A t the age of sixty-eight, Frank Dobson decided to carve a nude in marble. It was an excellent move: he had succeeded, throughout a long and prolific career, in producing many of his finest works by cutting directly into stone. Women’s naked bodies had likewise become a prime source of inspiration for Dobson. So, he was absolutely right to return, with an immense amount of creative emotion and technical assurance, to making a sculpture called Reclining Female Figure.
Looking now at the outcome, we may well feel initially that Dobson wanted to celebrate a sense of serenity. The woman’s closed eyes indicate that she has fallen asleep. Lying down, her body appears to have found a position which could be retained for several hours. Dobson concentrates above all on the amplitude of smooth, fleshy elements like her thigh, calf and shoulder. He seems at first to be celebrating the wonder of a female body in its prime. The marble has been carved with such aplomb that everyone encountering this impressive tour de force will want to move forward as close as possible and gaze at a recumbent figure who appears, to begin with, oblivious of everything other than her own slumbering repose and contentment.
After a while, though, we become aware of other elements in this subtle, profoundly moving sculpture. She is, without any doubt, gentle and tender. But from certain angles, this woman exudes an almost child-like quality. By this stage in his life, Dobson had been given the pleasure of one grandchild: a little girl called Sarah, who was born in 1948. She had reached the age of six when Dobson carved Reclining Female Figure. Fortunately, her grandfather’s large family house at 14 Harley Gardens in Kensington was inviting and spacious enough for Sarah to run around freely when she visited him. And at night, she was able to sleep in what Neville Jason described as ‘the cosy little downstairs studio which Dobson normally used for modelling small terracottas in the evening.’
He may well have wanted his little grand-daughter to benefit from the kind of family warmth and protection so absent after his father died suddenly of a stroke at the age of forty-four. As Jason pointed out, Dobson went on in later life to achieve ‘a position in society that he could never have dreamed possible when as a cockney lad of fourteen he had run away from home to sleep rough in the streets of London.’ He remained homeless for eight weeks, lying down under railway arches at night and desperately searching for shelter elsewhere. This traumatic period in Dobson’s life gave way, mercifully, to a successful career as an adventurous young sculptor, followed by his years at the Royal College of Art where, with support from Henry Moore, he became Professor of Sculpture.
"Dobson’s subtlety as a sculptor means that his figure succeeds in embracing vulnerability at one extreme and a supreme air of contentment at the other."
By then, the Second World War had erupted and during the Blitz his large studio in Manresa Road was burned out by Nazi bombs. Dobson never forgot that nightmare in the post-war years, even though his work was quite removed from the overt sense of damage and angst explored by plenty of younger British artists during the 1950s. The longer we look at Reclining Female Figure, the more vulnerable it appears.
Although the woman’s fleshiness implies that she has never suffered from privation, there is a distinct sense of loneliness here. She may well be coping with feelings of fear, as if wondering whether someone might attack her. Viewed from certain angles, the sculpture makes us acutely aware of just how tightly clustered her limbs have become. At the base of the figure, a hand is rigidly conjoined with feet and a bunched-up leg. The woman seems bravely determined to protect herself from possible assault, and she may even be trying to block her right ear from the threat of sudden, disturbing noise.
While the Blitz assaulted the city, plenty of Dobson’s fellow-Londoners had undergone the nightmare of escaping from their houses and finding shelter in Underground tunnels. They even had to sleep there on hard, dirty and dismal platforms during the night, so Dobson may well have included more than a hint of this suffering in Reclining Female Figure. After all, the woman places one hand on her head as if determined to stave off an attack. Or she may even be suffering from a headache caused by fear of lying on her own in such a dark, ominous place.
Ultimately, though, Dobson’s subtlety as a sculptor means that his figure succeeds in embracing vulnerability at one extreme and a supreme air of contentment at the other. The expression on her face could even be regarded as placid, and her lips do not express any overt anguish. The formal simplification adds to this sense of composure. No toes are specified anywhere, and Dobson provides only a hint of her backbone or elbow. He ensures that the white marble helps him to provide a fundamental celebration of human existence here, and the carving’s rich plurality of meanings guarantees that we never tire of discovering them.