‘A radical response to what sculpture can be’: 10 things to know about Lynn Chadwick
An introduction to the life and work of the artist whose strikingly original, geometric bronze figures made him one of the leading lights of international post-war sculpture. Illustrated with lots offered at Christie’s
Lynn Chadwick was born in 1914 in the London suburb of Barnes. His father was an engineer who designed industrial furnaces, and his mother had been a teacher.
It was a conventional upbringing, with a conservative scepticism about new ideas. The artist recalled being taken to see Jacob Epstein’s Rima in Hyde Park as an example of the horrors of modern art.
At the age of 18, Chadwick met the British Revivalist sculptor Wilfred Dudeney (1911-1989), a friend of his sister Margery. ‘I was very impressed that a young man could have a studio to work in and make things all by himself there,’ recalled Chadwick. ‘It sounded like a wonderful life.’
His parents, however, were less enthusiastic about his chosen career. A compromise was struck, and he agreed to train as an architect — but he quickly realised he wasn’t cut out for the profession. ‘I was just no good as a businessman,’ he said.
The artist joined the Fleet Air Arm and flew Swordfish biplanes across the Atlantic. These anti-submarine torpedo bombers were a key weapon in protecting merchant shipping from U-boats.
The biplanes were launched from makeshift aircraft carriers. ‘The balance and timing needed to land his plane on such tiny boats came naturally to him,’ says Chadwick’s son Daniel — and it was this fine balance and poise that became integral to his sculpture later on.
Of his time as a pilot Chadwick recalled the monotony rather than the danger: ‘The sky over the Atlantic is always a bit grey, and the sea is grey. It is as boring as you can possibly imagine.’
After the war, Chadwick moved to a remote cottage in Gloucestershire with his first wife Ann and their son Simon. It had no electricity or running water and cost ‘almost nothing a week’, enabling him to start ‘making things’.
He first tried mobiles; then, as he later recalled, ‘gradually I made things that were a bit more static and gradually it came into sculpture’. He would come to describe his approach in these years of experimentation as his ‘desert-island technique’.
It was in Gloucestershire that Chadwick became acquainted with a bohemian group of artists and writers, including the muralist Clifford Wight, the painter Julian Trevelyan, the photographer Lee Miller and the writer Elizabeth Smart.
In the late 1940s Chadwick learned how to weld, and this transformed his approach to sculpture. His technique was to weld iron rods quickly into a stiff, balanced cage, which formed the outline of the work.
‘He was able to visualise the piece as he worked, and rarely had to cut and alter the lines,’ says Daniel. The result was a rigid exoskeleton, visible on the outside rather than being buried within.
‘It meant he was able to convey energy or attitude, poise and movement, effortlessly and intuitively,’ says his son. This unique technique became his signature style.
Chadwick’s first exhibition was at the Gimpel Fils gallery in London, which also represented the sculptors Kenneth Armitage and Reg Butler.
Their metal sculptures were angular and spiky, thought to embody a brooding existential angst. Together with William Turnbull and Geoffrey Clarke, they were seen as the successors to Naum Gabo and his 1930s geometric idealism.
In 1952 these post-war artists participated in the exhibition New Aspects of British Sculpture at the Venice Biennale. In the catalogue, the poet and critic Herbert Read wrote, ‘These new images belong to the iconography of despair, or of defiance; and the more innocent the artist, the more effectively he transmits the collective guilt. Here are images of flight… of excoriated flesh, frustrated sex, the geometry of fear.’
That haunting phrase, ‘the geometry of fear’, was picked up by the media and came to stand for the younger generation who had taken the language of French Modernism and abstracted it, creating raw visions of post-war survival.
Yet Read’s portrayal was at odds with Chadwick’s own interpretation of his work. He considered his sculptures to be autonomous, organic forms, more closely associated with nature than with Cold War politics.
In 1956, aged 42, Chadwick returned to the British Pavilion at Venice with an exhibition of 19 sculptures and 24 drawings, and was awarded the International Sculpture Prize. He remains the youngest sculptor ever to win the accolade.
The works were playful and spiky, suggesting a game that had got out of hand. Chadwick took his titles — such as Teddy Boy and Girl — from contemporary culture.
He recalled that these early works were about balancing two opposing shapes and capturing ‘that friction and energy that happens by putting two forms together’.
In the following decades, Chadwick continued his explorations of balance and poise with a variety of figures, including tense, crouching beasts and armless men and women with geometric, pyramidal heads.
One of his most powerful series was ‘The Watchers’, loosely inspired by the Easter Island sculptures. Half figurative, half abstract, these hefty rectangular bronzes, balanced on spindly legs, dig like a fish hook into the unconscious.
Although Chadwick trained as a draughtsman, he rarely drew. ‘I can’t bear it,’ he once said. While there is a strong relationship between drawing and his linear, jagged forms, his sculptures were made without any sketches or preconception of how they would develop.
‘Essentially he sketched the work out out into three dimensions, feeling his way as he did so,’ says Daniel.
Chadwick would subsequently make observational sketches of the finished works. ‘His drawing had the same accuracy and lightness of touch as his construction,’ notes Daniel.
In 1958, Chadwick bought the medieval manor house Lypiatt Park and painted the interior white. The space enabled him to start creating larger works and establish his own foundry.
Daniel, who is the youngest of Chadwick’s four children, remembers watching his father from the doorway of his studio: ‘The smell of the hot metal and gas. The texture of the plaster he used. The colourful fuse boxes and gas bottles.’
In the late 1980s a whimsical play of forms began to appear in the artist’s work, as he developed sculptures showing bodies in motion. Such works conveyed a lighter, gentler mood than his earlier works.
High Wind II, 1988, is a good example, with a windswept figure that looks as if it has been blown out of shape. André Zlattinger Christie’s deputy chairman, Post-War & Contemporary Art, says that it is the first time one of these monumental sculptures from this edition has come to auction. ‘Unusually, it is of a single female form, and it is a wonderful frozen image of a gust of wind.’
Chadwick worked with iron and plaster and although his armatures were very well considered from a structural point of view, they were extremely fragile and susceptible to damp. He decided to stop selling the originals and make editioned casts instead.
In 1972 he started his own foundry in the outbuildings at Lypiatt Park. He had a succession of foundry managers until a young couple, Claude and Rungwe Kingdon, came to help him, with Claude becoming his lifelong studio assistant.
In 1985 Chadwick helped Claude and Rungwe establish the foundry Pangolin Editions in a nearby valley. Together they agreed on a recipe for casting and patinating every sculpture Chadwick had made, and the artist authorised them to cast out his entire body of work.
His wish is still being carried out faithfully by Pangolin today. The foundry also casts and fabricates sculpture for many modern and contemporary artists, among them Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and the late Eduardo Paolozzi.
People are still responsive to the questions Chadwick was asking in the 1950s and later, says Zlattinger. ‘Namely, how do you reflect the human condition in sculpture? Chadwick showed that the big themes of the day could be addressed by his work.’ To date, more than 200 of Chadwick’s works reside in more than 100 museums around the world.
According to the specialist, the market for artists from Britain’s post-war generation has risen over the past 15 years, with Chadwick being particularly sought after. ‘He has international appeal. People from all over the world respond to his aesthetic sensibility and the depth of his body of work.
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‘Everything is pared down to its simplest components. Chadwick took the language of Giacometti and Picasso and then used it for a different purpose. He gave a radical and brilliant response to the question of what sculpture can be.’