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Brit Mod

By Sallie Brady

After a long period of neglect, 20th-century British sculptors are once again basking in the art market’s sunshine.

When Alberto Giacometti’s Walking Man I (1961) strode off the auction block for an astounding $104.3 million in Sotheby’s London salesroom last February, it was a milestone not only for the artist but for the entire sculpture world. When Amedeo Modigliani’s Tête (1910–12), sold for $59.5 million at Christie’s Paris in June, it seemed that sculpture’s reputation as painting’s poor cousin had finally been erased. As art dealers report strong interest in modern sculpture, particularly among new collectors in their 30s and 40s, the timing couldn’t be better to rediscover one of the 20th century’s most exciting sculpture movements, which savvy buyers are learning is still accessible and largely undervalued.

The British school in particular is seeing a revival of interest on both sides of the Atlantic. With the Royal Academy of Art mounting the first exhibition in 30 years devoted to modern British sculpture (through April 7), top galleries featuring modern sculpture shows, a new museum devoted to Barbara Hepworth opening this spring and important pieces appearing on stands at the world’s leading art and antiques fairs, this segment of the art market is unfashionable no more.

“Modern British sculpture” is a broad category, in theory spanning everything from the work of late Victorians such as Alfred Gilbert, noted for his London public monuments, to—if you believe the curators of the Royal Academy’s Modern British Sculpture exhibition—Damien Hirst. Usually, however, it refers to artists who began working between the wars, such as Leon Underwood, Jacob Epstein, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth; artists who really came into their own after World War II, such as Kenneth Armitage, Lynn Chadwick, Eduardo Paolozzi, Reg Butler, Robert Adams, Bernard Meadows, Geoffrey Clarke and William Turnbull; and artists such as Elisabeth Frink, Anthony Caro and Michael Ayrton who worked in the 1960s, ’70s and beyond. All these sculptors shared a common interest in innovating with materials—they cast pieces in bronze; carved out of stone, marble and wood; created with wire, bone and steel; and experimented with open forms that allowed their pieces to interact with the landscape.

Of all of the modern British sculptors, the best known internationally are the two who continue to command the highest prices, often in the six and seven figures: Henry Moore (1898–1986) and Barbara Hepworth (1903–75). The lives of these artists, who grew up not far from one another in Northern England, followed similar arcs, with early preference for sculpture over other mediums and studies at the same art schools, followed by travels abroad. Hepworth would return to England, marry the artist Ben Nicholson and make her home in the artists’ colony of St. Ives, where she perfected her abstract forms. In 1931, she was the first artist to “pierce a hole in a solid mass,” which, along with the taut strings she integrated into her work, aptly portrayed the tension in her life (she famously shipped her triplets off to be raised elsewhere so she could focus on her work). Her St. Ives studio, with a collection of works in situ, can still be visited today, and is well worth the journey to Cornwall.

While Moore enjoyed a much larger international reputation than Hepworth ever did, some critics say that the mid-century sexism that rewarded him with numerous commissions worldwide, actually helped her in the long run: Moore’s pieces became increasingly repetitive and monumental as he aged and traveled constantly, while Hepworth, with more time to spend on her work, continued to innovate.

Looking back, early 20th-century Britain was actually slow to pick up on the abstract movements on the Continent, but as young artists such as Hepworth and Moore won scholarships to Paris and Rome, elements of Cubism, Fauvism and Futurism began showing up in their work. The Victorian figurative mode gave way to abstraction. Artists were also inspired by the ethnographic sculpture and antiquities they spent hours sketching at the British Museum. The true high point of the current Royal Academy show is a gallery that juxtaposes the works of modern British sculptors with the pieces from the British Museum that they studied.

