Lynn Chadwick centenary celebrated in style at Osborne Samuel

By Richard Moss | 10 June 2014

The centenary of the birth of British sculptor Lynn Chadwick is celebrated with a new monograph and an exhibition at Osborne Samuel

Click below to launch a gallery of images from the exhibition

Lynn Chadwick’s figurative bronzes are some the most recognisable in 20th century British sculpture.

The great slabs and sinister triangles of his standing, seated and reclining figures have become signature pieces. But few people really know the full extent of the work produced by a sculptor whose career spanned the second half of the last century.

In the centenary year of his birth, a new monograph and an exhibition at London’s Osborne Samuel celebrates the journey of an artist who for many remains rooted in the post-war experiments of the 1950s.

Chadwick trained as an architectural draughtsman and began his forays into sculpture in the 1940s by designing mobiles. These figurative Alexander Calder-esque creations - in burnished steel and wire - got him noticed by the influential Gimpel Fils gallery and, during the 1950s, his work came to embody the new post-war sculpture and a fascination with sculpting in metal.

By 1956, just ten years after Henry Moore had scooped the accolade, he was the surprise winner of the International Sculptor Award at the Venice Biennale. 

Many had expected the prize to go to the man whose work had seemingly inspired Chadwick, Alberto Giacometti. But it catapulted Chadwick to fame. It was a meteoric rise for someone who had never attended art school and had been making mobiles for trade fair stands just ten years before.

Yet for many Chadwick remained a difficult figure; he taught very little and, unlike his predecessors Moore and Hepworth, made few public sculptures.

He also remained a notoriously private man, preferring the solitude of the studio in the grounds of his newly purchased neo-Gothic mansion, Lypiatt, near Stroud in Gloucestershire, to the world of galleries and dealers in London.

As Michael Bird explains in his illuminating and overdue monograph on Chadwick, within this cossetted environment "the blowtorch was never far away".

Having learned his welder’s craft at the British Oxygen Company’s Welding School in Cricklewood, Bird describes how Chadwick “bent to his task like a shipbuilder, but also with a surgeon’s or jeweller’s pinpoint devotion”.

According to Bird Chadwick spent the rest of his life starting most of his sculptures with a metal welded armature or skeleton, “oxyacetylene blowtorch in hand, goggle gaze fixed on white hot metal.”

These 40-odd years of experiments yielded an array of bird, beast and later angle headed human figures - all of them balancing playful naturalistic elements with grotesque abstract experiments in texture and form.

Throughout these developments he remained notoriously reluctant to intellectualise or expound on his approach, remaining distrustful of critics regardless of whether they were friendly or hostile. It was a method of working that Bird describes as a kind “automatism”, in which his body was the conduit for creation.

This kind of improvisation, literally welding precision with freestyle making to capture movement, relationships and - as some would have it - the dilemma of man, saw the prolific and disciplined Chadwick represented in major collections across the world.

But for many he still seems locked into a historical moment that recalls the heady post-war British sculpture of the Venice Biennales and Herbert Read’s famous description of the new crop British artists, which included Reg Butler and Kenneth Armitage, as working within the “geometry of fear”.

It’s a notion that belies the constant evolution of Chadwick’s ideas, but one which rooted him in the 1950s. As Terrence Mullaly, writing in his Guardian Obituary in April 2003, put it: "many people felt that Chadwick's work had failed to evolve - but they simply were not looking."

The blowtorch and the skeletons of steel may have remained but the overlaid material – ranging from Stolit (a kind of mixture of paste and iron) to Bronze – resulted in an evolving range of works that is still surprising and moving.

The exhibition at Osborne Samuel includes some of the best of these works, with exceptional and rare pieces from each decade of Chadwick’s 50-year career.

Alongside early mobile constructions, Chadwick’s first iron and plaster sculptures, the significant early bronzes such as the Watcher and Stranger and the iconic Teddy Boy and Girl sculptures from the 1950s there are maquettes which birthed iconic works such as Walking Woman in Wind and Two Reclining Figures.

We are also reminded of Chadwick the fine abstract painter, with works in watercolour, pen and ink and vibrant lithographs illuminating the mysterious journey from idea to conception.

If you want to chart the evolution of Chadwick's individual working method and distinctive style, both book and exhibition are probably the best place to begin your re-acquaintance with one of the unique talents of British sculpture.

  • Lynn Chadwick, A Centenary Exhibition is at Osborne Samuel, 23A Bruton Street, London until June 28
  • Lynn Chadwick, by Michael Bird is published by Lund Humphries. RRP £45.

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