The Twentieth Century Society

Obituary: Geoffrey Clarke

by Judith LeGrove

Geoffrey Clarke, who died last October aged 89, was the last link with the group of British sculptors – Robert Adams, Kenneth Armitage, Reg Butler, Lynn Chadwick, Bernard Meadows, Eduardo Paolozzi and William Turnbull – who achieved international fame at the Venice Biennale in 1952. On that occasion Herbert Read described their work in iron, plaster, wood and bronze as evoking ‘the geometry of fear’, peopling ‘The Waste Land with their iron waifs’. The sculpture certainly evinced leanness, in some cases anxiety, but Clarke’s iron figures and etchings also displayed the defiance, playfulness, and sober spirituality that would hallmark his future work.

Each of these sculptors contributed significantly to the history of British sculpture, in an arena shaped by the opportunities of post-war construction and reconstruction, each finding his own solution to the issues of sculptural volume and materiality. The decade from 1955 to 1965 proved to be Clarke’s busiest in terms of architectural commissions, prompting him to pioneer, then hone, a technique of casting aluminium from carved polystyrene models. He established a foundry at his home in Suffolk which was capable of producing a constant flow of sculptures to enliven buildings from schools to cathedrals. Meanwhile, he continued to work with glass (his chosen study at the Royal College of Art), through traditionally leaded windows as well as innovative ‘sculptural’ windows combining aluminium and glass. A skeleton list of these commissions would include work for Coventry Cathedral (1958–62), Castrol House (1959), the passenger/cruise liners Oriana (1960) and Canberra (1961), Thorn House (1961), Lincoln Cathedral (1960), Chichester Cathedral (1960–84), the Guards Chapel at Wellington Barracks (1963), Nottingham Playhouse (1963), Farm Credit Banks, St Paul, Minnesota (1966), Newcastle Civic Centre (1968) and York House, Pentonville Road (1984), alongside numerous other churches, schools, universities and banks. Clarke relished the challenge of collaborating with architects such as Hugh Casson, Basil Spence, Frankland Dark, Louis Osman and Robert Potter, and working to – or occasionally against – a design brief.

Design was, in fact, a sphere in which Clarke felt completely at ease. From the 1950s he worked on interior schemes with Hugh Casson, including the prestigious Time-Life building on New Bond Street. He designed wallpaper for Sandersons, a tapestry for a palace in Kuwait and textiles for Edinburgh Weavers. In the later 1960s he created an exquisite series of silver pendants, pared to a minimal vocabulary of rods and bars. At home in Suffolk, he fitted the interior of a Victorian country house with pine furniture to create a streamlined environment, the walls and ceilings painted in greys and browns mixed by his wife, Bill. An element of typically understated drama was provided by concealed cupboards, whose sliding doors opened to reveal a grid of aluminium maquettes. This interior was captured in Country Life (March 1965), English Style (Bodley Head, 1967) and The Times magazine (21 October 2000).

From the mid-1960s Clarke and his contemporaries were pitted against the New Generation sculptors, in a critical battlefield that was partly about materiality (cast metal versus brightly coloured fibreglass or girder-constructions) and partly about form. Clarke, too, continued to innovate in terms of materials and form, although the public visibility of his aluminium sculpture tended to obscure his more experimental work and to brand him a traditionalist. In the late 1960s, like Richard Long, he was concerned with landscape and ecology, working with gravel, sand and girders, exploring the rehabilitation of open-cast mining sites, and creating sculptural moss gardens. He developed a series of aromatic sculptures in collaboration with perfumers. Latterly, he used wood, leather and clay for a body of work based on the studio and act of creation.

The privilege of knowing Geoffrey Clarke in the last thirteen years of his life has sharpened my awareness of both his propensity to thwart expectation and the difficulty of attempting to encapsulate his work. Printmaker, sculptor, designer, craftsman, philosopher, spiritual artist – he was all of these; and his contribution, across boundaries, to many spheres, offers a rare insight into the creative arts of the mid- to late-twentieth century.

Geoffrey Clarke, born 28 November 1924, died 30 October 2014.

Judith LeGrove is compiling a catalogue raisonné of Geoffrey Clarke’s work. If you can help with information, please contact her via gallery@pangolinlondon.com.