Leon Underwood (1890–1975), who still remains surprisingly undervalued despite the fact that he taught Moore and is dubbed the father of modern British sculpture, found inspiration on his early travels through the Mayan and Aztec ruins of Mexico. Underwood, in turn, pointed Moore to works of art from this region that were on view at the British Museum. Indeed, Moore would later credit the reclining statues at Chichén Itzá for his own trademark supine form. The Robert Bowman Modern gallery in London is offering an intriguing example of Underwood’s modern Pre-Columbian work at its first exhibition of modern British sculpture (through April 7), including The Liar (1953) a richly patinated bronze mask cast by the artist himself with an asking price of £18,000.

This period’s most renowned portrait sculptor was actually American, though he eventually became a British subject. Jacob Epstein (1880–1959) was the New York-born son of Polish-Jewish immigrants. He moved to London and then to Paris to study at the École des Beaux-Arts, where he hobnobbed with Rodin, Brancusi and Modigliani and developed the distinctive, Impressionistic sculptural method that critics dubbed “the mud pie.” When the artist moved back to London he carried with him a letter of introduction from Rodin which kicked off a lifetime’s worth of prestigious commissions from the Who’s Who of the era. Albert Einstein (1933), George Bernard Shaw (1934) and T.S. Eliot (1951) are among the bronze Epstein busts that Bowman is selling in his current show for prices of £40,000 and up. He is also bringing them to his booth at TEFAF in Maastricht (March 18–27). Another important Epstein bronze, a portrait of Sir Winston Churchill (1946), who was not the most compliant sitter, will be with MacConnal-Mason Gallery at Art Antiques London (June 9–15).

Epstein is also known for public monuments that contrasted dramatically in style with his portrait work. Roughly hewn from fieldstone or—in the case of the magnificent Adam (1938–39) on view at the Royal Academy show—alabaster, they challenged public taste with unabashed sexuality. He was the right man to receive the commission for Oscar Wilde’s tomb (1912) at the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, which for many years was covered with a tarp.

Art historians agree that the grit of postwar Britain molded the work of its artists. Media entrepreneur Chris Ingram, who began collecting modern British art with a vengeance 10 years ago and has amassed a trove of 300 pieces, says, “There was quite a bit of hardship in postwar Britain. We had experienced two world wars in rapid succession; we were rapidly losing our empire; there was a lot of debt. For some reason this edgy, challenging, and sometimes, downright grim work appealed to me.”

While Ingram had always been interested in art his keen business instinct sniffed out a category that was well-priced and undervalued. He was interested by the way the works reflected the era, particularly pieces by Elisabeth Frink, whose husband’s wartime shrapnel injuries appeared in her disturbing bronze heads. Ingram’s collection, which is on loan to the Lightbox gallery in Woking, England, was exhibited in January at Sotheby’s London alongside Jorge Lewinski’s fantastic black-and-white photographs of British sculptors at work.

Despite the austerity and gloom of the ’50s, Ingram notes “there was an extraordinary flow of artistic talent in those days,” a phenomenon that was not lost on the international art world when Britain entered into global art competitions. In 1952, the nation didn’t send its painters to the Venice Biennale; it sent its sculptors: Chadwick, Butler, Armitage, Meadows, Adams, Clarke, Paolozzi and Turnbull all showed their bronze, steel and pitted-metal works in the exhibition New Aspects of Sculpture, which became the talk of the art world. Critic Herbert Read quoted T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, famously describing the British pavilion as “the geometry of fear.”

Four years later the Brits would triumph again when Lynn Chadwick was awarded the 1956 International Sculpture Prize at the Venice Biennale, beating out none other than Alberto Giacometti. To this day, Chadwick’s thought-provoking pieces, with their geometric heads and cloaked bodies, are instantly identifiable and internationally pursued. Serious collectors will want to note that a rare piece from that seminal 1956 Venice showing will be for sale at London’s Masterpiece fair (June 30–July 5) when Osborne Samuel Gallery offers Chadwick’s Teddy Boy & Girl (1955), from a bronze edition of six. Osborne Samuel is also bringing a grouping of Chadwick and Henry Moore sculptures to Maastricht this month.

