Artist guide: Elisabeth Frink

The sculptor whose art encapsulated mankind’s existential crisis in the post-war era, while also rejoicing in the vitality of birds and horses. Illustrated with works offered at Christie’s


Photo: © Ian Berry/Magnum Photos. Artwork: © The Executors of the Frink Estate and Archive. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

Frink’s artistic career was informed by war

Elisabeth Frink was born in 1930; her father, whom she idolised, was an officer in the 7th Dragoon Guards and her childhood was spent near an airbase in Suffolk in the east of England. When she was nine years old, the Second World War broke out and Frink witnessed first-hand the physical and psychological trauma of returning soldiers.

The family’s proximity to the airbase meant that they were also subjected to nightly air raids and frequent plane crashes, and these terrifying experiences were to later inform her artistic practice, which included work that encapsulated man’s heroism, but also his vulnerability in the machine age.

Dame Elisabeth Frink, R.A. (1930-1993), Midas Head, conceived in 1989. Bronze with a green patina. 12¼ in (31.1 cm) high. Estimate: £40,000-60,000. Offered in Modern British Art on 29 September 2020 at Christie’s in London

She discovered Renaissance sculpture as a teenager in Venice

In 1939 Frink was staying in a boarding house in Dorset where she met a young pacifist artist called Rodney Fenwick, who taught her how to draw and paint. It was something of a revelation for the army child who had, until then, been more interested in riding and shooting.

After the war Frink’s father was sent to Trieste in Italy. The teenaged Frink travelled from there to Venice, where she discovered a love of Renaissance sculpture.

Dame Elisabeth Frink, R.A. (1930-1993), Study for Running Horse, executed in 1983. Pencil on paper. 30¼ x 22 in (76.8 x 55.8 cm). Estimate: £4,000-6,000. Offered in Modern British Art on 29 September 2020 at Christie’s in London

She became a Geometry of Fear sculptor

In 1947 Frink went to study at Guildford School of Art and then on to Chelsea School of Art, where she thrived in the bohemian atmosphere created by the teachers John Berger (1926-2017), Ceri Richards (1903-1971) and Julian Trevelyan (1910-1988). She started to make plaster sculptures of men and animals — ‘very strange sort of gothic, apocryphal figures, very gloomy’, she recalled.

One of these sculptures, Bird, was bought by the Tate when she was only 22 years old. Frink attributed its primordial power to a recurring nightmare about plane crashes. The work led her to be associated with an older group of artists, among them Lynn Chadwick (1914-2003) and Kenneth Armitage (1916-2002), who were known as The Geometry of Fear sculptors — a term coined by the art critic Herbert Read (1893-1968). These supposedly angst-ridden artists bridged the gap between 1930s geometric idealism and post-war existentialism.

Frink went to the same London pubs as Bacon and Freud

While their sculptures may have seemed the prophetic embodiment of Cold War politics, the artists of The Geometry of Fear were not. Frink recalled London in the 1950s as a particularly vibrant artistic period. Days were spent in the studios at Chelsea where Quentin Crisp (1908-1999) was a life model — ‘he used to hang upside down! And in a crucifixion’, she said. ‘He used to take up these extraordinary poses with fingers raised in elegant positions.’

Evenings were spent in pubs inhabited by Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, John Minton and Michael Andrews. Frink’s work was collected by the jazz musician George Melly (1926-2007) and she held wild parties in her shared flat in Chelsea. As she said later, ‘We were all immensely cheerful, busy getting on with what we wanted to do’.

In her twenties, Frink modelled for John Skeaping

After leaving Chelsea, Frink modelled for the painter Vivian Pitchforth (1895-1982), who taught at St Martin’s School of Art, and the sculptor John Skeaping (1901-1980). ‘I used to scoot off in the evenings and earn quite good money, getting my bottom sort of heated up by the fire on one side, and freezing on the other!’ she recalled. On her first day teaching at St Martin’s she got into a lift, to be confronted by Pitchforth shouting, ‘There’s nobody strips like you, Lis!’

