MY MOTHER SETTLED in London in about 1951, a year before I was born. The UK was still recovering from WW2, and life was not too easy. There were shortages of food. I remember my mother telling me that during the early 1950s, relatives in South Africa used to send parcels of food, including, as I can still recall, tinned guavas. The postman used to lug these heavy packages to our home in Hampstead Garden Suburb. My mother used to feel guilty that she was lucky enough to be receiving food that few others could not obtain, and used to open the parcels and give the postman a couple of tins from them. Soon after I was born, my mother, already a painter, began making sculptures. Somehow or other, she managed to get permission to work in the sculpture studios at the St Martin School of Art, which was then located on Tottenham Court Road. She was not enrolled as a student, but worked alongside, and received help from, several sculptors who have now become famous. Amongst these were Antony Caro, Phillip King, William Turnbull, and Elisabeth Frink, who became a family friend.
Most of my mother’s sculpting was done during the 1950s and 1960s. This was a period when many people, including British sculptors, were simultaneously recovering from the horrors of war; fearful of the Cold War and the possibility that it might develop into a war with atomic weapons; and looking towards the future. Sculptors reacted to this situation in various ways as can be seen at an exhibition being held in the Marlborough Gallery in London’s Mayfair until the 22nd of April 2023. Called “Towards a New World: Sculpture in Post-War Britain”, this show to quote the gallery’s press release:
“… emphasises the international impact of a group of young sculptors and artists who merged past trauma, present anxieties, and future hopes into a new visual language.”
The artists whose works are on display include, amongst others, Elisabeth Frink, William Turnbull, Reg Butler, Bernard Meadows, Kenneth Armitage, Lyn Chadwick, Graham Sutherland, and Francis Bacon.
Apart from some of the works by Reg Butler and Bernard Meadows, the artworks on display exhibit what the art historian Herbert Read described as:
“…the iconography of despair, or of defiance; and the more innocent the artist, the more effectively he transmits the collective guilt. Here are images of flight, or ragged claws ‘scuttling across the floors of silent seas’, of excoriated flesh, frustrated sex, the geometry of fear.”
The Geometry of Fear was the name of a group of British artists who exhibited at the 1952 Venice Biennale.
Bernard Meadows (1915-2005) was a name that was new to me. He was Henry Moore’s first assistant. Later, he taught Elisabeth Frink at the Royal College of Art. He was a member of the The Geometry of Fear group but as the press release explained he differed from most of its members:
“While the distorted human figure became a prominent motif for many of the artists associated with the ‘geometry of fear’ group, for others, like Bernard Meadows, it was animal imagery that resonated most with the collective societal trauma of the war. Visceral depictions of birds and crabs acted as vehicles to express human emotion.”
I enjoyed seeing this exhibition. The works are well-displayed in the spacious, well-lit rooms of the Marlborough. After viewing the exhibition, I wondered about my mother’s sculptures, most of which now only exist in photographs. Her first sculpture, a terracotta mother and child, was figurative but veering towards the abstract. As time passed, her work became increasingly abstract, and tended to be closer to being brutalist rather than naturalist. Although I never heard her mention The Geometry of Fear, I wonder whether her artistic sympathies lay with them rather than with any other ‘school’ of artistic activity.