For collectors in New York, Tasende Gallery of La Jolla, Calif., will be bringing Chadwick sculptures, including some pieces from the 1950s, as well as Moore drawings and sculpture, to The Armory Show–Modern (March 3–6). At TEFAF, an important monumental Moore bronze, Mother and Child: Block Seat (1983) will be with Landau Fine Art of Montreal, Canada.

In 1958 Kenneth Armitage (1916–2002) had a one-man show at the Venice Biennale and the Tate bought Diarchy (1957), a seven-foot sculpture. Armitage’s distinctive abstract bronzes suggest crowds walking on the streets or groups in conflict. Robert Bowman is offering the model for the sculpture, one of six lifetime casts, for £85,000.

Those rising stars of the 1950s Biennales were well noted by American museums and galleries, which began including them in exhibitions and actively purchased their works. Peggy Guggenheim and MoMA bought pieces as early as the 1952 Biennale. “There was a strong interest in British sculpture in the States during the 1950s and 1960s,” says James Rawlin, Sotheby’s senior director of 20th-century British art. In addition, he points out, some “very, very good” private collections of modern British art were assembled in the U.S. during that time and subsequently forgotten. “We often get calls from Americans who may have inherited these works and have no idea what they have,” says Rawlin, noting how much of this sculpture fell out of fashion in the 1980s and 1990s.

But one artist whose reputation has thrived on both sides of the pond is Anthony Caro (born 1924), the noted sculptor in metal who studied with Moore but then set out to follow his own aesthetic. With his painted silhouettes of geometric steel, Caro’s can’t help but look perpetually young, as Mitchell-Innes & Nash gallery of New York demonstrated in December at Art Basel Miami Beach with a stand devoted to Caro and the late painter Kenneth Noland. At the Masterpiece fair this June Hazlitt, Holland-Hibbert of London will feature a collection of very good Caros.

No doubt, this year’s major show at the Royal Academy and its satellite exhibitions is drawing much-deserved attention to modern British sculpture. It will also be Hepworth’s year, with the opening in May of the Hepworth Wakefield in Yorkshire, which will house 40 pieces donated by the Hepworth estate. A two-hour train ride from London, it’s a perfect day-trip or a weekend when partnered with a visit to the neighboring Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which features some of the country’s finest monumental pieces set on spectacular acres of England’s North Country. Hazlitt, Holland-Hibbert, which has a long history of bringing Hepworth pieces to the now-discontinued Grosvenor House fair, is planning a special exhibition devoted to her this year at Art Basel (June 15 to 19).

Some major works of modern British sculpture will be appearing on the auction block in the coming months. Christie’s London has already announced the offering of Hepworth’s Biomorphic Theme in their 20th-century British art sale on May 26 (est. £120,000–180,000) and Sotheby’s London will be selling a rare Lynn Chadwick Steel and Copper Mobile in their sale on May 25 (est. £150,000–250,000). Collectors can also look forward to fairs that showcase the works of these artists, particularly the previously mentioned June events in London, Art Basel and the 20/21 British Art Fair (September 13–18).

Experts caution that this category is not going to remain undervalued forever. “In 2005 we saw a real move in the market,” says Bowman, “with new collectors entering into it. Five years ago a Hepworth would have sold for £50,000–60,000. Today it would go for £200,000–300,000. A Henry Moore that would have sold then for £60,000–70,000, today will go for £200,000–300,000.”

Among the works of second-tier artists, some discoveries can still be made. Five years ago one of Michael Ayrton’s classic Minotaurs sold for £5,000–10,000, while today such a piece would bring £20,000–30,000. Reg Butler’s Young Girl (1951) for which Ingram paid £15,000 in 2005, today would now fetch three times that amount. “This generation of artists working in the 1950s and 1960s are almost entirely deceased,” says Sotheby’s Rawlin. “That era of sculpture-making is over.”

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: March 2011

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