire Sculpture

Published on: 23 Feb, 2012
Updated on: 1 Mar, 2012

Artist Theresa Smith.

As you can read elsewhere on this website, Guildford Borough Council’s planning committee has referred the decision on the proposed Guildford Guy Riots bonfire sculpture, for the roundabout by Guildford police station, back to the full council who meet on April 5. We have spoken exclusively to the artist behind the design, Theresa Smith, and asked her a number of questions about her design and why she thinks it will contribute a good deal to Guildford’s heritage and understanding of the town’s rich history.

How and when did you get involved with the project? I believe the computer games firm EA (with offices in Onlsow Street, Guildford) contacted you initially? 

Yes they did back in 2007 via their project managers for the new headquarters. It took until 2009 to get it all in place though and that’s when the research started.

Where did you hear about the mid-19th century Guildford Guys’ bonfire society? 

It was when I was doing my research at the Surrey History Centre in Woking. I came across an article in the Lady magazine from the 1970s about the Guildford Guys Riots and I couldn’t believe this was Guildford’s history. Lewes yes, but Guildford? Impossible! At that point I was hooked and wanted to find out more. I started to explore what happened to make Guildford then and now so different.

What part of their story and the subsequent events in Guildford provided inspiration for the sculpture? 

I attended a local history walk led by Gavin Morgan about the Guildford Guys and went on to read his book. What intrigued me was the transition of a town through the story of the Guys. Up to the 1850s Guildford was a cheery little market town with a dominant rural tradition and the Guys bonfire celebrations were a source of joy for many, simply the best night of the year in Dickensian Guildford with people flocking in from the villages to enjoy the spectacle of the bonfire and fireworks. I have been to the Lewes bonfire celebrations and love that sense of a whole town out in the streets enjoying themselves. I felt I had some sense of the thrill it must have brought to Guildford back in those bleak times. 

As Guildford grew, became connected to London by train and the town started to change, the Guys robust rural traditions were frowned upon and it was the suppression of the bonfire celebrations that caused the problems. What is really interesting about this story though is that Guildford as a town became national news, received national assistance from the military and started to organise its public services to deal with the Guys. The townspeople of the 1860s wanted something different, they wanted order not chaos, a police force that was effective and a town that embraced a new Victorian vision of the future at the height of the British Empire. By 1866 at the end of the Guys era, attitudes and institutions that are very much a part of modern Guildford were much more evident than in 1851. It was not only the legacy of the original community spirit that the Guys brought, it was also the transformation of Guildford against the backdrop of the riots that intrigued me.

Opinions seem to be divided as to what the sculpture represents. Some of those who oppose it appear to be saying that it only glorifies the violence of the Guildford Guy Riots. Can you explain what in your view it symbolises? 

This sculpture is of a bonfire, a symbol of celebration all over the country, even today. For example, fires and beacons will be lit for the Queen’s diamond jubilee this year and will bring joy to many. The sculpture brings back the thrill felt by the people of Guildford at the sight of the bonfire when the Guys came to town. This was a time of celebration for all walks of life in the town and villages beyond. The demands brought about by the new population of the town forced a change, a transformation of public life and what was acceptable. From this change came a new order, a focus on law and authority was inevitable. 

The sculpture is therefore not just the classic symbol of the traditional 5th November bonfire with a chair for the guy, seen across England for centuries, it also tells the story of the foundations of modern Guildford. At the circular base is the fencing that was such a favoured source of fuel for the Guildford Guys and these are catching light, turning into flames as they rise up. These flames however are also forging a new society, a new sense of order. The chair symbolises judgement, control and authority. Think of courtrooms, parliament, meeting spaces and offices. Chairs represent power and the chair atop the flames, presiding over and protecting the people of Guildford faces the police and the courts. 

The last scene in the story of the Guildford Guys is the triumph of law and order. That is why the location outside the police station and law courts buildings is so perfect. One of the many messages in this sculpture is the story of their success. 

The roundabout location is also there as a new gateway to the town, an architectural scale landmark that tells a uniquely Guildford story and one which serves to encourage curiosity about Guildford’s history and understand why it is the town we see today.

You say that when the Guildford Guys were active it was at the point at which the modern town of Guildford was being born. So the bonfires and the related riots were a kind of baptism of fire. How import is this to our understanding of Guildford’s recent history? 

Guildford’s rejection of the Guys brought about a sense of having to get organised. The intervention of the Home Office underlined the shortcomings of the Guildford authorities and its need to accept an increasingly centralised society where local independence was being scrutinsed. At the same time the town council was being forced to take on more responsibilities. The adjustment to this reality was part of this process of change.

Do you think the sculpture will help to tell the correct story of the growth of Guildford in the 19th century? 

I hope it will bring out the message that the Guildford Guys were for many years a source of celebration and community spirit. The riots were only part of the picture but they have dominated the story. This sculpture aims to remind Guildford that it once hosted a truly joyous event for all Guildfordians to enjoy, no matter who they were or what they earned. Its definitely a monument to the spirit of the people of Guildford.

There have been some objections to the sculpture on the grounds of road safety. Can you explain how you took such factors into account when designing the piece of public art? 

The design only really took off following a long, constructive conversation with Paul Bucknall at Surrey Highways Deptartment. We discussed heights and materials and it was this brief that established the design parameters that would be acceptable to Highways. Understanding the constraints was extremely helpful. The sculpture is based on an ordinary street guard rail so that it has a transparency at the base where traffic is flowing and needs to be seen. 

At the request of the planning department, EA commissioned an independent road safety audit once the design had been established. This in-depth, extensive survey found no issues on the grounds of safety and subsequently the Surrey Highways Department gave the sculpture the thumbs up. 

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