Innovations in Form: the Power of 20th Century British Sculpture

Innovations in Form: the Power of 20th Century British Sculpture

I n 1920, Barbara Hepworth won a scholarship to study at the Leeds School of Art. There she met Henry Moore, the son of a coal miner, and together they would change the course of 20th century art around the world. Moore and Hepworth both came of age in the 1920s and the early 1930s, travelling to the Continent to meet Modernist masters such as Brancusi and Giacometti, and in London, together with their families, they were at the heart of what Herbert Read called the ‘nest of gentle artists’ that lived and worked in the same part of Hampstead, ushering in a quiet artistic revolution in the UK.

"Joining figures together, I found in time I wanted to merge them so completely they formed a new organic unit – a simple mass of whatever shape I liked, containing only that number of heads, limbs or other detail I felt necessary"
(Kenneth Armitage, quoted in Norbert Lynton, Kenneth Armitage, Methuen, London 1962.)

In the early 1930s, both Moore and Hepworth began to pierce their sculptures: bringing the outside into their sculptures, situating the sculptures firmly in their landscape, breaking the closed whole and making it open. Hepworth’s Pierced Round Form from 1959, cast when she was at the peak of her artistic prowess and international reputation and as she turned to working in bronze, speaks to this seminal moment in the history of 20th century art. The polished bronze shimmers and glistens, its surface captivating, drawing the viewer’s eye towards the central piercing.

By the early 1930s, Moore had settled on the three themes that were to dominate his career: the mother and child, the family group and the reclining figure. The origin of the motif of the reclining figure lay in Moore’s trips as a student at the RCA to the British Museum where he saw both the sculptures of Western antiquity and Mexican sculpture. Reclining Stringed Figure was conceived in 1939 and this polished bronze was cast in 1982: the motif of the reclining figure preoccupied Moore throughout his life. In this iteration the figure has been significantly abstracted as Moore experimented with Surrealism and Abstraction in the 1930s. The stringing was inspired by the work of Russian sculptor Naum Gabo, a fellow resident in the ‘nest of gentle artists’ and an émigré fleeing the Nazis.

The influence of Moore’s motifs can be seen in the work of the sculptural generation that followed him: the ‘geometry of fear’ sculptors who exhibited together at the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale of 1952. Bernard Meadows’s Standing Mother and Child of 1952/66 speaks both to Moore’s preoccupation with the mother and child theme and to Moore’s fascination and experimentation with interior/exterior space as the child exists within the concave torso of Meadows’s upright mother. Meadows continues and expands the experimentation with such spatial and emotional relationships in sculpture.

William Turnbull, another of the sculptors who came of age in 1952, was, throughout his long and distinguished career, immersed in the upright human female form. Like Moore, Turnbull looked to the ancient and non-Western to find archetypal, ancient, primeval forms that spoke of the human form across ages and continents. His female forms, like Hook Torso of 1980/82, seem like echoes perhaps of fragments of ancient Cycladic sculptures.

Like Moore, Lynn Chadwick’s primary concern throughout his career was with the human form, particularly the male and female human form, often seen in dialogue. Continuing the tradition of Moore’s upright seated figures, sometimes in pairs as the parents of family groups, Chadwick made single and coupled figures the central tenets of his oeuvre. His figures, like Sitting Woman in Robe IV, 1987, are mysterious but their presence is undeniable. The flat faces refuse any simple emotional engagement, instead the overall of body, cloak and legs must be acknowledged. Like Moore and Hepworth, Chadwick did not begin his career in bronze but welded in iron and this early discipline, of creating armatures, informed the appearance of his later bronze pieces with their raised ribbing, as though an inner skeleton is present on the surface.

Where Moore primarily focused on the family unit, Kenneth Armitage, another of the 1952 generation, looked to the group, not necessarily bound by family ties. Armitage had become interested in the way in which groups of figures massed together such that a spectator registered the single mass before the individuals: 'Joining figures together, I found in time I wanted to merge them so completely they formed a new organic unit – a simple mass of whatever shape I liked, containing only that number of heads, limbs or other detail I felt necessary' (Kenneth Armitage, quoted in Norbert Lynton, Kenneth Armitage, Methuen, London 1962.) Children by the Sea, 1953, is one such sculpture, Armitage delighting in the simple pleasure of a seaside trip and finding humour and joy in the human existence.

Just over a decade after Turnbull, Chadwick and Meadows were part of a generation that transformed sculpture in Britain, Anthony Caro initiated another such revolution. Caro, had in his own artistic practice, moved, in the early 1960s, completely away from any form of figurative representation, rejecting the inheritance of Henry Moore. Instead he turned to steel, such as Stainless Piece A-G, 1979, welding and bolting together sheets and beams and painting them in bright colours: using a language of industry rather than fine art.

As a teacher at St Martins School of Art in London, Caro taught such young talented sculptors as Philip King and William Tucker, amongst many others, and these artists exhibited together: in 1965 at the Whitechapel the New Generation Sculpture was proclaimed.

Modern & Post-War British Art

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