Hippos at the heart of Glenrothes

Stanley Bonnar was back in Glenrothes this week to deliver the first  in a series of Art Club lectures.
Stanley Bonnar was back in Glenrothes this week to deliver the first in a series of Art Club lectures.

He arrived in Glenrothes as young art graduate in 1972 and within weeks had designed a piece of public art that has forty years later become a lasting and cherished symbol of the town.

Along with Benno Schotz’s Ex Terra (1965) and Malcolm Robertson’s Giant Irises (1986), Stanley Bonnar’s hippos are not only loved by the Glenrothes community, they have become synonymous with Glenrothes Development Corporation’s (GDC) pioneering approach to public art.

Unloading the last hippo in the town park in 1974.

Unloading the last hippo in the town park in 1974.

Decades after they first appeared, the town now has an annual hippo parade involving many of the schools across the town and little could the artist have anticipated that his designs would still be enjoyed by youngsters all these years on.

This week, several generations after the hippos first acquainted themselves with their neighbours in a Pitteuchar suburb, their creator made a brief but welcomed return to the town that gave him his first job as he delivered the first in a series of art lectures as part of Glenrothes Art Club’s 60th anniversary celebrations.

Stan’s love of public art caught the eye of GDC employed town artist David Harding who brought the young Dundee University graduate to the town as his assistant and it was the hippos - designed by Stan - that the pair first worked on together.

At the time Harding had said they chose the hippo “because of its rounded form and the opportunity to created humorous and surreal situations.”

I suppose they were quite a rebellious thing to do ...

Stanley Bonnar

“We made the first four that were destined for Pitteuchar, in a very small hut as the precinct was being built,” he remembers.

“It proved to be a very time consuming process with a plaster cast model and later glass fibre moulds that were hung up and then filled with concrete and left to set.

We came back a couple of days later only to find the makeshift shed we were working in had totally collapsed though thankfully the hippos survived to tell the tale.”

Weighing in at a tonne and a half each the first family were soon being loved by local children and Stan’s original mould was later revisited for successive collections including ‘Feeding Hippos’ in Caskieberran and ‘Thirsty Hippos’ in Riverside Park.

It was positioning that was all important according to Stan.

“It was a stroke of genius the way David set out the second batch of hippos (in 1976) close to the River Leven giving the impression of movement as it looks like they have just climbed out of the river and are heading to the children’s paddling pool,” he explained.

Stanley added: “It’s all about fun and I love that concept.”

Following the end of Stan’s brief, but hugely productive year as David’s assistant, he took on the role as town artist for East Kilbride where he took the animal art idea and in 1974 created a similar hippos piece - this time as a herd of elephants.

He later found artist roles in Stonehouse, Lanarkshire, Easterhouse in Glasgow, Perth, Edinburgh and Dundee before taking up a position within the renowned Glasgow School of Art as part of their Environmental Art Department.

Still creating art that is complex, challenging and thought provoking, he looks back on his time in Glenrothes with much affection.

“The hippos were, and are, strange and unusual and at the time there was nothing like it, I was fresh out of art school and wanted to make a statement, I suppose it was quite a rebellious thing to do at the time.

“Credit must go to David Harding who recognised something in me and gave me a chance, and John Coghill, the Development Corporation’s chief architect for his bold and imaginative approach to public art in Glenrothes that has stood the test of time,” Stan told the Gazette.

“I’m delighted and honoured to have played a small part in it.”