When British pop artist Nicholas Monro was asked to create a public sculpture for Birmingham in the 1970s, he raised some eyebrows when he produced an 18-foot fiberglass statue of King Kong.
“It was really just a tap for the system. They wanted something typical and boring, so he gave them a giant gorilla,” said Monro’s son Claude. “I think there was a certain level of ‘Is this art? What’s that?’” added Joe, Claude’s older brother.
But on Friday, a replica of the statue returned to the city 50 years after the original, in a burst of joy and nostalgia. As it was being positioned, people were already lining up to take photos of it, and many recalled their memories of seeing it as a child.
“Now with his homecoming, I think it’s turned a full 180 degrees and people are literally welcoming him with open arms,” Joe said on behalf of his father, who was unable to attend the reveal due to health reasons. “He’s really over the moon that we managed to produce this and it’s a good representation of what he made by hand all those years ago.”
Working closely with Monro – now in his 80s and based in Dorset – and his family, local property development company Cordia Blackswan borrowed the model of the original statue from Wolverhampton Art Gallery to create a new and slightly larger version of the artwork .
“I wanted it to be a little bigger because everyone saw it as a kid. When I came back, I didn’t want them to think, “Oh no, it’s not as big as I remembered.” So it’s 20% bigger overall,” Joe said. “[The original] was only here seven months, but it was long enough to leave a lasting mark on the city.”
Following her stay in Birmingham’s Manzoni Gardens (now subsumed under the Bullring shopping centre), Birmingham City Council decided not to purchase the original statue at a reduced price of £2,000.
Instead, it was bought by a local used car dealership, renamed King Kong Car Co, who installed the statue on site and dressed it up as Santa every Christmas.
In 1976 the statue was sold to entrepreneur Nigel Maby and displayed at a market in Edinburgh, where it was once painted in tartan and suffered a broken arm from vandalism.
The gorilla statue now stands in Maby’s widow’s garden in Cumbria and has rarely been displayed, although it has declined offers to sell it. Monro himself retired from the art world and has produced few plays since King Kong.
His family said they were pleased to see that the statue’s original details have been preserved, including the hands, which Monro modeled after his own. “If you look at the fingernails, I know it’s my father,” Claude said.
The new version of the statue will be on display in a pop-up park in Birmingham for the next two weeks to coincide with the Commonwealth Games in hopes that a permanent home can be found in the city.
“[Monro] didn’t know King Kong had this second life in Birmingham after he left,” said Marcus Hawley, Managing Director of Cordia Blackswan. “His take on it was that people hated it here. So when we told him that they really love him and want him back, it was a very emotional journey for everyone involved.”