A letter from sculptor John Wood reveals the hidden Egyptian history of the famous piece of public art he created – Walsall’s stone hippopotamus.
The Walsall Hippo is one of the most loved pieces of public art in the Midlands, England, UK. It sits in Walsall town centre and has been a meeting point for generations of local people. Comedian Mark Steel has written about its star status, but little was thought to be known about its history.
If you have more information or photos about the hippo’s creation or history, please get in touch. Thank you.
Back in 2007 I was in touch with John Wood, the hippo’s creator. Today, when clearing out some paperwork I came across a letter from Mr Wood, titled ‘The Definitive Hippo’, it’s his account of the hippo’s history.
The Definitive Hippo by John Wood
Mr Wood writes:
“Although I have refrained from comment over the years, the work is now referenced on the internet at Icons : Art in Public Places, amongst other websites. As its sculptor I retain copyright and it is perhaps time to record what I know of its inception.
I believe the year was 1972 and around the end of March when I received a somewhat mysterious enquiry for what was described as a piece of play sculpture to be sited in the town centre.
I can recall my Council contact’s name was Anthony and he assured me the project was absolutely genuine. He insisted that it should be treated in the strictest confidence because a small group of his colleagues, whom he did not choose to identify, intended to present the elected members with a fait accompli.
Their first preference was for a traditional granite carving, but since that was clearly outside the meagre budget that had apparently been gleaned from odd corners of the Council’s coffers, we settled upon what is now termed as reconstructed stone.
The form was sculpted in clay at my then Pinfold Street, Darlaston studio and Keith, a young lad fresh from school assisted in the initial manipulation of around a ton of the material obtained from Potters Clay in Brownhills. A two-piece mould was taken using glass reinforced resins and the work was superbly cast by Mono Concrete, whose usual production was kerb stones and car park bollards.
My fee for making the piece was £500.00, which works out at £14.70 for each year of its existence to date.”
Why a hippopotamus?
“Why a hippopotamus? At the time I had the distinct impression that its commissioners intended a more symbolic meaning than a simple piece of play sculpture.
Erich von Daniken’s book ‘Chariots of the Gods’ was very much a “Da Vinci Code’ parallel of the time and I knew zoomorphic deities were very common in antiquity. After some elementary research I began to appreciate the suggested hippopotamus form had remarkably appropriate antecedents from ancient cultures.
Early Egyptians witnessed first-hand the female hippopotamus’s aggressive protection of their young. Tarewet, their god of the northern horizon, the major part of whose form being hippopotamus, became a protective deity for childbirth and children.
The hippo’s original home outside Lloyds Bank was also an inspired placement. For many years the hippo sat comfortably upon the bank of the culverted Walsall Brook, providing a safe focal point for mothers and their children even into adulthood. It guarded the now subterranial remains of the last bridge over the Brook as it gazed towards the northern sky.
Do the people who took the decision to disturb the hippo appreciate there are those even today who hold that evocations of past cultures may carry risks? Certainly most sculptors would concede some unfathomable creative guidance in producing their work.
A second hippopotamus form from the same millennium was the feared masculine deity Seth, who supposedly reigned over chaos and revenge. Mythology also theorises that such immortals, when displeased, could change their gender at will.
When I occasionally attempt to pass through the incoherent jumble that is today’s Walsall, I often ponder exactly what influence now oversees the town.
Someone recently said, if you look very carefully, the hint of a smile tells you it knows something we don’t. Perhaps indeed it does.”
Letter sent to CTS Ryan, 2007.
List of credits – here’s a list of the people responsible for creating Walsall’s hippopotamus
It would be great to add some faces to these names, so please send in more info or photos if you have them.
John Wood – sculptor
Keith Jones – assistant to John
Tony Harrington – Walsall architect (played a part in the initial commissioning?)