‘…all that remained of Daphne was her shining loveliness. And still Phoebus (Apollo) loved her…‘My bride’, he said, ‘since you can never be, at least sweet laurel, you shall be my tree. My lure, my locks my quiver you shall wreathe’…Thus spoke the god; the laurel in assent inclined her new-made branches and bent down, or seemed to bend, her head, her leafy crown’ (Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.452).
McWilliam’s elegant wood carving perfectly encapsulates the ancient Greek mythological legend of Apollo, god of intellect, arts and healing who desired the maiden Daphne, who had in turn dedicated her life to Artemis, goddess of chastity, wild nature and the hunt. To protect Daphne from Apollo, Aretmis turned Daphne into Laurel.
The artist had first started carving in wood after returning from France in 1932 where he had been particularly inspired by the ethnographic sculpture displayed in the Museé de l’Homme in Paris. His first carvings such as Mother and Child (1932/33, Private Collection) instantly belie the influence on the artist of primitive sculptural forms and the artist began the first of many experimentations with alternative representations of the figure. The lithe and long limbed focus of Daphne into Laurel clearly stems from early ideas such as Figure (1933, Private Collection) carved from cherry wood where the artist had already reduced the figure to a very simple organic form. The idea of carving from a single piece of wood or stone also mirrored the concepts of complete sculpture proposed by Brancusi and Arp whose work McWilliam admired.
Executed in 1982, Daphne into Laurel represents a return to carving in wood during the last decade of the artist’s life. He had rediscovered some of his early carvings and decided to revisit them and was also encouraged to start carving again after a generous donation of wood from Eugene Rosenberg. He had already developed his trademark forms such as Roman Matron (1948, Private Collection) and Kneeling Man (1947, Coll. Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia) which, contrary to all classical models, omit the figure’s central torso and focus solely on the head and limbs. Following on from these experimentations, he developed his iconic series of Legs during the 1970s and Daphne Into Laurel reflects these progressive developments, whilst at the same time nostalgically referencing the artist’s early inspirational sources found at the Museé de l’Homme in Paris.
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