John F. Kavanagh

Russian Peasant


Not on display

John F. Kavanagh 1903–1984
Object: 229 × 197 × 241 mm
Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1943

Catalogue entry

John F. Kavanagh 1904-1984

Russian Peasant 1935-39


Bronze 229 x 197 x 241 (9 x 7 3/4 x 9 1/2)

Incised obscurely ‘KAVANAGH’ on left hand side of neck
Fragment of printed label on underside of base reads ‘[...] & C[...] | [...]MBAL[...] | Cherche Midi PARIS (6e)’ and stamped ‘83’

Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1943

Third United Artists, Royal Academy, London, Jan.-March 1943 (465, as Head of a Russian Peasant)
Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, London, May-Aug. 1943 (1024)
Royal Glasgow Institute of the Fine Arts annual exhibition, 1943 (133)
Exhibition of the Chantrey Collection, Royal Acadey Winter Exhibition, London, Jan.-March 1949 (391)

Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, I, London 1964, pp.349-50
John F. Kavanagh, Sculptor: An Exhibition of Sculpture and Models from the Collection of the Artist, exh. cat. Auckland City Art Gallery, Aug.-Oct. 1979, p.4

Russian Peasant was cast using a lost-wax process. In retrospect, John Kavanagh wrote that it was a portrait of a Russian Jew he had ‘found’ on the Mile End Road in London’s East End.[1] He could not remember the sitter’s identity. In an earlier letter he had said that the work was one of a dozen similar pieces of ‘different Peasant types I picked up and was interested in’. He was, he wrote, ‘trying to work out a theory’.[2] Such an approach possibly reflects an interest amongst a number of sculptors in the 1930s in the physiognomy of racial types, as seen, for instance, in the work of Dora Gordine. In 1996, the artist’s widow was unable to suggest to what theory Kavanagh might have been referring, only that he was drawn to faces with ‘character’.[3]

Representations of agricultural and industrial workers were common during the 1930s and the fact that Kavanagh’s sitter was a Russian must have had particular resonances, both positive and negative, at that time. The style of Russian Peasant is close to Socialist Realism, then the officially sanctioned art form in the Soviet Union. The significance of a Russian peasant to a British audience would have changed considerably between the period in which the work was made and its exhibition in 1943, by which time Britain and the Soviet Union were wartime allies. The Mile End Road, where Kavanagh met his sitter, is in London’s East End, traditionally a Jewish area. The subject’s Jewish identity would also have been of great significance at a time when Jews in many countries were being persecuted in an echo of earlier pogroms in Russia. However, Mrs Kavanagh did not think the sitter’s race would have been of significance to the artist.

The style of Russian Peasant is typical of its period: both as a reflection of conservative sculptural practice in general and as an illustration of Kavanagh’s work in particular. The use of archetypal figures recurred in a number of his sculptures, most significantly in the monumental scheme for Walthamstow Town Hall (1940). There Kavanagh carved relief panels symbolising themes relating to work and tools of the trade and five free-standing personifications of abstract social qualities such as ‘Fellowship’. These, with their partially draped and idealised bodies carved in a manner which may be described as stylised classicism, are consistent with much European sculpture of the time. Specifically, they reflect the influence of Kavanagh’s sojourn in Rome between 1930 and 1933, when the classical revival was at its peak, as seen in projects such as the Foro Mussolini, built close to the British School, 1928-32. The treatment of Russian Peasant, with its areas of smooth surface and almost decorative linear curves, combines that stylisation with a sense of individual characterisation. Similar qualities were seen in Kavanagh’s other important works. The bronze bust, Wanda Tiburzzi (artist’s estate), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1933 showed a comparable degree of characterisation.[4] Both Russian Peasant and Cora Ann: The Spirit of Youth (Roundhay School, Leeds),[5] a figure of a Spartan athlete commissioned as a memorial for a girls school in Leeds in 1935, are reminiscent of the work of a sculptor like Ivan Mestrovic in their sharp definition of form. Mestrovic’s work was widely appreciated at that time and his Girl with a Lute, which has stylistic similarities with Kavanagh’s work, had been acquired by the Tate Gallery in 1930 (Tate Gallery N04551).

Of the other works in the series of ‘peasant types’, only the portrait of a French peasant was cast in bronze. All but Russian Peasant were destroyed in the war. Mrs Kavanagh said it was likely that Russian Peasant would have been made at the artist’s Radnor Studio in Chelsea, near his home in Mallord Street; he moved there from the Oswald Studios, Sedlescombe Road, Fulham in late 1936 or early 1937.[6] However, he also kept a studio at his parents’ home in Greencastle. Mrs Kavanagh also noted that Kavanagh ‘used different foundries. One of which was the Bronze Foundry in Fulham’. She was referring, most probably, to the Art Bronze Foundery, Michael Road.

The fragmented label stamped with a number on the base of the sculpture is likely to refer to a competition or large exhibition; that it appears to pertain to a company would suggest either a commercial gallery or a shipper handling works for a public institution. One of the two works Kavanagh showed at the Paris Salon of 1936 was catalogued as A Bronze Head, which might be Russian Peasant, though the same identification was used for a work at the Royal Academy in 1934 which could not have been exhibited there nine years later. After the war the Rue du Cherche-Midi, the address on the label, was home to various galleries and artistic associations including, during the 1950s, Art Monumental, Architecture, Peinture, Sculpture. Though it is almost certain that the work was shown in Paris prior to its acquisition by the Tate, the artist told the gallery that it was not exhibited before 1943.[7]

Chris Stephens
Feb. 1998

[1] Letter to Tate Gallery, 3 Dec. 1958
[2] Letter to Tate Gallery, 19 Oct. 1958
[3] Margaret Kavanagh, letter to Tate Gallery, 1 May 1996
[4] Repr. Kineton Parks, ‘Sculpture at the Royal Academy’, Apollo, vol.17, June 1933, p.247
[5] Repr. John F. Kavanagh, Sculptor: An Exhibition of Sculpture and Models from the Collection of the Artist, exh. cat., Auckland City Art Gallery, Aug.-Oct. 1979, no.6
[6] Margaret Kavanagh, letter to Tate Gallery, 1 May 1996
[7] Letter, 19 Oct. 1958

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