Modern British & Irish Art

Denis Mitchell's Profound Impact on 20th Century Sculpture

By Kate Aldrich-Saunders
Sotheby’s Made In Britain auction on 10 September features four important works by leading 20th century sculptor Denis Mitchell. Here we uncover the fascinating journey that Mitchell undertook to become a leading light in the St Ives school.

T he assuredness and natural ease of Denis Mitchell’s works might encourage an observer to think that he had spent his whole life sculpting. In fact, Mitchell began his artistic career as a painter while studying at the Swansea School of Art. It was only well after his migration to St. Ives in 1930, and a decade as Barbara Hepworth’s Principal Assistant, that he made his transition, finally, into sculpture.

Denis Mitchell in his studio. Photograph Courtesy The Estate of the Artist

Mitchell moved from Wales to the Cornish peninsula, aged 18, with his brother Endell in 1930; this proved to be catalytic for Mitchell as he began to paint his surroundings seriously. The young brothers made lives for themselves in the small town; they renovated local cottages and planted a market garden which flourished, providing income and also an introduction to the community which would adopt them. In 1939, on the brink of the outbreak of World War II, Mitchell married Jane Stephens. The first of three daughters arrived the following year.

The war years, although bleak, were formative for Mitchell. He was conscribed as a Bevin Boy at Geevor tin mine near Land’s End and mined throughout the conflict. A gruff task, the subterranean years spent ‘carving and hewing’ rock taught Mitchell a mastery of tools and a knowledge of stone which would be invaluable. It was during this time that Mitchell met the potter Bernard Leach and the critic Adrian Stokes through the Home Guard and in 1946 he joined the St Ives Society of Artists where he continued to paint.

The period 1949 to 1959 has been described as ‘critical’ for Mitchell; in 1949 he was introduced by Leach to the sculptor Barbara Hepworth who was looking for an assistant at Trewyn Studio which she had just bought. Mitchell was hired for one day and stayed for ten years.
Hepworth was instrumental in Mitchell’s creative evolution, and inspired his first experimentations with sculpture in wood, slate and stone. Her tutelage instilled in him a pure love of form, and of carving. Upon leaving her employ a happy decade later, Mitchell consequently began to work largely in bronze. He would later say of Hepworth that ‘she had an extraordinary eye… we carved side by side… I was her hands.’

Denis Mitchell, Barbara Hepworth and John Wells at work on Contrapuntal Forms in Hepworth’s Trewyn Studio, St Ives, Cornwall, 1950, Barbara Hepworth © Bowness

The pair co-founded The Penwith Society of Arts in 1949 along with other abstract artists including Hepworth’s then-husband Ben Nicholson, Peter Lanyon, John Wells, et al. The Penwith Society was created to rebel against the traditional constraints of the St. Ives Society and in doing so they contributed significantly to the development of modern and abstract art in Britain. A calm and diplomatic individual, Mitchell was later elected Chairman of the Society 1955 to 1957.

Denis Mitchell working on Contrapuntal Forms in Hepworth’s Trewyn Studio, St Ives, Cornwall, 1950. Photograph courtesy The Estate of Denis Mitchell. Barbara Hepworth © Bowness

After his departure from Trewyn Studio, Mitchell was able to devote himself to sculpting full time and in 1967 he moved to join John Wells at his new Trewarveneth Studio in Newlyn, on the other side of the peninsula. The years spent amidst the Cornish landscape, the artistic relationships he made, and his interest in non-Western (in particular African and pre-Colombian) works of art were intrinsic in determining his aesthetic sensibilities.

The columnar singular forms of Needle (1966) and Tregony (1967), in polished bronze and aluminium respectively, are typical of the period in which they were produced. Piercing in their simplicity, the objects bring light and balance into solid mass. Taking particular advantage of the transcendental quality of polished metal, they recall Mitchell’s ‘experience of ascending from the depths of the mines ’, shafts of thin guiding light. They stand in stark contrast to their counterparts Hela (1977), and Carah (1978), in bronze and slate respectively, made a decade later when Mitchell was in his sixties. These later works are more instinctively organic in their form, recalling the pre-historic, rugged landscaped in which they were created. The poetic curves and subtle asymmetry register with the subconscious, conveying Mitchell’s personal response to those surroundings.

It has been noted that no sculptor junior to Hepworth and Moore other than Mitchell has made such a profound impact on twentieth century British sculpture,

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