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Public Statues and Sculpture Association

April 15, 2024

This exhibition book contains an interesting and wide-ranging miscellany of texts from a broad circle of contributors. There are two long essays, one by Annette Ratuszniak, an art historian who has dealt with Frink’s oeuvre since 1995, two years after Frink’s early death in 1993, and the other essay by Wilfrid Wright, a young art historian specialising in Modern British Art. The exhibition book deals with the magnificent sculptures from the period when Frink lived and worked in rural Dorset from 1976-1993.

Ratuszniak begins her essay in a personal manner, recounting how she felt when she first encountered the magnificent bronze figure of Walking Madonna set on the grass outside Salisbury Cathedral. She found her way to Frink’s son, Lin Jammet, still living in Frink’s house and studio in Woolland, Dorset, and they built a detailed working relationship cataloguing Frink’s work. Ratuszniak’s essay then covers Frink’s personal and professional life as lived in the Dorset house, plus a new purpose-built studio and extensive grounds for the placement of numerous outdoor bronzes. She also reveals how a visit to Australia in 1986 added bright colour to the surface of Frink’s bronze/brown sculptures. Invited to show her work in Sydney, she also travelled to the Northern Territories and the red rock Uluru. She spoke of being enthralled by the scenery and the bright colours used by indigenous artists, and on her return, we learn that she contacted an old friend who taught her how to use chemicals to colour her bronzes into bright greens, blues and reds.

The text by Lucy Johnston, Exhibition Manager at Dorset Museum & Art Gallery, entitled ‘Remembering Frink’, contains pages of affectionate messages from a wide range of close friends and colleagues. The messages describe Frink as ‘a person of great strength, extremely disciplined, energetic, gregarious and a devoted friend’, always ready to provide ‘first class food and wine’. One of the messages came from her close friend the author Sir Michael Murpurgo, who shared with Frink a belief in the basic rights of the animal world. Murpurgo and Frink were so deeply in tune that it does not come as a surprise to discover that they each produced a work entitled War Horse: Murpurgo wrote a prize-winning play in 1982 and Frink made a massive Horse in 1991.

Wilfrid Wright’s essay, ‘In search of Humanity: The Early Career of Elisabeth Frink’, begins with her student days at Chelsea School of Art in 1952-53, when the first of her bronze, malevolent birds appeared, to much praise. Wright suggests that Frink was affected by the existentialism that permeated much of the art of post-war Europe, noting also that she travelled to Paris to see at first hand the works of Alberto Giacometti, César Baldaccini and Germaine Richier, sculptors working in a similar vein. Wright gives voice to the idea that the 1960s was a period of upheaval for Frink, when the prevailing style of sculpture veered towards abstraction, and British art colleges began to abolish their life-drawing classes. She moved to Corbes in the south of France and distanced herself from the British art scene.

What appeared in her work in the 1960s was an exploration of the choice between good and evil, exemplified by her brutal figure of Judas the betrayer, a naked man fending off some kind of attack. Frink made Dying King, inspired by Laurence Olivier’s performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III, and followed these by a series of large Soldiers’ Heads, described as ‘shell-shocked or brain damaged’, inspired by photographs of the brutal Moroccan general Mohamed Oufkir. However, Wright identified a gentler mood appearing in Frink’s work in 1964, with a naked man, First Man, who expressed a more hopeful vision of humanity.

The end pages of the exhibition book record that almost 400 works from the Elisabeth Frink Estate were acquired in 2020 by the Dorset Museum and Art Gallery, Dorchester, an extraordinary bequest. Other art galleries who have also received splendid bequests include the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the British Museum, the National Galleries of Scotland and the Ulster Museum. Having such a wealth of material at Dorset allows the gallery staff, with the help of Annette Ratuszniak, to encourage the local community to engage with Frink’s work and her legacy. Recent workshops at the gallery have experimented with paper and clay, inspired by one of Frink’s heads. The final pages of the exhibition catalogue list the venues where other works by Frink can be seen, notably the Dorset Martyrs Memorial in the centre of Dorchester, and the Large Dog on display at Dorset County Hospital. The dog was one of the first artworks acquired by Arts in Hospital, of which Frink was a founder patron.

Overall, this book succeeds in providing a rounded portrait of Frink, the woman and her work. As it is an accompaniment to the exhibition, it may have been useful to include an exhibition list, both as a reference source and a souvenir. The exhibition is in fact due to tour to the Swindon Museum & Art Gallery, and then to the Salisbury Museum. See further details here.

Elisabeth Selby, Annette Ratuszniak, Lucy Johnston, Wilfrid Wright, Emma Talbot, Dorset Museum & Art Galllery, Elisabeth Frink: A View from Within, Dorset Natural History & Archaeological Society, 1 December 2023. Paperback, pp. 66, illustrations mainly in colour.
ISBN 978-0900341717.