Her male figures are both ‘strong’ and ‘fugitive’

By the early 1960s, Frink was becoming known for her sculptures of the male figure. Seemingly heroic at first glance, a closer look reveals a vulnerable side to these bronze warriors, whose exposed flesh and textured surfaces imply a brutalised fragility or shell shock. One of her most famous series, Running Man, leave us wondering whether the figure is running towards us or trying to escape.

Dame Elisabeth Frink, R.A. (1930-1993), Small Male Figure, conceived in 1986 and cast in an edition of 15. Bronze with a dark brown patina. 11½ in (29.2 cm) high. Estimate: £15,000-25,000. Offered in Modern British Art on 29 September 2020 at Christie’s in London

Frink explained that ‘there are two themes of male figures... the basic male nude, in a sense, strong and powerful. Then there is the other one, which is more fugitive’. She later attributed this paradox to her conflicted feelings about warfare. As a child she had grown up with a romantic notion of war, partly due to her heroic father, but after seeing photographs of Belsen in Life magazine, she was forced to confront man’s inhumanity.

Frink’s love of wildlife manifested itself in sculptures of horses and birds

Throughout her career, Frink made sculptures of animals, in particular birds and horses. She credited her love of wildlife with being brought up in the countryside. As with her male figures, her animal sculptures also encapsulate that uneasy tension between predator and prey. She likened her birds to bits of shrapnel, part organic, part machine.

Dame Elisabeth Frink, R.A. (1930-1993), Standing Horse, conceived in 1982. Bronze with a grey, green and brown patina. 18⅛ in (46.4 cm) long. Estimate: £30,000-50,000. Offered in Modern British Art on 29 September 2020 at Christie’s in London

Her father had been an amateur jockey, and Frink learned to ride at the age of four. Interested in the relationship between man and horse, she looked to cave paintings and also to depictions of war horses for inspiration. 

‘The horse has done so much for man,’ she said in 1992, ‘works for him, carries him into battle — and yet has retained its independence… it can in a flash transform everything by chucking him off.’

After being diagnosed with cancer, her work gave her a renewed sense of spirituality

In the early 1990s, Frink was diagnosed with cancer. Green Man  was made at this time and it symbolises fertility and the continuation of life. Working on the head helped the artist to come to terms with her illness and gave her a renewed sense of spirituality and peace.

Dame Elisabeth Frink, R.A. (1930-1993), Green Man, conceived in 1991. Bronze with a dark brown and green patina. 22½ in (57.2 cm) high. Estimate: £50,000-80,000. Offered in Modern British Art on 29 September 2020 at Christie’s in London

Her final commission was the monumental Risen Christ  for Liverpool Cathedral, which was installed a week before her death. Her biographer Stephen Gardiner described it as an ‘awesome work, beautiful clean and commanding, a vivid mirror-image of the artist’s mind and spirit, created against fearful odds’.

Frink’s work has had a recent resurgence

Frink’s sculptures can be seen all over the world, from the famous Warhorse at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, to Eagle, commissioned as a lectern for Coventry Cathedral. (One of the edition of five was purchased for President John F. Kennedy’s Memorial in Dallas, Texas in 1964; a second was sold at Christie’s in November 2018 for £440,750.) 

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Yet as one of the few British sculptors of the post-war generation to sell for £1million at auction she has, surprisingly, been somewhat overlooked by British museum curators in the past 20 years. 

This all changed last year, when The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich, not far from her Suffolk birthplace, sought to re-establish Frink as one of the most important British artists of the 20th century. This has been reflected in her prices which, according to The Daily Telegraph, have increased by 8035.6 per cent since the 1970s.

An early sculpture, thought lost for decades, reappeared in a garden in 2015

In 1952, when Frink was still a student at Chelsea, she was commissioned to create a sculpture for a Catholic church near Reading. The resulting piece, St. John Bosco, was believed to have been destroyed in a lorry crash in 1960. But years later a collector contacted the Frink estate to say that he had bought a work that fitted the description in 1991, and it was now standing in his back garden. Its whereabouts between 1960 and 1991 remain a mystery.

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