Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Monthly Archives: July 2016

A Vorticist frog

I’m charmed by a little item that’s popped up in Raquel Gilboa’s 2009 study of Jacob Epstein that I don’t remember seeing before – a wonderful carving in red sandstone of an abstracted frog, about 20 by 29 cm, credited only to a “private collection”, and speculatively dated to 1913-14. Gilboa attributes this more probably to Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, on the grounds that both subject and material fit Gaudier better, and that none of the Epstein family recalled seeing it lying around. I suppose it’s not entirely incompatible with Epstein’s mating doves of that era, but that’s the only possible point of connection, and his work of the period is more concerned with weighty symbolisms of procreation than with pure reconfigurations of form such as this.

frog
On the other hand, the “Chenil Blue Book” sketchbook of Gaudier’s at the Tate, dated to 1913-14, does contain a little sketch of a frog seen from above. Not that this clinches it, but the Chenil (a great online browse, by the way) has other drawings linked to a number of small sculptures by Gaudier, including two of fish, though his little animal pieces are in bronze, not stone like the frog. Quite a few doodles in the sketchbook seem, to my uneducated eye, to be drawn from Aztec or Mayan motifs, and the little frog maybe has something of this look. So, on balance, Gaudier it is – perhaps …

conway
When did this little frog surface to hop into the Epstein oeuvre? Both Gilboa and the Courtauld site reference it to the 1987 Epstein show at Leeds and Whitechapel, so I’m guessing that that was its emergence in modern times. Where was it before then?

Anyway, it’s a beautiful thing. Vehicular, almost presciently tank-like in fact, eyelids closed, fingertips touching, mouth an impassive straight line, it sits as if in deep meditation of its own frogliness. Extraordinary how Gaudier (if it was he) could stare at the block and see this form trapped within it, reducible. There are some striated chisel marks behind the eyes, while the hump at the rear seems to have been left a bit roughly shaped, so one wonders if it’s actually finished, not that it matters. If this is Gaudier’s, it is a clear point on the trajectory of his project to synthesise the natural and the mechanical, the project truncated by his early death in war. (But before the appearance of tanks.)

(Incidentally, I can’t see any photo credit in Gilboa’s book for the image used there; a colour version of the same photo turns up in flickriver, credited to a Ras Marley of Philadelphia, but it’s clear that not all photos in his name are originals, so I’m assuming that’s lifted from elsewhere. I show it here, up above. If anyone objects, by all means shout.)

Artificial melancholy in Sutton Coldfield

My wife says it’s a shame that I’m reduced to blogging about the contents of garden centres (see last post), and she probably has a point. But while I’m still in the mood, here’s a quick tour around select bits of Hall’s of Sutton Coldfield, a surprisingly off kilter venue nestling innocently just outside Birmingham, whose displays of massed cultural fossils achieve fresh and unerring incongruity overload, reuniting Nature with ruin and artificial melancholy in a tradition extending back to the eighteenth century. In connection with which, I was delighted to find above the toilet doors a print of Millais’s Cherry Ripe, a kitsch icon and descendant of Joshua Reynolds’s Penelope Boothby as already discussed in this post. Other highlights include a “Japanese Water Garden” (with both piped water and piped pseudo-oriental music), a vast stock of worryingly large plastic animals and a gargantuan dinosaur on a pallet on the roof. (Oh yes, and look carefully and you’ll see that the tree man, behind the frog and duck fountains, houses a surveillance camera.)

A previous foray here into contemporary kitsch, my post on the Trafford Centre in Manchester, left one commenter feeling “a bit queasy”. This is all very much miniaturised in comparison with that postmodern Xanadu, but I hope these images may have just a little of the same effect. (Click thumbnails for slides and click below slides for mega enlargements. )

Aphrodites among the roses

A bit haltingly, I’m working through Raquel Gilboa’s ... And there was Sculpture, the first volume of her 2009 Jacob Epstein study, covering his career up to 1930. It’s good. Her revealing emphasis on Epstein’s Jewishness, largely ignored by others, provides valuable new understandings. But I was perplexed for a while by the strange familiarity of the great cover photo of Epstein bashing away at the beginnings of Maternity, finished in 1912. Of course! Its echo is in Tony Hancock’s magnum (very magnum) opus Aphrodite at the Waterhole, from his justly celebrated 1961 film The Rebel, about which there is much online, though no excerpts on YouTube, sadly, thanks to copyright issues. Yes, the primal memory of direct carving runs deep.


At a bit of a tangent to this, but still in the realm of chunky stone Epsteinian Aphrodites, a visit to David Austin Roses at Albrighton near Wolverhampton has provided a fresh acquaintance with the sculptures of the late Pat Austin, a talented carver, whose stone pieces nicely punctuate the super-abundant floriferousness of the rose gardens. I’m never quite sure about garden statuary, most of which seems to have a contextual bias towards naffness, but Pat Austin’s carved sculptures are really rather fine, in a retro-symbolist, late British neo-romantic sort of way, and it’s quite a surprise to come across them in a garden centre, albeit a very fabulous garden centre.

pat austin

Pat Austin

Her chunky lion is predictably popular with visitors, but I far prefer the stately stone maidens and the vaguely Palmerish panels. These garden pieces are catalogued on the PMSA site, but apart from a carved frieze outside Albrighton Health Centre, I’m not aware of any more of her work on public view.  Anyway, here’s a few snaps of the sculptures, by way of a nod to a remarkable but little known woman with chisel. (Click on thumbnails for slideshow / enlargements.)