Details & Cataloguing

Modern & Post-War British Art


Reg Butler
stamped with Artist's stamp, dated 56 and numbered C6 on the underside of the foot
shell bronze on a concrete base
height (including base): 176cm.; 69 1/4 in.
Conceived in 1954, the present work was cast in 1956 and is from the edition of 6.
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Walter Bareiss Family
Their sale, Sotheby's London, 11th December 2006, lot 109, where acquired by Connaught Brown, London
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 31st January 2011


New York, Curt Valentin Gallery, Reg Butler, January - February 1955, cat. no.42 (another cast);
London, Institute of Contemporary Arts, The Gregory Fellowship Exhibition, 14th August - 20th September 1958, cat. no.2 (plaster version);
Pittsburgh, Carnegie Institute, Museum of Art, The 1961 Pittsburgh International Exhibition of Contemporary Painting and Sculpture, 27th October 1961 - 7th January 1962, cat. no.464 (another cast);
Louisville, Kentucky, J.B. Speed Art Museum, Reg Butler: A Retrospective Exhibition, 22nd October - 1st December 1963, cat. no.56 (another cast);
Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Contemporary British Painting and Sculpture, October - November 1964, cat. no.10, illustrated (another cast);
London, Tate, Reg Butler, 16th November 1983 - 15th January 1984, cat. no.51 (another cast);
Derbyshire, Chatsworth House, Frank & Cherryl Cohen at Chatsworth, 19th March 2012 - 10th June 2012, cat. no.16, illustrated (this cast);
Nottingham, Djanogly Art Gallery, University of Nottingham, In The Shadow of War, 29th November 2014 - 15th February 2015 (this cast).


Margaret Garlake, New Art New World: British Art in Postwar Society, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1998, p.198;
Margaret Garlake, Reg Butler, Henry Moore Foundation in association with Lund Humphries, Much Hadham and Aldershot, 2006, cat. no.149, illustrated p.47 (another cast).

Catalogue Note

In 1953 Reg Butler was propelled to international fame as the winner of the ICA’s competition for an artwork to commemorate the Unknown Political Prisoner. Whilst his participation alongside the so-called ‘Geometry of Fear’ group at the Venice Biennale in the previous year, with Kenneth Armitage, Eduardo Paolozzi, Bernard Meadows, William Turnbull, Lynn Chadwick, Robert Adams and Geoffrey Clarke, had identified Butler as a member of an exciting young group of engaged and challenging sculptors, this success was a defining moment of individual recognition, triumphing over long established artists. More than the exposure, however, the project itself, and what Butler was grappling with theoretically, aesthetically and practically, influenced all his contemporary work, including the Manipulator (1954). With the maquette for Unknown Political Prisoner, Butler sought to examine the dichotomies and dualities of man and machine, the organic and inorganic, the hybrid and the human, sex and the sexless, inflicting and receiving pain, the totality of the whole and the fetish of the part, and, in terms of material, welded iron and cast bronze. The same year that he created Manipulator, Butler returned to the Venice Biennale with his prize-winning maquette.

Manipulator is a rare male figure in Butler’s oeuvre but must be seen in dialogue with his female counterparts that largely dominate. A lone man, he is raised up, balanced on a grid of poles, and holds in his hands another grid-like construction of interlocking bars, a machine with no identifiable purpose. The upper body is draped in cloth that wrinkles and gathers around the torso, just like, as Margaret Garlake suggests, one of Henry Moore’s draped figures. Essentially an untrained artist, though an accomplished architect, Butler was Moore’s studio assistant after World War II. The head of the Manipulator is upturned – a motif seen in the Unknown Political Prisoner. As the figure is life-size, the head turned skyward is mysterious, almost totally beyond the sight of the viewer. The viewer cannot but speculate on what caused the figure to throw his head back, impeaching or imploring upon the sky, and, in speculating, think that perhaps only immense despair could be the source. Unlike with the Unknown Political Prisoner, the Manipulator does not seem controlled by the framework of bars, rods and poles but instead seems to control the machinery. Who is being manipulated? Or is performing the manipulation? The man is not physically strained or stressed, he is not deformed or malformed but rather, in body at least, neutral and passive. Garlake has argued, however, that the distinct lack of sexuality of the Manipulator suggests a certain unease with the male, perhaps ‘[embodying] the failure of creativity or the artist’s potent fear of that failure’ (Margaret Garlake, Reg Butler, Henry Moore Foundation in association with Lund Humphries, Much Hadham and Aldershot, 2006, p.46). Butler himself wrote of the Manipulator’s intentions as opposed to his innate nature, a contradiction that seems insurmountable: ‘[his] divine discontent, his desire to create an orderly or coherent pattern where none exists…attempt to reorganise certain aspects of his environment. In contrast you have the contented animal who seeks little if anything beyond food, rest, and from time to time, sex.’ (Reg Butler, quoted ibid).

The Manipulator can be seen as the failure of a man but this period in Butler’s work encompasses a wider questioning, a probing of the failure of mankind. As Herbert Read so famously recorded, the ‘Geometry of Fear’ sculptors presented the psychological angst in of the post-war years in physical form. The horrors of World War II were trailed by the horrors of imminent nuclear armageddon of the human race at its own hands. In the upturned head of the Manipulator, in his cry of despair, in his impotence and in his machine that might inflict pain on himself or another, we see the embodiment of a profound sense of futility. A masterwork of the aftermath of WWII, Manipulator ranks amongst Butler’s most profoundly searching and haunting sculptural statements.

Other casts of the Manipulator are held by the Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, N.Y., Charles Clifton Fund; and Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. 

Modern & Post-War British Art