Introduction to the catalogue for the Frink exhibition at the Beaux Arts Gallery in Cork Street June-July 2006.
I recently chaired a seminar entitled “Dame Elisabeth Frink Remembered through Film and Friends” at Bonhams Lecture Theatre in Bond Street and before that in Sherborne, Dorset. Both events were in aid of Sherborne House where the Frink Archive will eventually be lodged. There will also be a specially designed garden for a permanent display of her larger works and inside the house a space for a selection of her smaller pieces. The exhibitions will be open to the general public and the archive will be available for study by students and scholars. Sherborne House is a fine Palladian structure built by Henry Seymour Portman in 1720 and is Grade 1 listed in part because it has one of the few remaining painted staircases by the Dorset Artist Sir James Thornhill (1675-1734) whose works include the Dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Painted Hall at Greenwich. Given Frink’s love of Dorset it is entirely fitting that her archive should find a home in Sherborne House.
In preparing and researching for the event I looked at every piece of film made of Lis and her work from the earliest Monitor programme fronted by Laurie Lee to the last made by Mick Csaky for Melvyn Bragg and the South Bank Show. To spend hour after hour watching Lis progress from a vibrant young woman to the last days of her life when she was ill and dying of cancer was a profoundly moving experience. It was equally so for the other friends who spoke on the day, The painter John Hubbard, the sculptor Ann Christopher and Lis’s founder and left-hand man Ken Cook, and Jeremy Barker of Sherborne House.
What would it be like to have film of Rodin, who so influenced Frink, at work in his studio and talking about that work? It is an extraordinary privilege, we now have, to be able to see, hear and study a now dead artist at work over their lifetime. To witness themes and ideas being explored and developed, ending in a piece of work which looks finished and beautiful to us and is then rejected and destroyed by the hand that made it because it was not good enough. This was certainly very often so in the case of Frink.
One summer staying with her and her husband Ted Poole in France I went in to her studio to share a glass of wine with her just after she had finished work for the morning and on the turn-table was a piece of work that I thought she seemed satisfied with, but I was wrong. As we sipped our wine she started to ignore me staring at the piece with total concentration and then she muttered, “It’s not right”. She picked up a two pound lump hammer and went at it like a Mayo navvy on piece work. Plaster flew all over the studio and the wine was forgotten. It was the most unnerving and exhilarating thing to witness. 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.
To witness this was to catch a glimpse of how and why she worked.. She did not work from sketches or drawings but from ideas in her own head, long thought about and gestated. The piece in front of her was something to be worked on, changed, re-done, re-cut, re-shaped and never to be really satisfied with because satisfaction is death for an artist and for Frink a “finished” work was just a jumping off point for the next piece, the next exploration. Her early Bird series full of menace and power of which Laurie Lee memorably said “If they sang they would spit out splinters of iron” ended some years later with the Mirage series, examples of which you can see here. They were inspired by her visits to the Camargue which she loved. She said to Edward Lucie-Smith “In the very hot weather people on horseback, or birds – flamingos in the distance – used to assume these strange, stalking shapes, floating, broken up by the distance”. She looked at everything and everything she saw was stored in that incredible memory to be called up when needed.
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 on her farm 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.
To see her on film over the years starting each working day by plunging her ungloved hands into a sack of plaster and mixing the powder in a bowl of water, and with the same hands slap the mixture on to an armature and begin to make a shape that only existed in her head is to understand why she was drawn to sculpture and not painting. To witness her pure tactile satisfaction in working the plaster with her bare hands before it set; and then with rasps, scrapers and finally with chisels and a mallet creating the textures and details to be reproduced in hard edged bronze and then those hands going over every detail of the bronze and finessing; it was to watch a consummate artist at work. 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.
Her feelings for the downtrodden, the tortured, and the cruelly treated, powerless people of our world were acute, deeply felt and totally unromantic. She was outraged by injustice. It is all there in the work, alarmingly, in the Goggle Heads and sadly, bravely and hopefully in the Tribute Heads done for Amnesty.
On the metal plate in front of her Dorset Martyrs standing at the cross-roads in Dorchester where many of them were hanged, drawn and quartered is the list of names of those killed and a poem by Robert Southwell, priest.
“Not where I breathe, but where I love, I live;
Not where I love, but where I am, I die;
The life I wish, must future glory give,
The deaths I feele in present daungers lye.”
Robert Southwell was put to the torture thirteen times and executed at Tyburn 21st February 1595.
Lis had a deep, lifelong commitment to Amnesty International so it was no surprise that she jumped at the chance to commemorate these men who, unflinchingly, face their brutal deaths. Also, while she was not “religious” she was brought up a Catholic, and the Dorset Martyrs died because they would not give up their Catholic faith.
Watching the film shot during the last months of her life reminded me again of the incredible fortitude, grace and bravery she showed throughout her illness. She was determined to finish the huge figure of the Risen Christ for the Anglican cathedral in Liverpool before she died. To be with her while she worked on it and discussed it was to be with a person who was only interested in life. To me, in that period, she resembled her Madonna striding across the grass in front of Salisbury cathedral, a powerful expression of human strength and purpose.
They took the Risen Christ to the foundry but she called the plaster head back to her own studio so she could do some more fine tuning on it, and as she worked she talked about her belief that the spirit of people continued to exist somewhere in the ether and I certainly feel hers does. Then finally, happy with the work, she said in some tired satisfaction, “Now that’s it” and laid down her tool: but of course that was not “it”. She went to the foundry and pointed out details in the bronze she wanted adjusted; then shrunken cheeked, masked and turbaned she set to work herself with a whining metal grinder to put her final stamp on the piece. She stood watching as they winched the huge figure on to its feet until it towered over her and it is an amazing shot of an artist dwarfed by the work but the two are one.
She was too ill to travel to the unveiling in Liverpool on the Easter Sunday but she was there, in the work, and she will be there for centuries. She had done what she was determined to do and a little over a week later she died.
I have said above that watching the films was a profoundly moving experience but because of her life force it was not depressing or sad; it was uplifting and life-affirming. I finished the address I gave at her memorial at St James Piccadilly with the following –
“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.”
I’ll stick with that.