In this new series — Barry Phipps, Curator of Works of Art at Churchill College explores artists and artworks from the College’s collection.

Sitting Figure 1959 by Lynn Chadwick

Lynn Chadwick was one of the leading British sculptors of post-war Britain. He was known primarily for works inspired by the human form and the natural world, but which were always close to abstraction.

Chadwick was born in Barnes, London in 1914 and died at his home in Gloucestershire in 2003. His career as a sculptor spanned almost 50 years, although he didn’t begin working as an artist until he was nearly 32. After war service as a pilot he returned to his pre–1939 career with his former employer, the London architect, Rodney Thomas. His path to sculpture was initially through exhibition design and construction.

He was launched on the international stage as one of a new generation of sculptors exhibiting at the British Pavilion of the 1952 Venice Biennale. The eight young artists who were invited to exhibit at the Biennale, included Robert Adams, Kenneth Armitage, Reg Butler, Geoffrey Clark, Bernard Meadows, Eduardo Paolozzi and William Turnbull. The group shocked audiences with their radical departure from previously dominant sculptural traditions (such as carving) and materials (such as marble, wood and stone), embracing iron structures, plaster filler and industrial compounds. With their spiky, angular abstractions of animal, insect and human forms, the aggressive welded-iron constructions caught the mood of post-war angst. When the critic Herbert Read drew attention to the “geometry of fear” implicit in the works being produced by this new generation of British sculptors, it was clearly Chadwick that he had particularly in mind.

The characteristics of a Chadwick sculpture — form, stance, line, balance and attitude — are arrived at through his unique method of working. Whereas an architect might draw lines on a page, Chadwick took steel rods and welding them together in space to criss-cross, join and radiate out, which formed three-dimensional constructions in space. This armature, formed by the welded rods, was filled with an industrial compound called stolit, a mixture of iron fillings and plaster that could be applied wet and, when dry, chased to achieve the surface he desired – sometimes textured, sometimes smooth — a skin, but with the original rods still visible. He often described his sculptures as being like crabs with their bones on the outside. This external armature was to define his imagery.

Chadwick left the interpretation of his works to others. He did not analyse his work and gave few interviews. In a rare discussion on the BBC Home Service, published in The Listener, 21st October 1954 he reflected:

“It seems to me that art must be the manifestation of some vital force coming from the dark, caught by the imagination and translated by the artist’s ability and skill. Whatever the final shape, the force behind is… indivisible. When we philosophise upon this force, we lose sight of it. The intellect alone is still too clumsy to grasp it.”

Barry Phipps, 2014

Find out more about the College art collection

Image: Sitting Figure 1959 by Lynn Chadwick. Bronze 
218 x 264cm. Photograph: Gavin Bateman