The work of Elisabeth Frink is ripe for a renaissance

Her reputation has been in the doldrums for too long, undermined by ubiquity, then neglect. Djanogly Gallery's new show hopes to set the record straight

21 November 2015

9:00 AM

21 November 2015

9:00 AM

In a converted barn in Dorset, not far from the rural studio where she made many of her greatest sculptures, Elisabeth Frink’s son Lin is showing me his incredible collection of his mother’s work. More than 20 years since his mother died, he’s kept the vast bulk of it together. ‘I owe it to mum,’ he tells me. ‘I’ve been very close to her.’ We’re surrounded by maquettes and plaster casts — shelves and shelves of them. Enormous figures loom over us, like Easter Island statues. Drawings and paintings (many never before seen in public) are stacked against the walls. There’s a bust of Alec Guinness — a portrayal of immense power and clarity — and several busts of Frink herself, a robust and handsome woman as forceful as the primeval figures in her sculptures. With her square jaw and severe gaze, she looks like an ancient warrior. ‘Her work is so strong,’ says Lin. That strength is reflected in her face.

Next week a selection of these majestic artworks will travel to the Djanogly Gallery in Nottingham for the biggest Frink exhibition in many years. Lots of them are already wrapped up, ready to be sent away. The curator of this show (and the curator of the Frink estate) Annette Ratuszniak has brought me here to see these works, and to meet Lin Jammet, Frink’s only child. Lin has his mother’s features, but his face has none of her warlike power. Compared with her, he seems almost feminine. He’s a gentler figure by far.

Born in 1930, Frink was lauded in her lifetime. A CBE before she was 40, she ended up a Royal Academician, a Dame and a Companion of Honour, but since she died in 1993, cut off in her prime by cancer, her reputation has stalled. She doesn’t have a dedicated gallery, like the Hepworth in Wakefield. She doesn’t have her own research centre, like the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds. Yet her work is far more approachable than Moore and Hepworth’s abstractions. Her bold depictions of people and animals (especially horses) are accessible to allcomers. You don’t need to be an aficionado to understand them, or enjoy them. So why isn’t she venerated like Moore and Hepworth, as she should be? And will this new show give her timeless work a new lease of life?

One problem with Frink’s work is that she’s almost too ubiquitous. Sited in so many public places, her sculptures have faded into the urban landscape. Her ‘Horse and Rider’ on London’s Dover Street (now dwarfed by Caffè Nero) is a perfect case in point. Commissioned to adorn so many desolate postwar developments (Harlow New Town, Paternoster Square…), her art has become synonymous with some of the worst aberrations of British architecture. Her creations have been obscured by the ugly mundanity of modern life.

More than any other art form, sculpture depends on context — and in the right context Frink’s sculpture soars and sings. Her ‘Walking Madonna’, outside Salisbury Cathedral, is inspiring — and immensely popular. It’s no surprise that so many of her best artworks are in churches. ‘What she’s talking about is fundamental,’ says Annette. Her final sculpture, ‘Risen Christ’, stands outside Liverpool’s Anglican cathedral. Her crucifix adorns the altar of Liverpool’s Catholic cathedral (like a lot of Britons, she has Anglican and Catholic roots). Her ‘Dorset Martyrs’ stand guard on Gallows Hill in Dorchester, where Protestant and Catholic dissenters were put to death. ‘They change the sense of place — they alter the mood of the place,’ adds Annette.

Frink was influenced by her adopted Dorset as well as her native Suffolk, but there’s nothing parochial or provincial about her work. She also lived and worked in France, where the sharper light shaped the smoother contours of her later sculptures, and travelled to Australia, where the vivid colours of the landscape invigorated her mature artworks. ‘She needed a big open space, and a sense of wildness around her,’ says Annette.

We stop for a long time before ‘Man and Baboon’, a painting she made in 1990, which will feature in the exhibition. ‘She’s a fantastic draughtsman,’ says Lin. So vibrant and full of life, it feels like a painting by a youngster. You’d never guess she was nearly 60 when she made it. With its blood red soil and bright blue sky, it seems to presage a new chapter in her career, a chapter that remained unwritten. ‘This isn’t a fading strength — she isn’t just an artist of the Fifties and Sixties, she’s doing strong, interesting things throughout her whole working life,’ says Annette.

Frink was only 62 when she died. ‘She was so desperate to survive — I thought she was going to be OK,’ says Lin. ‘She was so determined. She worked until the very end.’ Frink made more than 400 sculptures, virtually single-handed (unlike Moore or Hepworth, she never used assistants). ‘Every day was a gift — she took full advantage of it,’ reveals Lin. If she’d been granted another 20 years, who knows what she might have achieved? Her work sums up all that’s best about British art. It’s plain and unpretentious. It’s about the things that we all share.

Her monumental figures have always attracted most attention but, as we leave the barn, the piece that arrests my eye is a small sculpture of a horse. ‘She captures movement so well — that’s really quite difficult in sculpture,’ says Lin. ‘There is a real sense of joy and delight,’ concurs Annette. Outside, a chestnut mare is frolicking in the paddock. That’s the great thing about Frink, I realise, as we say goodbye. Like all great artists, she makes you see the beauty in everyday things that you normally never notice. She makes you see the world around you in a slightly different way. Frink’s reputation has been in the doldrums for far too long. It’s ripe for a renaissance. The revival starts here.

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Elisabeth Frink — The Presence of Sculpture is at the Djanogly Gallery, Nottingham, from 25 November to 28 February 2016.

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