Soho and a straight horizon

WALKING ALONG CHARING CROSS ROAD in central London recently, a memory of my childhood sprung into mind. When I was about eight years old, I was told off by my art teacher at school because the horizon on my painting was not straight enough for her. She told me that I should have used a ruler. When I related this incident to my mother, she was quite annoyed because, in her opinion, it did not matter whether a horizon was drawn ruler straight or not. I hoped that she would not complain to the school about her feelings about the ineptitude of the art teacher. I do not recall that she bothered to do so.

My mother was an artist, whose works became increasingly abstract as she grew older. Before WW2, she trained to become a commercial artist at the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town (South Africa). Her earliest works, which I have never seen, were hand-painted posters, advertisements for the latest films (movies). In 1948, she followed my father from Cape Town to London, where he had taken up an academic post at the London School of Economics. They married in 1948 and, according to my father, Mom took painting classes with the now famous Stanley Spencer (1891-1959). Interestingly, I never heard my mother mentioning these classes.

Stone sculpture by Adam Yamey’s mother

I was born in 1952, and it was around then that my mother began creating sculpture. One of her earliest sculptures was in terracotta and its subject matter was a mother, seated, holding a child, maybe me. During the late 1950s and early part of the 1960s, my mother worked in the sculpture workshops at St Martin’s School of Art, which was then located on Charing Cross Road. The Sculpture Department was then under the directorship of Frank Martin (1914-2004), whom my mother referred to as ‘Mr Martin’ when talking to us at home.  It was there that she worked alongside sculptors, who have since become quite famous. These included Menashe Kadishman (1932-2015), Buky Schwarz (1932-2009), Philip King (1934-2021), and Antony Caro (1924-2013). The latter two helped her learn how to weld and create sculptures in metal, a medium she preferred. It was probably at St Martins that my mother met the sculptor Elizabeth Frink (1930-1993), who also taught in the Sculpture Department. She and Mom became close friends. ‘Liz Frink’, as she was known in our family, was a regular visitor to our home in northwest London.

My mother used to work at St Martins several days a week. She used to do a lot of the family’s food shopping nearby in Soho’s Old Compton Street. Vegetables were bought from a French greengrocer, and meat from a Belgian butcher called Benoit Bulcke. This butcher, according to Mom, knew how to cut meat correctly, unlike most English butchers. As a young child, I accepted that this was the case if Mom said so. The butcher and the greengrocer no longer exist. However, three other stores she frequented are still in business: The Algerian Coffee Store; Camisa; and Lina Stores. My mother was an early disciple of the cookery writer, Elizabeth David (1913-1922), and her encouragement of the preparation of French and Mediterranean dishes. The proximity of St Martins to Old Compton Street was convenient for my mother, as the shops along it provided many ingredients, which were hard to find elsewhere in London in the 1950s and early 1960s.

A familiar face

THE SCULPTOR ELIZABETH FRINK (1930-1993) was a close friend of my late mother, who was also a sculptor. I do not know how they met at first, but they remained close friends. ‘Liz’ Frink, as I knew her when I was a child, was a regular visitor to our family home in northwest London. After my mother died in 1980, I never saw Liz again. She was born in Suffolk (where one of her pieces stands in the garden of the cathedral of Bury St Edmunds), studied at both Guildford and Chelsea schools of art, and died in Dorset (at Blandford Forum, which is a few miles southwest of Salisbury).

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Walking Madonna

Early in August (2020), we drove from London to Devon via Salisbury. There were two reasons that we chose the less direct route through the city of Salisbury. One was to avoid the motorway system as much as possible and to travel along roads that pass through lovely countryside. The other was to visit Salisbury, especially its cathedral and enclosed environs (the ‘Cathedral Close’). The cathedral, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture built mainly between 1220 and 1320, is worthy of a visit, or as the Michelin “Guides Vert” say in French, ‘vaut le détour’. The splendid architecture was one reason for our latest visit but not the main one. We had come to see an exhibition called “Celebrating 800 Years of Spirit and Endeavour”.

The exhibition consists of 20 works of art, mainly sculptural, displayed within the cathedral and outside it in the Cathedral Close. These works are in addition to the cathedral’s permanent collection of 9 sculptures. My favourites amongst the temporary works were pieces created by: Conrad Shawcross, Danny Lane, Subodh Gupta, Antony Gormley, Tony Cragg, Lynn Chadwick, Daniel Chadwick, and Grayson Perry.

I was intrigued by an electronic sculpture, ‘The Reader’. made in 2015 by an artist named Stanza (born 1962). It depicts a standing man reading a book. The book glows regularly and as it does, LED bulbs in different parts of his body glow for a few moments. The artwork attempts to show, quite successfully, how reading can affect the body and feelings of the reader.

Several of the artworks in the cathedral’s permanent collection particularly impressed me. One of these is a small stone carving by Emily Young, which stands in the cloisters. Also, in the cloisters, there is a large coloured sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, which recalled the works of the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, a good friend of hers. It is called ‘Construction (Crucifixion’). Generally, I am not enthusiastic about her works, but this one, which is so different from most of her other creations, pleased me greatly.

