Creating a vision in Harlow

PUBLISHED: 12:32 27 October 2015 | UPDATED: 12:32 27 October 2015




The New Towns Act of 1946 was designed to develop new towns close to London to help ease the housing crisis that followed World War II, during which thousands had lost their homes as a result of German bombing raids. Petra Hornsby explores the history of Harlow, the very first New Town, and discovers the wider aspirations of its chief architect and planner, Sir Frederick Gibberd

In 1949, leading architect Sir Frederick Gibberd (who designed London’s Heathrow Airport, London’s Central Mosque and Liverpool’s Catholic Cathedral) was assigned the job of developing New Harlow close to the village now referred to as Old Harlow. His remit was to build housing and facilities for families largely re-locating from London’s East End. Gibberd invited other top architects to join him in the project and to design key buildings in the town. It was his personal vision to create a place that complemented its rural landscape with open areas and green spaces being very much part of his plan and the town’s subsequent success.

Gibberd’s The Lawns – Britain’s first residential tower block – was built in Harlow in 1951 and is now a Grade II listed building. The town also went on to have the country’s first pedestrianised shopping precinct and also boasts one of the most extensive cycle track networks in Britain. Considered to be one of his finest works, Gibberd spent the rest of his life living in the town he had planned and designed.

From the start, Gibberd wanted art to feature in the town (primarily sculpture) and, in honour of the Queen’s Coronation; the town’s Development Corporation commissioned a piece titled Chiron by Mary Spencer Watson and shortly after acquired a Barbara Hepworth which had been sculpted to mark the 1951 Festival of Britain. Patricia Fox Edwards, who was to later marry Gibberd and who worked with Harlow’s Arts Trust, had the task of sourcing new pieces and the town’s collection grew steadily.

Sculpture Town – as Harlow has chosen to call itself – has more than 100 works that can be seen on streets, in shopping centres and in its residential areas. These include pieces by Auguste Rodin, Henry Moore, Elisabeth Frink and Helen Chadwick. The sculptures are owned by the Harlow Art Trust, the town council, The Gibberd Garden and Parndon Mill.

Harlow may surprise some as being such a cultural centre, but there are many people and venues dedicated to maintaining the artistic energy that still pulses through the town today.

One venue, which describes itself as a hub of creativity, is Parndon Mill. Located on the banks of the River Stort, north west of Harlow, the Grade II listed mill buildings provide a working home for artists, craftsmen and designers. With a range of skills from fine arts through to guitar making, ceramics and metal working, this productive community makes exhibits and products for some exciting collaborations. On the ground floor of the mill is a permanent gallery which displays a wide range of paintings, original prints, sculpture and craft work. On site there is a hot glass workshop and every year there is an exhibition of works of art in glass.

Sally Anderson of Parndon Mill describes their aim as being, ‘to bring artwork out of the studio to the attention of the wider audience’. The gallery also plays an important role in promoting the visual arts in the community.

Harlow is fortunate to have its own Arts Trust, founded in 1953, which is regarded as one of the top regional arts organisations in the country. The trust fittingly describes the collection of sculptures around the town as, ‘a large-scale, open-air art museum’ and for those wishing to follow a trail, there is a map which is downloadable from The trust now also runs the Gibberd Gallery, based in the Civic Centre, home to Sir Frederick Gibberd’s gift of watercolours, which includes pieces by Edward Bawden, John Piper and John Nash and which also holds regular exhibitions and events throughout the year.

Corrina Dunlea of the Gibberd Gallery explains what makes her proud of the gallery and what she feels it brings to Harlow. ‘We have an amazing team of volunteers who all help in shaping and creating what we do here,’ says Corrina. ‘One lady in particular had worked in industry here in Harlow for over 25 years and came to us for a new experience – she has since contributed so much and even curated some of the exhibitions. We have also had youngsters doing community hours, helping to create a World War II bunker on site. An initial reluctance to shifting bricks, concrete and tools around turned to pride and self-confidence, to the point that when they were mistaken for workmen, they described themselves as artists! We are a gallery that is wholly accessible to our community and aim to be inclusive. We see ourselves as something of a creative secret, with more than meets the eye. Why not come and see?’

On deciding to make Harlow his permanent home, Gibberd bought a property in Marsh Lane in 1955. Following the death of his first wife in 1972, he remarried and he and the new Lady Gibberd, who had already brought many sculptures to the town, went on to commission more than 80 pieces which were displayed at their home in what is now known as the Gibberd Garden.

The Gibberd Garden, recognised as Grade II listed, is very much a tribute to Sir Frederick’s skill and expertise because he saw garden design as, ‘an art of space, like architecture and town design’. Occupying seven acres, the garden houses a collection of sculptures, ceramics and architectural salvage all spread across what has formed a series of ‘rooms’, ranging in size and each with a distinct feel and character. Visitors can explore a wild garden, a moated castle complete with drawbridge, enjoy the peaceful charm of a brook side walk and admire the formal lawns – as well as seeing the sculptures too, of course! The Barn Tearoom offers a variety of refreshments, including hot and cold drinks, cakes and ice cream.

When Gibberd moved into the house, he originally had plans to demolish and re-build it, but he was denied planning permission due to it being on Green Belt land. His only option was to redesign the existing space and to add to it with a spacious living room overlooking the garden, a dining room and library. These rooms are now open to the public on Sunday afternoons. The rooms are presented as authentically as possible with original 1960s Scandinavian furniture and fittings. There are model displays of his projects and fascinating information on his great career.

With such an active and robust cultural and artistic spirit, Harlow may not be such a ‘new’ town anymore, but there is plenty about it that will continue to build on the ideals and objectives of its architect, Sir Frederick Gibberd, thanks to the efforts of the council, Harlow Arts Trust, Parndon Mill and all the exciting artists, creators and innovators who continue to inspire today.

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