D ame Elisabeth Frink grew up in the shadow of war. Born in 1930, her father was a soldier and her childhood was spent on an airbase in Suffolk. When she was nine years old, the Second World War began and she was evacuated to Devon, where amidst the trauma and bombing raids, Frink developed into a child deeply affected by conflict.
This awareness would go on to shape a rare female perspective of men at war. In a career that spanned forty years, Frink would return time and again to examining the human dynamics of conflict and the masculinity that births valor and vulnerability – through drawing, sculpture and prints.
That epic career, which ended with Frink's death in 1993, saw the creation of over 400 works, through which Frink established her position as one of Britain's pre-eminent 20th century artists. Ironically, for an artist so engrossed in the depiction of powerful men, her own battle for visibility against her male contemporaries of the 1950s and 1960s fuelled her ascent from within the post-war British sculptural school dubbed the “Geometry of Fear”, whose challenging work reflected the era's anxiety and anguish.
But in moving ahead of her peers, Frink’s bronzes of the male form, along with her sculptures of wildlife, in particular, birds and horses, soon made her a leading figure in the country's mid-20th century art scene.
It's perhaps no wonder then that Frink caught the eye of another pioneering British visionary: fashion designer Mary Quant. Best known as the inventor of the miniskirt, Quant has become synonymous with the Swinging Sixties, yet her impact reverberates to this day, as a recent multimedia retrospective and celebration at the V&A amply proved. Bursting out of grey, post-war make-do-and-mend austerity with a riot of shockingly vibrant, wearable and accessible designs, Quant captured the sunny spirit of the early 1960s, her chic, playful approach chiming with a new generation of young women, reacting to the restrictive clothing of previous decades. Mary Quant's legendary King’s Road boutique, Bazaar, which opened in 1955 soon became an anti-establishment mecca for those in search of “the London look”. And Quant herself epitomised this new spirit of energy, a striking figure peeking out from beneath an angular Vidal Sassoon five-point bob, proudly wearing her thigh-high hemlines with effortless panache. With her signature daisy logo becoming as ubiquitous as the Mini Cooper in mid-60's Swinging London (a Mini Cooper Mary Quant edition surprised no one when it was released in 1965), she was undoubtedly the youthful, daring and irreverent icon of the age.
Where Frink was concerned with maleness, Quant was preoccupied with the female form.Yet, in Frink’s work, Quant saw an aesthetic approach to the body that appealed to her and she became not only a keen collector of Frink's work but an acquaintance of the artist. As Quant’s son, Orlando Plunket-Greene, recalls: “They certainly met. They were friends. Not particularly social friends but I know mum probably collected more Frink than any other single artist. She has a number of works on paper and paintings by Frink. And I think the Goggle Head was the first piece that my parents acquired – definitely the first Frink she bought. I think she was one of the only artists that my parents bought multiple pieces. They acquired what they liked. And I say ‘they’ as my father [Alexander Plunket-Greene] was very much a part in that. They bought what they liked rather than just invested speculatively. So it was always very much acquiring pieces that they simply loved and enjoyed.”
The Goggle Head, which is to be sold in the upcoming Modern British and Irish Art sale, comes from a series of similar Head sculptures that Frink made in the 1960s. The imposing, solid shapes and distinct, opaque “sunglasses” were inspired by photographs of the Algerian War, a continuation of Frink’s fascination with the subject.
“I think all art is an instrument of change through awareness. One of the most important things about art – and I don’t mean sculpture, I mean all the arts – is that it must be a civilising influence. That is its main value: to make people aware of all sorts of different areas of their minds.” Elisabeth Frink told interviewer Sarah Kent in 1992. Meanwhile, she told Edwin Mullins in the 1972 book “The Art Of Elizabeth Frink" that "...the title Goggle Heads was a rather facetious way of dealing with the horror of the imagery”
In particular, the Goggle Heads were influenced by images of Moroccan General Mohammed Oufkir, a man accused of ordering the assassination in Paris of exiled politician Ben Barka. They were imbued with a sense of arrogance and entitlement but with the goggles, Frink denied them vision. For her, the Goggle Heads were reflective of “‘brainless, nasty people. A statement on my part about the cruelty and stupidity of repressive regimes and of the men who operated them” (Frink quoted in Edward Lucie-Smith and Elisabeth Frink, op. cit., p.64).
Quant’s family owned several Frink works including a Crane Legs and a small torso piece but it was this particular piece that stood out. “This sculpture took pride of place in our living room,” says Plunkett-Greene. “It was probably the most dominant visible art piece in our house.”
Although Quant, and her husband were famed for having a trendy circle of friends, their son says “Frink was one of the few artists she was friends with”. He continues: ““She connected really strongly with Frink and with Hockney, who she adored. She adored all of his work. I suppose the only other artist there is a consistent theme with was Allen Jones.”
Although conceding that “there certainly wasn’t an atmosphere of always going to galleries and art events and openings”, Plunkett-Greene did once visit Frink’s studio. “I do remember, as a young teen, spending a day with Elisabeth in her studio,” he says. “It was a lovely day. I think I was 13 or 14. I do remember it being a rather magical day in this wonderful place.”