The Oxford Shark

The Oxford Shark




In a previous post  I sent you a mail about a candy-striped house in Kensington. Researching that led me to this rather strange oddity:- an Oxford house with a shark in it’s roof:


 The Oxford Shark

Untitled 1986″ at 2 New High Street, Headington, Oxford OX3 7AQ



Of course, it is one thing to put a 25 foot (7.62m), 4 hundredweight (203kg) fibreglass shark in the roof of your Victorian home, but quite another thing to be able to keep it there in the face of an English council, as Bill Heine did on Saturday 9 August 1986 (it is still there today).

Bill Heine is an American who studied law at Balliol College, Oxford. At the time of the shark art installation he was running 2 cinemas in Oxford & already had form in upsetting the local council with large fibreglass sculptures.

There used to be a cinema opposite the house at 2 New High Street called the “Moulin Rouge”. It had been named by a previous owner. That person had wanted to put up a Windmill, that would actually turn. However, he had made a mistake:- he asked the council for permission first. The council turned him down, on the basis that “it was misleading, as there were no can-can dancers.


Bill Heine bought the Moulin Rouge in 1980. He had the perfect idea as to how to promote it. And he would not make the same mistake as the previous owner…



The Oxford Shark

 The Moulin Rouge (opposite 2 New High Street, Headington, Oxford), complete with un-permitted can-can dancers’ legs



Bill contacted John Buckley to sculpture an enormous pair of (fibreglass) can-can dancers’ legs. Hoorah! Now the Moulin Rouge had some can-can dancers. However, the Oxford council objected on precisely the same grounds as before (they clearly have zero sense of irony). So, Bill changed the name of the cinema to “Not the Moulin Rouge”, stating that a pair of can-can legs could not advertise anything which was patently not the Moulin Rouge. Somehow, he got away with this.

[Not the] Moulin Rouge closed in 1991, and the site has subsequently been redeveloped as housing. The can-can dancers’ legs were transferred to Bill’s cinema in Brighton (the Duke of York’s Cinema). In 1994 Bill’s Penultimate Picture Palace Company collapsed. He now works for Radio Oxford as a presenter.

Saturday 9 August 1986 was the 41st anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki. The shark was commisioned by Bill from John Buckley (the same man that designed & sculptured the can-can legs). Bill owned the building at the time & until very recently. The shark was installed at night during the wee hours and, naturally, did not possess planning permission. You may well imagine that, after the previous incident, there must have been folks on the planning committee that were close to a state of instantaneous combustion.

Oxford City Council’s first act was to try to get rid of the shark on the grounds that it was dangerous to the public. Engineers inspected the roof girders that had been specially installed to support it and pronounced the erection safe. Drat.

Their second attempt was to declare that the shark was development within the definition contained in Section 22 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971″, and that as such it had to be removed. Next they offered to display it in a public building such as a swimming pool. Bill declined that kind offer, and tried to buy time.

In 1990 he was refused retrospective planning permission.

In 1991 he appealed to the Secretary of State for the Environment (then Michael Heseltine). It worked!

In 1992 Heseltine’s Inspector Peter Macdonald came out in favour of the applicant:-



It is not in dispute that this is a large and prominent feature. That was the intention, but the intention of the appellant and the artist is not an issue as far as planning permission is concerned. The case should be decided on its planning merits, not by resorting to “utilitarianism”, in the sense of the greatest good to the greatest number. And it is necessary to consider the relationship between the shark and its setting…. In this case it is not in dispute that the shark is not in harmony with its surroundings, but then it is not intended to be in harmony with them. The basic facts are there for almost all to see. Into this archetypal urban setting crashes (almost literally) the shark. The contrast is deliberate … and, in this sense, the work is quite specific to its setting. As a “work of art” the sculpture (“Untitled 1986”) would be “read” quite differently in, say, an art gallery or on another site. An incongruous object can become accepted as a landmark after a time, becoming well known, even well loved in the process. Something of this sort seems to have happened, for many people, to the so-called “Oxford shark”. The Council is understandably concerned about precedent here. The first concern is simple: proliferation with sharks (and Heaven knows what else) crashing through roofs all over the City. This fear is exaggerated. In the five years since the shark was erected, no other examples have occurred. Only very recently has there been a proposal for twin baby sharks in the Iffley Road. But any system of control must make some small place for the dynamic, the unexpected, the downright quirky. I therefore recommend that the Headington shark be allowed to remain’


Subsequently, “Untitled 1986” (the name was fixed to the gate of the house) made national & even international news. Then, on Monday 10 November 2014 the house became available for rent for £519 GBP a week, or £2,250 GBP a month. The Guardian said “They’re going to need a bigger Ad“. Ah, humour –  the gift that keeps on giving.



This is a guest post by Alex Kemp ©2015 Modem-Help, Ltd. (published under GPLv2)