Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: carving

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.)

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.)

Women with chisels: (1) Sally Ryan; (2) Hepworth Mander scandal update

Sally Ryan: not a “sculptress”

Mother and Child

Mother and Child

After all the recent focus here on Barbara Hepworth (see also below), a moment to mention another woman with a chisel, the relatively unknown American sculptor Sally Ryan, more usually thought of as a collector, as a member of the Jacob Epstein circle, and as the second half of the New Art Gallery Walsall’s Garman Ryan collection. Walsall have recently re-jigged the Garman Ryan for its 40th anniversary, and have made a good job of it. (Except that the inept interventions of Patrick Brill RA, as “Bob and Roberta Smith”, still clutter the place. I guess Brill was bought in to add contemporary edge to the collection, as if it needed it; am I the only one who finds his posturing amateurism plain insulting?)

Sarah Tack Ryan, known to her American friends as Tammie, was the granddaughter of mega-millionaire Thomas Fortune Ryan, whose lawyer had been famed New York collector John Quinn. As the Milwaukee Journal put it, in a breathless write-up of August 1940:

“Sally Ryan, a resolute wisp of a girl … never cared a whoop about society but cared a great deal about sculpture. So she became a sculptor.

The word ‘sculptress’ is one of her pet hates. To her, that outdated ‘ess’ signifies a dabbler – ‘a person who does the little, twiddly sort of thing.’ ‘There are many sculptresses among the debutantes,’ she said, ‘but no sculptors.’”

Unfinished Mask

Unfinished Mask

In 1935 Ryan visited London and tracked down Epstein, who became an important influence on her work. The Garman Ryan collection includes a number of her pleasing portrait bronzes in his manner, but I much prefer her carving, represented there by two pieces: a handsome Unfinished Mask in marble, and a remarkably tender limestone Mother and Child that shows the absorbed influences of Epstein, Frank Dobson and early Hepworth. She was a prolific worker, so where’s all the rest of her carving? I’m not sure, though several photos, apparently from the mid ‘forties, show another large mother and child in progress.

As a bit of a rich kid, Ryan didn’t want for publicity shots. I particularly like the first Alfredo Valente photo below where, hammer in hand, she leans meditatively on a large carving, looking boho-preppy in shorts and pumps. Accounts always mention “mannish clothes” – blue or grey flannel slacks and a boy’s shirt, old sweaters and battered oxford brogues – which were taken as a token of her sexuality. A later image shows her as remarkably elegant.

It’s not clear to me for how long she continued to sculpt. Less frequently, perhaps, as the throat cancer that killed her closed in. In later years she devoted herself to buying artworks in company with Kathleen Garman, Epstein’s widow. She died in her early fifties in 1968. [For enlargements and slide shows, click below.]


A write-up in a June 1940 issue of Life suggested that “being the granddaughter of … an American multimillionaire has given Sally Ryan as much incentive to succeed as if she had been born poor and obscure.” No doubt, but one also wonders if it gave her public less incentive to take her seriously and an excuse to dismiss her as a dilettante, rather than the fine sculptor she actually proved herself to be.

Wolverhampton’s Barbara Hepworth: Mander scandal update

For anything new on the campaign to rescue Wolverhampton’s Hepworth bronze Rock Form (Porthcurno) from the evil clutches of Royal Bank of Scotland, please continue to check our Facebook page.

gormley storySince the last round-up here nine days ago, the cause has attracted the firm backing of Antony Gormley, the petition has passed 1,100 signatures, and the story has reached –

Midlands Today BBC regional news (August 19)

BBC News Online

Artlyst – also here

Artnet

The Herald Scotland

Delancey and RBS have responded with evasive and non-committal assurances that they are “looking at” ways to keep the sculpture “available” to the people of Wolverhampton. Not good enough! Perhaps the imminent sale of the Mander Centre to a private equity investment outfit will help to sharpen their focus …