Cirencester’s Public Art

 The Prophet In The Avenue

This article is updated from the original, published in Newsletter 49 in April 2009 [add link]. In the last few years there has been much activity at Leaholme in The Avenue. Leaholme Flats (and indeed the name) are no more, having been demolished by owners Bromford Housing and replaced by a single new block to better service the needs of the housing society into the future. This has been named Grosvenor Place with a smaller row of houses as Valens Place. There’s a (separate) story behind each of these name choices.



Happily the sculpture which is the subject of this article was removed into safe keeping and replaced during 2023 more or less in its original position on The Avenue frontage, where it can readily be seen and enjoyed. Do go and have a look at it. Meanwhile, this is an archaeologically-rich area in the centre of the Roman town –  see the  assessment



Cirencester cannot be described as over-endowed with examples of public art. Excluding buildings themselves as artistic statements, most people would be hard-pressed to name an example anywhere in the town, which is one of many good reasons to welcome the unveiling in 2008  of A Celebration of Hands, a sculpture in stone by Rory Young and commissioned by Cirencester Civic Society, which now adorns an external wall at Brewery Arts. Thankfully it now has its own write-up in Ciren Scene, February 2024, pp.30-31. 


Meanwhile a reference by Martin Portus, during his most enjoyable April 2009 lecture to the Society  on the Jefferies family business in the town, reminded his audience of another piece of public art, given to the town during the late John Jefferies’ period as Chairman of the then Urban District Council back in the 1960s. It is a statue called The Prophet which stood outside the Leaholme Flats in The Avenue, itself a development of that time. So apart from anything else there has been an association between a then new housing scheme and a piece of public art to ‘embellish’ it, making it truly a period piece.

The story of its acquisition is revealed in a letter (which years later came into my care) from John Jefferies to near-neighbour the late Mavis Marshall, another stalwart of Cirencester and one of his successors as Mayor of the town (the UDC had chairmen; the successor Town Council has mayors). It was written on 24 March 1995, only a few weeks after the death of the artist who had created the sculpture, Willi Soukop, at the age 88 on 08 February of that year in Glasgow.


John Jefferies recalled that he had first met the artist when he (Soukop) was on the staff at Dartington College of Arts, describing him as ‘a most likeable man, very modest and with all the traditional Viennese charm and great kindness for all he met’. With Jefferies in the chair at the Council, it was typical of him that he accepted the gift (made to him personally) of The Prophet from Willi Soukop on behalf of Cirencester, installing it (actual date not known – does anybody know?) in its present position in The Avenue, where it has been now for well over half a century.  


Jefferies’ letter contains further interesting gems, such as the fact that he was ‘somewhat surprised that it [the offer of the statue] was accepted without any positive objection as far as I can recall’, adding, no doubt tongue in cheek, that ‘perhaps the fact that shortly after The Prophet had been installed in The Avenue, Cheltenham Borough [Council] spent what in those days was a considerable sum for another of his works, had something to do with it!’.


Again, also no doubt through John Jefferies’ good offices, Willi Soukop had adjudicated at a competition held at Cirencester Grammar School in the days when John Barnett was headmaster [1954-61] for a piece of sculpture by pupils of the school. 


Soukop was a sculptor in stone, wood, metal and clay, working in the European modernist tradition of the 1930s. For thirty years from 1969 he was Master of Sculpture at the Royal Academy Schools. He had arrived in Dartington from his native Vienna in 1934 and stayed for six years, an enjoyable and rewarding time before his internment as an enemy alien at the start of wartime hostilities.  


His work as a sculptor, ‘rendered in flowing lines and economy of form’ according to one appreciation, brought him considerable success as a public sculptor, with commissions for schools, churches and housing estates in Britain and abroad. So the Leaholme project had its context. Perhaps it did in another way too, for Soukop once wryly remarked ‘few people usually take the trouble to find out’ who made these works. Occasionally there is a letter to the Standard asking for just such information!


There is also an interesting parting comment to Mavis Marshall, which resonates down the years as a reminder of ways and means of long term care. ‘You did say something,’ Jefferies writes, ‘about giving The Prophet a wash and brush up; perhaps it might be prudent to consider carefully whether the patina which the concrete has acquired over the years has added something which might be of value. It is one of the things I would have asked him about had he lived.’ Therein lies an equally relevant contemporary comment for our own times. 


Willi Soukop: obituary in The Independent 09 February 1995; see also website:

David Viner

February 2024