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Public Statues and Sculpture Association

Mitzi Cunliffe (1918–2006)

Sculptor, and designer of ceramics, textiles and jewellery, born Mitzi Solomon in New York. She attended the Art Students League of New York, 1930–33, and read Fine Art and Fine Art Education at Columbia University, graduating with an MA in 1940. She took part in several group exhibitions and in February 1945 was elected a member of the Sculptors Guild. Following the end of the Second World War she undertook a year’s study at the Académie Colarossi, Paris, later writing that it was seeing the medieval sculpture on the west front of Chartres Cathedral that determined her ultimate goal, to become a ‘sculptor for architecture’: ‘I knew then that was the kind of work in which I wanted to be involved.’ She returned to New York where, for the present, she continued making free-standing groups and figures. In 1947, she gained notoriety when her aluminium group, The Lovers, was removed from an exhibition at the National Academy of Design, Manhattan, on the grounds of indecency. In 1948, she completed her marble sculpture, harp-form, commissioned by the industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss as a decorative piece for the lounge of ‘Excalibur’, one of the new fleet of ships he had designed for American Export Lines. In 1949, she was awarded the Widener Gold Medal by the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts for her sculpture, A Voluptuous Object. In the same year she met and married the English historian, Marcus Cunliffe, and the couple moved to Manchester where he was lecturing at the University. Now working as Mitzi Cunliffe, her first major commission in Britain was three pieces for the 1951 Festival of Britain: an eight-feet-high pair of intertwined, slightly abstracted figures in terracotta concrete entitled Root Bodied Forth (maquette in Leeds Art Gallery) for the Waterloo Station entrance to the South Bank site and, for its Regatta Restaurant, a pair of hand-shaped bronze door handles and a wall decoration in the form of a series of swags. Commissions followed in quick succession throughout the ’50s. Also in 1951, she designed for the School of Civic Design, Liverpool, a pair of door handles in the form of knots, a free-standing sculpture in Portland stone, Quickening, and a wall hanging in brass, Loosestrife (now in the University’s Victoria Gallery & Museum Art Collection). In 1953, for Manchester High School for Girls, she carved a trio of Portland stone reliefs entitled Threshold, to be mounted over the main entrance. Then, in 1955, she received the commission for which she is best known: the design of the award presented annually by BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts). Shaped like a traditional theatrical mask, its reverse is inscribed with an electronic symbol behind the proper left eye and a screen symbol around the proper right. (In 1992, BAFTA presented Cunliffe with a lifetime achievement award ‘for her contribution to the profile of the two industries’.) Also in 1955, she created a large relief in Yorkshire sandstone, its details picked out in Westmorland greenstone, for the Heaton Park Reservoir Pumping Station, Manchester; this was to lead in 1998 to the building becoming the only post-1945 building in Britain to be listed purely for its sculpture. Next came a commission from the University of Leeds, a Portland stone relief panel (1955–56) for its Man-Made Fibres building (now Clothworkers’ Building South). In 1957, she designed a large decorative screen in pierced bronzed aluminium for the Red Rose Restaurant in Lewis’s Department Store, Liverpool, depicting the Wars of the Roses; following the store’s closure in the mid-1980s, she acquired it and re-erected it in the grounds of her family home at Seillans, south of France. In the late 1950s Cunliffe designed a set of 12-inch-square modules intended to be put together in varying combinations over large surfaces to create abstract ornamentation for buildings, subsequently adapting the process for mass production in concrete and fibreglass in what she termed ‘sculpture by the yard’. Examples of its application, both 1963–64, include Cosmos 1 (fibreglass), Owens Park hall of residence on the University of Manchester’s Fallowfield campus, and Cosmos 2 (concrete), formerly Wearmouth Hall, Sunderland University (lost when building demolished in 2008). Her final large-scale sculpture was a series of four Portland stone panels for Scottish Life House, Poultry, City of London (1969–70). It has been said that the intensity with which Cunliffe applied herself to these panels, working long hours with power tools, exacerbated the arthritis which ended her active life as a sculptor. Thereafter she turned to teaching, at the Thames Polytechnic, 1971–76, and subsequently in the USA and Canada. She later developed Alzheimer’s disease and spent her final years in Oxford cared for by her eldest daughter. In 2001, she exhibited for the last time, in a group exhibition staged by Oxford Brookes University and dedicated to people with Alzheimer’s, entitled ‘Look Closer – See Me’.

Bibliography: U. Ackah: Mitzi Solomon 1940s, Mitzi Cunliffe 1950s; D. Buckman, Artists in Britain since 1945 (2 vols: A–L, M–Z), Bristol, 2006; T. Cavanagh, Public Sculpture of Liverpool, Liverpool, 1997, pp. 217, 301; A. Draper, ‘Mitzi Cunliffe – Behind the Mask’, 25 March 2021, University of Liverpool. Victoria Gallery and Museum; The Guardian (online), 11 February 2007 – obituary; Historic England: Heaton Park Reservoir Pumping Station official list entry; The Independent (online), 18 January 2007 – obituary; A. Sumner, Mitzi Cunliffe. An American in Manchester, Manchester, 2021; P. Ward-Jackson, Public Sculpture of the City of London, Liverpool, 2003, p. 300; T. Wyke, Public Sculpture of Greater Manchester, Liverpool, 2004, pp. 7, 151–52, 265–66.

Terry Cavanagh, July 2024