Reg Butler

Circe Head


Not on display

Reg Butler 1913–1981
Object: 430 × 235 × 215 mm, 10.8 kg
Purchased with assistance from the Gytha Trust 1984

Display caption

This sculpture is titled after Circe, the sorceress of Greek mythology who turned Odysseus’s men into pigs. The misshapen head looks like a joint of meat with wires and nails protruding from it. It is also unmistakeably reminiscent of a brutalised phallus and may reflect Butler’s attitude towards women and his perception of their power over men.

Gallery label, July 2008

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Catalogue entry

Reg Butler 1931-1981

T03867 Circe Head 1952-3

Bronze 375 x 235 x 215 (14 3/4 x 9 1/4 x 8 1/2) on original stone base
Cast inscription ‘4/8 RB' in monogram and cast foundry mark ‘Susse Fondeur' on underside of neck
Purchased from Mrs Rosemary Butler, the artist's widow (Gytha Trust) 1984
Exh: ? Reg Butler, Hanover Gallery, May-June 1957 (2, repr., unspecified cast); ? Reg Butler, Galerie Springer, Berlin, July-Sept. 1957 (2, repr., unspecified cast); ? Reg Butler, Galerie Alex V mel, Düsseldorf, Jan. 1958 (2, unspecified cast); ? Reg Butler, A Retrospective Exhibition, J. B. Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky, Oct.-Dec.1963 (31, repr., as 1951-2, unspecified cast); British Sculpture in the 20th Century, Part 2, Symbol and Imagination, 1951-1980, Whitechapel Art Gallery, Nov.1981-Jan.1982 (39); Reg Butler, Tate Gallery, Nov.1983-Jan.1984 (47, repr.); Suffering through Tyranny, Tate Gallery, Dec.1984-May 1985 (repr.)
Lit: Richard Calvocoressi, ‘Reg Butler: The Man and the Work' in Reg Butler,, Tate Gallery, 1983, p.24.

‘Circe Head' is listed as number 90 in the artist's record books (collection of Mrs Butler). It is similar to the head of the larger sculpture ‘Oracle' (1952, collection of Hatfield Polytechnic, edition of four casts). These were innovations in his work, both in the subject of a woman with her head bent backwards looking upwards, and in the fuller modelling of the body of the figure, characteristic of his first use of bronze.

The first version of this head was ‘Study for Head Looking Up' (1951), made of bronze sheet and wire, 267 (10 1/2) high (private collection, repr. Tate Gallery exh. cat., 1983, no.44). In this the tongue sticks out from the open mouth, as with the later versions, but the curved wires more naturalistically resemble hair and the shape of the body. The origin of this unusual pose was said by Butler to have been his noticing people near his studio at Hatfield watching trial flights of the De Havilland Comet airliner. This is discussed by Richard Calvocoressi who also refers to the example of Henry Moore's ‘Three Standing figures' (1948) at Battersea Park, which Butler helped to carve, in which also the figures seem to stare into the distance from rounded eyes.

Butler made a number of drawings in white crayon and red wash of imaginary heads looking up, which are associated with this sculpture. A group of three, each dated 1952, belong to the Tate Gallery (A01061-3, ‘Study for Head of Watcher'), and in these he drew vertical lines coming out of the mouth and eyes as if reaching upwards; the protruding tongue of the sculpture was presumably intended as part of this movement. Mrs Butler recalled (in a conversation on 6 November 1987) that the first drawings on this theme were made in 1951 while on holiday at Trianon Bay near Padstow in Cornwall (one is reproduced in the Tate Gallery's 1983 catalogue, no.93).

In the winter of 1951-2 Butler made a clay model for ‘Circe' (number 79 in his record books). A photograph of this shows that the wires, or at least some of them, were left protruding from the clay as if a part of one of his earlier wire sculptures. A plaster cast, lacking some of the less firmly attached pieces, was made from the clay, which was destroyed. Mrs Rosemary Butler, then working in the studio, made two casts from this in ‘shell bronze' in 1952-3, one of which was exhibited for the first time at the Hanover Gallery in April 1954 (Reg Butler, no.9), and they were acquired by Mrs Lilian Somerville and by a private collector in America. In the ‘shell bronze' technique, first used by Butler for ‘Oracle' (1952), small pieces of bronze were cast separately and assembled.

The bronze edition of eight, including the Tate Gallery's, was cast by Susse in Paris in 1954-5, under the supervision of the sculptor.

It is not known why this head is titled after Circe, the sorceress of Greek mythology who turned Odysseus's men into pigs. Butler also made a figure called ‘Cassandra' in 1953, but usually avoided names in titles.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.117-18

You might like

In the shop