There is another wonderful part of the permanent collection within the nave of the cathedral. This is a large baptismal font by William Pye. Installed in 2008, this huge vessel is filled to the brim with water which flows from it via four spouts. The surface of the water is perfectly smooth and acts as a mirror in which the architecture of the cathedral is reflected beautifully. It is truly a reflective piece in more than one sense of the adjective.

Outside the cathedral, there is a fine stone carving in white marble, ‘Angels Harmony’, by Helaine Blumenfeld. To me, it seemed to depict drapes being blown around in the wind. I liked this, but what really caught my eye was a rather dreary looking cast bronze sculpture, ‘Walking Madonna’. This life-size piece was made in 1981 by ‘our’ former family friend Liz Frink. At first, I glanced at it quickly, and then, for no special reason, I took a closer look. I experienced a strange feeling of ‘déja vu’ when I looked at the Madonna’s face. For a moment, I felt as if I was looking at Liz Frink’s face. As mentioned already, it is over 40 years since I last saw her. Yet, I had the feeling that I recognised her face. I have since learned that Frink often included her long jawline in the faces she sculpted, but it was not that which gave me the fleeting feeling of recognition. Instead, it was the nose and mouth on the depiction of the Madonna that sparked that momentary sensation that I was looking into Frink’s face. I have since compared photographs of the sculptor with those I took of the work on the lawns outside the cathedral. Comparing them, one cannot entirely rule out the possibility that Liz Frink was influenced by her own face when creating the ‘Walking Madonna’.

Whether or not Frink intended her sculpture to include her own face is up to the viewer, but in any case, I can strongly recommend a visit to Salisbury Cathedral before the enjoyable sculpture exhibition is dismantled.

My artistic mother

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My late mother died at the age of 60 in 1980. Her mother, who was born late in the 19th century in South Africa, held an old-fashioned opinion that girls should not attend university however bright they were. My mother would certainly have been able to cope with a university course of study, but, instead, she enrolled in the prestigious Michaelis  School of Fine Art in Cape Town. Founded in 1925, it is now ironically a department of the University of Cape Town.

Mom studied commercial art. Her first employment was hand painting posters, advertising cinema films. When I began visiting India in the 1990s, many film posters were still being painted by hand. Often, we saw workers perched on rickety bamboo scaffolding, painting the details of huge posters. Two years ago while visiting Bhuj in Kutch (part of Gujarat), we found a workshop where two men produced hand painted posters. They told us that the demand for these was dying out rapidly. It is interesting to note that, like my mother, the great Indian artist MF Hussain began his creative life as a painter of cinema posters.

Returning to my mother, she designed and painted advertising material for the Red Cross in Cape Town during WW2. In 1947, she followed her fiancé, my father, to the UK. She married in 1948, and I arrived a few years later. According to my father, Mom took painting classes with the the famous Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959).  Sometime after that, she began creating sculptures.

When I was born, I had a torticollis (twisting of muscles of the neck beyond their normal position) that caused my head to be bent to one side. At that time in the early 1950s, the doctors told my mother that there was nothing to be done about this, and we would just have to live with it. My feisty mother refused to believe this. Every day, she manipulated my head and neck and gradually corrected the situation. Whether it was this manipulation that caused my mother to become a sculptor, I cannot say. However, one of her first sculpures was a terracotta mother and child, which she reproduced much later as an alabaster carving (see photo above).

When I was a young child, my mother used to attend the sculture studios at the St Martin School of Art in London’s Tottenham Court Road. She was not a student; she used the facilities and received advice from other sculptors including Philip King and Antony Caro. At that time, she became a close friend of the sculptor Dame Elizabeth Frink, who visited our home regularly. At St Martins, Mom learnt how to weld and work with metal. She created several quite attractive abstract metal artworks. Being a perfectionist, she destroyed much of what she made, but not before having it photographed by a competent photographer. Sadly, these photos have gone missing.

By the time I was a teenager, my mother had ceased working at St Martins, possibly not of her own volition. She rented a large garage in Golders Green and used it as a studio, where she created huge abstract sculptures in timber. She found working on her own to be lonely. However, without the benefit of proper lifting equipment, she produced quite a few sculptures.

Around about 1970, Mom began complaining of back pains, which she thought were the result of the heavy work she was doing in her garage. She abandoned the garage and more or less stopped creating any artworks except for a very few abstract pen and ink drawings, which she considered good enough to be framed.

The back pains continued. My mother became disillusioned with the contemporary art scene. She was familiar with the great renaissance  works of art which she visited every year in Florence (Italy), and comparing these with what she and her contemporaries were producing added to her disinclination to produce any more art of her own. For the last ten years of her life, Mom continued to search (unsuccessfully) for an interest to replace the creation of art. Tragically, she died young because of a cancer, which might well have been contributing to her long-lasting back pain.

Whatever the reason, if an artist loses the urge to create, it must produce a huge hole in his or her life, something like losing a loved one.