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Public Statues and Sculpture Association

June 19, 2024

‘Learning the importance of drawing developed slowly in my case … it did seem to me absolutely the foundation of my particular way of working. If I couldn’t draw, I couldn’t do what I do’, confesses the eminent contemporary sculptor Michael Sandle (b. 1936) in the early pages of this beautifully produced book of his drawings. There is an underlying sense, as the conversation between the art historian and curator Jon Wood and Michael Sandle progresses, that one is present at an energised confessional, fuelled by their long-standing friendship. Wood’s concise prompts cause the artist to meditate upon and consider his life-long passion and compulsion to draw.

For an artist who makes sculpture, this artform is notable here by its absence – or perhaps paradoxically continually present by virtue of its absence. Known for his powerful, uncompromising and often monumental sculptures that speak of outrage which  have interspersed his practice over many years, such as A Twentieth Century Memorial (1971-78), The Drummer (1985) and Iraq: The Sound of Your Silence (2009), Sandle here identifies an independent life for drawing. This new publication, the first to look in depth at his drawing practice (and long overdue), looks closely at his works on paper across his long career of over sixty years. It presents his two-dimensional work from his early years whilst training at Douglas School of Art (1951-54) on the Isle of Man, at the Slade School of Art (1956-59), where he studied painting and printing, and at the Atelier Patrice in Paris (1960), continuing up to the present day. Alongside lithographs and etchings, watercolour and aquatints (though curiously for one so immersed in capturing dark inky blackness, not the art of mezzotint)  it shows pages from his sketchbooks as well as many medium and larger format drawings. They frequently serve to remind us of Sandle’s innate understanding – a sculptor’s understanding and handling  – of his materials across a wide range of graphic media and how they can be skilfully coaxed into rendering the menacing glint of gunmetal or fuselage, the immateriality of eerily enveloping clouds of billowing smoke, or the materiality of a stratified rock face.

About two-thirds of the way through the book’s central section – the true core of this book, selected through negotiation between Wood and Sandle from many hundreds of works, and faithfully reproduced through the agency of graphic designer Peter McGrath  – Sandle acknowledges Percy Wyndham Lewis (18821957) in one of the sections of first-person commentary that periodically intersperse the images. Lewis, an arch-draughtsman, drew himself out of difficulties, notably in the early 1920s, to discover a route away from Vorticism.  Sandle’s sketchbook drawing, Ideas for a Hermann Hesse Memorial Bridge, from around 1997, encapsulates the full range of his prowess as a draughtsman. The artist acknowledges his readiness to go back and make alterations to even his sketchbook drawings; this 1997 study might well be one of them. His sheer range is virtuoso and sometimes, as here, seems to be a provocation to unravel the meaning of his draughtsmanship, as if unwinding a thread.

Indebtedness to other artists stacks up from early on in the book. Many of them are known, but some are now unfashionable, little looked at, undeservedly so, like Joseph Pennell; one projects here an affinity with this artist’s great darkling panoramas from the First World War. Although not acknowledged in terms of the specifics of their impact, these influencers, like ghosts, look over the artist’s shoulder, perhaps making an empathetic nudge towards Michael Sandle’s own current predicament : Royal Academician but inhabiting the margins of the current British art scene.

For Sandle, like Wyndham Lewis, there was much more to the practice of drawing than mere problem solving. It is not simply about resolving matters relating to the fabrication of sculpture, or the initial realisation of ideas – indeed such drawings are relatively rare in this book. As the artist makes clear, drawing is often used to continue a line of thinking in the wake of a sculptural manifestation.

As is made clear in the early sub-divided chapter ‘Working on Paper’, consisting of conversations between the artist and Wood, his interlocutor, Sandle felt he was locked into drawing from his early years. Locked-in syndrome would be an extreme definition of this condition of a compulsion to draw; Sandle enjoys a great facility of the hand too. But there is a sense, as Sandle reveals, that the eye is the controlling organ: ‘… There was a year of not speaking to anybody at the Slade, because I was convinced that it would weaken my magical power’ and ‘I work with my nervous system. Sometimes you know it’s wrong, but you don’t know how to fix it.’  But he also states, ‘… Drawing for me is very often a form of torture and I really mean that.’

The dominant voice in this book is quite rightly that of the artist himself, and although one might at the same time yearn for more interpretative modes beyond the insightful poem by Carol Dine which offers a glimpse into a dark interior and the lighter touch of artist’s brother Doug’s stanzas  and another short summary of the sculpture’s salient forms by Thomas Hirsch, it is the taxonomic reach of the book that is likely to prove useful in the long run to researchers and curators. One of its joys is to trace independently some of the artist’s recurring themes: his interest in bridges, perhaps emblematic of his practice, as well as the interconnected life of drawings, prints and of course sculpture.

I first came across Michael Sandle’s work in an exhibition at the then Third Eye Centre, Glasgow in  1984, appropriately titled for that year Geometry of Rage.1‘Geometry of Rage: Denis Masi, Deanna Petherbridge, Michael Sandle’, Third Eye Centre, Glasgow, 24 November-22 December 1984. Sandle showed alongside Denis Masi and that other accomplished producer of drawing, Deanna Petherbridge. It had the impact of showing me that drawing had a major role to play on the contemporary art scene. We can hope that a comprehensive exhibition of Michael Sandle’s drawings and works on paper will be mounted before too long.

 

Notes

  • 1
    ‘Geometry of Rage: Denis Masi, Deanna Petherbridge, Michael Sandle’, Third Eye Centre, Glasgow, 24 November-22 December 1984.

Jon Wood (ed.), Michael Sandle Works on Paper, Sansom and Company, Bristol, 2023. Hardback 180 pp. with about 250 colour illustrations

ISBN 978-1-911408-90-1