MY LATE MOTHER (Helen Yamey: 1920-1980) trained as a commercial artist in Cape Town (South Africa) before WW2. In 1948, she came to London to marry my father. In London, she painted and, according to my father, took lessons from the great Stanley Spencer (1891-1959). Around the time when I was born (1952), my mother began making sculptures. The first of these was a terracotta mother and child. Maybe, she was depicting herself with me in her arms. By the 1960s, she was working in the sculpture studios of St Martins School of Art, which was then near Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road. There, she was in the company of artists such as Anthony Caro, William Tucker, Philip King, and William Turnbull. At least one of these now famous artists taught my mother how to weld and solder.
My mother exhibited her works in important art galleries at least twice. In late 1961, she exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Art in a show called “26 young Sculptors”. In 1962, she exhibited sculptures at the Grabowski Gallery, along side works by Maurice Agis and David Annesley. Although she sold a few of her creations, she did them more for pleasure than for profit.
My mother was a perfectionist. She destroyed much of what she created. However, at some time during the 1960s, she had a series of professional photographs taken of some of her mainly abstract works. These were kept in a yellow Kodak photographic paper box in a drawer in our home in Hampstead Garden Suburb. As a teenager, I used to look at them occasionally and wonder what became of some of the creations recorded in these photos.
My mother died in 1980 and my father remarried 11 years later. After remarrying, he and my stepmother moved from our home in Hampstead Garden Suburb to another house (near Primrose Hill). After the move, I used to ask him what had happened to the photographs of my mother’s sculptures and other family photos. Each time I asked, he would say that they were stored somewhere, possibly in the garage of his new home. After a while, I gave up hope of ever seeing these pictures again because it was clear to me that Dad had little or no interest in these photographs and in addition he could not imagine why anyone else would find them interesting. My father died, aged 101 and 6 months, in 2020. What with covid19 and its associated problems, we did not see his widow, my stepmother, again until recently this year (2022).
When, at last, we met her, she arrived carrying a plastic carrier bag, which she handed to me. To my great delight, it contained the box of photographs described above and another filled with family photographs taken mainly in the late 1950s. My stepmother told me that she had found them when she was sorting things in the garage of the house where she and my father had lived.
The photographs of my mother’s sculptures all bear the name of the photographer: Joseph McKenzie, ARPS (95 Blenheim Gardens, Wallington, Surrey). According to Wikipedia, Joseph McKenzie (1929-2015) is regarded as “father of modern Scottish photography”. More relevantly in the context of my mother’s works, he taught photography at the St martins School of Art.
Some of the photographs have notes written on their backs. The handwriting is my mother’s. One of the pictures, that of the mother and child has the words: “my first ever sculpture, terracotta, mother and child, 24””. Some of the other photos have information about the size and the material of the work depicted.
About 10 years before she died, my mother became disillusioned and practically gave up making sculptures. Although she made a few abstract images in pen and ink and a few carvings in alabaster, her abandonment of sculpture making as a full-time activity left a great hole in her life.
I have taken pictures of the photographs, and they can be seen on: