Design of the New Town of Glenrothes began in 1948 under the direction of the Glenrothes Development Corporation. In the following decades, Chief Architect and Planning Officer of the town, Merlyn Williams, and his deputy John Coghill began to develop the town’s cultural offerings, seeing the arts as an integral element of the town’s built environment. Williams and Coghill believed that art should be included in the everyday experience of the town’s residents, and not reserved for elitist circles.
After answering an advertisement listed in the national newspaper, David Harding was employed as the Town Artist in 1968. Harding moved himself and his family to Glenrothes, living in a council-owned home. The artist had recently moved back to Scotland after teaching art in Nigeria, an experience that shaped his perception of the role of arts in engagement with local communities and cultures. During his time in Nigeria, Harding avoided imposing his own Western ideals of art and culture onto his students, instead opting to encourage them in creating art that reflected their personal sense of cultural identity and heritage.
Harding adapted this experience for his time in Glenrothes, and immediately began to immerse himself within the local community. As a New Town built on a greenfield site, Glenrothes had little in way of established heritage, social history or general sense of community identity. The basic idea for the Town Artist was that the post-holder would contribute to the external built environment of the town; Harding saw this as an opportunity to create strong visible identities to otherwise uniform neighbourhoods. These artworks often became places where people would arrange to meet.
The position was one of the first of its kind in the UK and was forward-thinking for many reasons. The artist was employed as a member of staff within the Planning Department, and was expected to attend the same development meetings as other departmental colleagues. This gave Harding a voice from the inception of development projects, rather than bringing the artist in at later phases of project implementation to illustrate a preconceived idea defined by planning staff. Harding’s contract for the post specified his required retirement at age 65, so the contract allowed for a long-term role to be held by the Town Artist and allowed for a more meaningful engagement with the local community.
Harding set up a studio amongst the town’s building workers, seeing his role as similar to theirs’ and shunning the idea that the Town Artist should be considered part of an elite circle. Many of his works also used conventional building materials, such as concrete, furthering the artist’s shared understanding and point of collaboration with other builders. Harding believed that, as Town Artist, he was contributing to the built environment in a similar way as the town’s artisans and builders. On a practical level, Harding’s choice of readily available building materials also allowed for the budgeting of artworks to be more easily integrated into the budgets of the town’s designers and engineers.
The role of Town Artist differed from that of arts coordinator, as Harding employed his knowledge and skills, and influence within the Planning Department, to create works that intimately reflected their social and environmental context. Sometimes his works were playful, sometimes they were contemplative, but in either instance Harding’s artworks invited response from the town’s people. The result of his time as Town Artist is a series of works that have helped create memory amid the town’s somewhat uniform post-war architecture.
One of Harding’s earliest works as Town Artist involved the creation of ceramic tiles by several groups of primary school children, who then helped Harding cement the tiles onto walls. In other early works, older children and adults helped to paint murals throughout the town. As the programme continued, Harding’s understanding of the local community, and trust from the Planning Department, became more nuanced and led to more intricately devised works. In a provocative interpretation of some of the council’s bureaucratic policies, Harding went door to door asking tenants of council-owned homes what colour they would like their door to be painted—a choice they had never previously had. He then presented the colour scheme as his own and the council painted the doors accordingly.
One of Harding’s most popular sculptural works is Henge (1970), which includes 13 concrete slabs assembled in a spiral arrangement, evocative of a Neolithic stone circle discovered near the town. Each concrete tablet is intricately decorated and includes inspirational quotes from a range of 20th century figures including footballer Pele, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa. The sculpture invites visitors to move through the work, immersing them in a contemplative space.
Harding also devised a trail of poetry across the town. With permission from a number of contemporary Scottish poets, Harding cast short poems into paving slabs, which were then placed in public thoroughfares. In 1976 Harding adapted a similar concept in his work with poet Alan Bold, but in this instance the duo paved new paths based on desire lines, or unofficial paths created from foot traffic by people looking to take the shortest path to their destination.
The Town Artist programme evolved into a larger cultural scheme. From 1972 onwards, Harding took on post-graduate students for one-year placements to assist him in his work as Town Artist. Stanley Bonnar, who had recently graduated from art school in Dundee, is responsible for one of the town’s most well known public artworks. Bonnar created a series of concrete hippos, which were then placed in playful arrangements across the town under the guidance and assistance of Harding. The hippos are an iconic symbol for the town and still very much enjoyed by its residents.
Harding also took on 16 year-old school leavers as part of a job creation scheme and assisted John Coghill in the creation of studios and homes for craftspeople in an old, unused block of stables.
More than 140 public artworks exist in Glenrothes today and have helped contribute to the town’s sense of place. Much like a stone being thrown into a pond, the Town Artist programme has caused a rippling out of arts and cultural activities in the town.