In January 1952 the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London announced an international sculpture competition to commemorate 'all those unknown men and women who in our time have been deprived of their lives or their liberty in the cause of human freedom' (International Sculpture Competition: The Unknown Political Prisoner, p.2). The competition received funding of about £11,500 from anonymous backers in the United States, and although it was officially open to artists from all countries the absence of any entries from the Soviet Union or its satellite states was a conspicuous reminder of the project's Cold War subtext. It has often been suggested that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States government was the unnamed sponsor of the competition.
Geoffrey Clarke made four maquettes for the competition of which only one was submitted. His entry was among 3,500 entries received from fifty-seven countries. It was not one of the twelve pieces chosen to represent Great Britain in the final, but it was included in an exhibition at the Burlington Galleries, London, in January 1953 which showcased the winning entries and a selection of commended works. This particular Maquette for the Unknown Prisoner was one of the pieces Clarke did not submit. The flat oval shape bound round with strips of metal and apparently balanced on a central column represents a head. The tighly wound binding, which seems to be anchored in the dish below, suggests extreme physical restraint and the repression of expression.
The two other maquettes that Clarke did not submit pursued a similarly literal interpretation of repression. One showed a head encased in a tight cage on a stone plinth (whereabouts unknown) and the other was an iron piece of a tongue on a little table restrained by an iron band (Private Collection). The submitted maquette (Private Collection, reproduced, Black, cat.no.34) was constructed from four elements and shaped a bit like a bird cage. Emprisoned within the cage was a cross. All of the maquettes were made in a Ministry of Works hut behind Imperial College, London.
Clarke had come to prominence a year earlier at the Venice Biennale where his work was included with that of Lynn Chadwick, Reg Butler, Bernard Meadows, Kenneth Armitage and Robert Adams, among others, in the Young British Sculptors display. They all worked with forged and welded metal, and, according to the critic Herbert Read, they shared in their spikey, insect-like forms an 'iconography of despair' which reflected a pervasive sense of anxiety in the Cold War era. Peter Black, however, has argued that Clarke's work addressed 'the permanent truths about Man' (Geoffrey Clarke RA, p.6) outside the confines of a specific historical moment.
Peter Black, Geoffrey Clarke: Symbols for Man. Sculpture and Graphic Work 1949-94, exhibition catalogue, The Wolsey Art Gallery, Ipswich 1994, p.13
Geoffrey Clarke RA: Sculpture and Works on Paper 1950-1994, exhibition catalogue, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield 1994, reproduced p.13