Frederick Edward McWilliam, A.R.A. (1909-1992)
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's… Read more PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE SWISS COLLECTION
Frederick Edward McWilliam, A.R.A. (1909-1992)

African Figure

Frederick Edward McWilliam, A.R.A. (1909-1992)
African Figure
signed with initials 'MCW.' (on the reverse)
cherrywood, unique
18½ in. (47 cm.) high
Carved in 1933.
Purchased by the present owner at the 1986 exhibition.
F. Rutter, 'The London Group', The Sunday Times, 19 November 1933.
Exhibition catalogue, F.E. McWilliam, London, Waddington Galleries, 1984, p. 3, no. 1, illustrated.
M. Gooding (ed.), exhibition catalogue, F.E. McWilliam Sculpture 1932-1989, London, Tate Gallery, 1989, p. 37, no. 2, illustrated.
Exhibition catalogue, Modern British Sculpture, London, Royal Academy, 2011, pp. 72-73, no. 24, illustrated.
D. Ferran and V. Holman, The Sculpture of F.E. McWilliam, Farnham, 2012, p. 87, no. 2, illustrated.
London, Waddington Galleries, F.E. McWilliam, May - June 1984, no. 1.
London, Fine Art Society, Sculpture in Britain Between the Wars, June - August 1986, number untraced.
London, Tate Gallery, F.E. McWilliam Sculpture 1932-1989, May - July 1989, no. 2.
London, Royal Academy, Modern British Sculpture, January - April 2011, no. 24.
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Anne Haasjes
Anne Haasjes

Lot Essay

‘I have never set any store by consistency – life is too short for restrictive practices.’ (McWilliam quoted in M. Gooding, F.E. McWilliam Sculpture 1932-1989, London, 1989, p. 9)

F.E. McWilliam was one of the most experimental sculptors of his generation, continually playing with material, form, scale and subject matter to illustrate his ideas. McWilliam himself commented on the fruition of his work, he elucidated, ‘My interest changes every two or three years. This may be sparked off with the use of a new material, an interest in different sort of shapes or, often as a result of travel’ (D. Ferran and V. Holman (eds), The Sculpture of F.E. McWilliam, Farnham, 2012, p. 8). Material, shape and travel became the driving forces of change in McWilliam's works, however, these were not readily understood by the critics of the day who were discerned by stylistic rupture. Valerie Holman explained that the diversity of his work posed a problem for many, she states, ‘…the history of art in the twentieth century was, to a large extent, predicated on the idea that the artist’s identity could be recognised by certain distinctive and regularly occurring features of style.’ (ibid, p. 9). Today McWilliam is celebrated for the fact that he cannot be boxed into a particular art movement or artistic grouping, however, he was not immune to their workings, and we can see the influence of Surrealism, Modernism and Post-Modernism in his sculptures.

McWilliam experimented with a variety of materials from carved wood to limestone, cast stone, concrete, fibre glass, terracotta, clay, plaster, mosaic, bronze and wax; arguably his most beautiful pieces are those done in cherrywood in the early 1930s. The variability of materials gave way to fresh possibilities of form and of subject but McWilliam was never confined by the popular doctrine of ‘truth to materials’, as Roger Fry and the modern sculptors of the day promoted. Behind this doctrine lay, as Mel Gooding describes, ‘…a purist, and perhaps puritan, aesthetic that rejected disguise and simulation, and embraced naturalness and disclosure’, which lay in contrast to his own principles of spontaneous representation free from constraint (M. Gooding, F.E. McWilliam Sculpture 1932-1989, London, 1989, p. 9). McWilliam later stated his skepticism of this dogma, ‘In the thirties this was the accepted slogan … but really it was a bit of nonsense … a useful phrase to explain why sculpture didn’t have to be realistic’ (ibid., p. 10).

McWilliam was determined to place himself at the heart of the art world and in the early 1930s moved to Paris, in the hope of becoming a French citizen. This was to be a short lived trip and McWilliam was forced back to England in 1932 by the Depression, where he moved to a small house in Chartridge, Buckinghamshire with his wife. Here some of his earliest carvings were created from the cherrywood in his orchard, such as the present lot African Figure. Although back at home he seems to have drawn on what he saw in Paris, paying particular tribute to what he saw in the Musée Ethnographique du Trocadero, a place he would spend hours examining the African sculptures. In African Figure we can see this influence, not only in its title but in its distinctly primitive features and naïve yet beautifully simplified harmonious form. Its face in particular references the Oceanic and African works he would have seen in Paris, with its smooth mask-like appearance, the two simple grooves indicative of eyes and a nose. Other artists of the period were not immune to their influence, indeed many British sculptors of the day were reviving the values of the past, imbued through their desire to convey the imaginative and spiritual embodiment of nature through plastic form. One artist in particular who looked to the spiritual essence of primitive art was Henry Moore, a good friend of McWilliam, who during the late 1920s and early 1930s conformed to a ‘primitive’ aesthetic, which drew on the cultural sources outside classical antiquity and the Renaissance. This move away from the traditional canons of art was significant for Moore and McWilliam, whose direction into surrealism and the manipulation of the figure in later years is seen as a protest of sorts against his Slade tutor Henry Tonks, whose emphasis on the classical models of draughtsmanship he found stifling. McWilliam, as did Moore, enjoyed the freedom that this primitive aesthetic granted and liked the abolition of surface trimmings in favour for a common world language of form. Both their output during this early period, McWilliam with African Figure, 1933 and Moore with works such as Girl, 1931 (Tate, London) mark one of the most powerful oeuvres in both careers.

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