The Address at the Royal Academy Memorial

The Address
Given by
Brian Phelan

At the Royal Academy memorial for DAME ELISABETH FRINK, C.H., D.B.E., R.A.

At St. James’s Church, Piccadilly,
Tuesday, 21st September 1993.

It seems to me no accident that in the last years of her life Lis became fascinated by the legend of the Green Man, that ancient and continuously re-appearing symbol of regeneration and birth.

It was always life and living she cared about, however difficult and distressing that might sometimes be. Death was certainly to be recognised, looked at, raged at, but not acquiesced to.

Her Madonna at Salisbury is not a woman crushed by sorrow and death. She is not nobly suffering but strides forward affirming life, interested to see what lies in the future while the understanding of the past is etched clearly, and deeply, in the lines of her face.

So for me to-day is a celebration. A Hooley. A celebration of an extraordinary and unique person who has touched all our lives. A woman and an artist of great generosity, daring, bravery and phenomenal energy. She flung herself at life and at work. Her energy and love embraced us all and enriched our lives.

The first time I went with my family to spend summer with Lis in France we arrived at Corbes in the early evening after the long drive from Calais. Immediately the choice was pastis or champagne or, most likely, both. Then she was at the barbecue gesticulating with a collection of skewers that would have made Errol Flynn blanch. She had taken a house for us and as it got dark I worried how we would ever find it. It was simple, of course, we would follow Lis. She yelled for her dog Polux, they both dived into a battered vehicle and took off down the twisting road to the river. By the time she started across the bridge with no sides I was way behind her. Even in daylight when I had become familiar with it that bridge worried me, but arriving at it for the first time, in the dark doing 50 miles an hour, as her rear lights dis¬appeared was to experience Lis’s contradictory sense of time. Finding her again, on the track up to Madame Meyer’s meant saying goodbye to caution.

Seeing that French hill farmer’s wife greet Lis was to witness how she affected people. We were hours late, we had to go further up the hill to our rented home but Madame Mayer was only delighted and pleased to see and talk to Madame Lis.

The two women walked up the mountain, lit by my headlights and we watched Lis, listen with interest to the vagaries and difficulties of producing cheese from such a difficult and, yet, magnificent herd of goats that were Madame Meyer’s lot. Suddenly there was all the time in the world.

That was the first of many wonderful summers we spent at Corbes with Lis and Ted. She had the gift to make every occasion special. Shopping in Anduze with a cafe stop after was as memorable as the days of the grape harvest in the late summer. Whatever you shared with her became a heightened experience, ……. to be savoured because she was at the centre of it. She made you look and be aware, not by pointing things out but by the act of living it herself.

In her attitude to people she was the truest democrat I have known She did not respond to the fame or status of a person, or the lack of it. She looked at people, listened to them, then made up her mind. She played no games, she was herself with everybody and that is what people responded to and loved her for. She was created a Dame by her country but she was also a ‘DAME’ in the best American sense of that word.

Above all, the energy was in the work. To wake up after a late night in Corbes and see Lis, shortly after dawn, make her way across the track to her stone wall studio was to understand her fundamental urge and necessity to create.

I went into her studio one morning to find her staring at the work in progress with total concentration. She muttered, “It’s not right” picked up a two pound lump hammer and went at it like a Mayo navvy on piece work. Plaster flew all over the studio. It was the most unnerving and exhilarating thing to watch. I said ” I hope you know what you’re doing.” But of course she did. She mixed up some fresh plaster and I sat there watching her create a more perfect work of art. I consider it one of the most privileged mornings of my life.

She was wonderfully gregarious, equally delighted by new people as old friends. They were to be looked after, vitalled, wined, questioned, stimulated and encouraged. Most especially young artists. She gave them her time unstintingly. There are many artists working to-day who were given faith in themselves and their talent by her generosity, support and encouragement.

But above all she herself was the consummate artist. Her work was her life. Her turning down the historic offer to become the first woman President of the Royal Academy was because it would take time from her work. I can think of few people so centered.

She loved the men in her life She loved her family and she loved her friends. She was not one for over articulating this, she simply expressed it in everything she did. Except for her joy in Tully. At the drop of her hat or, latterly, her turban, she would talk about her grandchild.

She was outraged by injustice. Her feeling for the downtrodden, the tortured, and the cruelly treated, powerless people of our world was acute, deeply felt and totally unromantic. It is all there in the work, alarmingly, in the Goggle Heads and sadly, bravely and hopefully in the Tribute Heads done for Amnesty.

She also had a fine indignation about what happened to her own country in the Eighties, not just to artists but to the sensibilities of ordinary people.

She exhibited amazing bravery and grace in the last few months, always planning new work, thinking about the future and above all, the figure for Liverpool. To be with her while she worked on it, discussed it was to be with a person who was only interested in life. Although she did not make it to the unveiling she was there, in the work, and she will be there for centuries.

She loved Dorset and she loved country living and that she shared, for years of great pleasure with Alex, who loved his horses, his dogs, Wolland and, above all, his “Girl”.

I do not understand the scientific explanation of the black hole in space but I do, now, understand the black emotional hole that has appeared in my life.

But the hole is not so black. It is filled with colours and shapes, with running men and beautiful animals and above all it echoes with that wonderful bark and hoot of laughter that engulfed you when Lis was at her best and happiest.