Ghisha Koenig

The Machine Minders


Not on display

Ghisha Koenig 1921–1993
Casting cement, metal and wood
Object: 1300 × 1060 × 600 mm, 167.5 kg (Gross 440kg)
Purchased 1986

Display caption

Koenig's principal subjects were people at work. This sculpture represents two men minding vats at an ink factory in Kent, one of six factories which Koenig visited regularly between 1956-7. The figures are approximately half life-size. She developed the sculpture from drawings made from life, firstly by making a clay model in her studio. Her choice of working class subjects links Koenig with 'Kitchen Sink' painters such as Jack Smith, who depicted the harsh realities of life in post-war Britain. But Koenig also belonged to a community of artist émigrés, including Josef Herman, who drew on a tradition of European realism.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

T04864 The Machine Minders 1956

Artificial stone, metal and wood 1300 × 1060 × 600 (51 1/8 × 41 3/4 × 23 5/8)
Not inscribed
Purchased from the artist (Grant-in-Aid) 1986
Exh: Jewish Artists in England 1656–1956: A Tercentenary Exhibition, Whitechapel Art Gallery, Nov.–Dec. 1956 (114); Writing on the Wall, Tate Gallery, Oct. 1993–April 1994 (19, repr.)
Lit: ‘Portrait of the Craftsman’, Engineering, vol.184, no.4778, Oct. 1957, p.428, repr.; Stephen Bone, ‘Jewish Artists in England: Tercentenary Exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery’, Manchester Guardian, 9 Nov. 1956, p.7; ‘Anglo-Jewish Art Exhibition: Variety of Talents’, Times, 9 Nov. 1956, p.3; Charles S. Spencer, ‘Gisha [sic] Koenig’, Studio, vol.159, Jan. 1960, pp.22–3; Peter Townsend, ‘Ghisha Koenig Talking to Peter Townsend’, Ghisha Koenig: Sculpture 1968–74, exh. cat., Bedford House Gallery 1974, pp.2, 12, 14, 16; Sue Townsend, ‘Sue Townsend on Ghisha Koenig’, in Judith Collins and Elsbeth Lindner (eds.), Writing on the Wall: Women Writers on Women Artists, 1993, pp.136–7, repr. (col.)

This sculpture represents two men working at a machine at Coates ink factory (now Coates Lorilleux International) at St Mary Cray, Kent. The artist made drawings of workers on the factory floor there between 1956 and 1957, and it was one of six factories which provided her with subject matter during her career.

The two vigorously modelled terracotta-coloured figures, which are approximately half-life size, and the integral base, were cast from an original clay model in Astex, a cement-based, artificial stone material. Koenig made four works using Astex during the same period, including T04864. ‘Seated Woman’, 1957, 46 × 22 in, and ‘Standing Woman’, 1957, 48 × 22 in, are two reliefs representing women working at machines. Like T04864, these are unique casts. They have not been reproduced and remain in the artist's estate. The fourth work, ‘Paint-Mixer’, 41 × 16 1/2 × 30 in, also made in 1957 and a unique cast, shows a man pouring paint into a receptacle. It is the only other sculpture based on the Coates paint factory drawings and is also in the artist's estate. Astex was used by the building trade in the 1950s for the production of moulds used in casting alloys and plastics. It was described in a contemporary manufacturer's booklet as ‘a pattern stone powder, more durable than plaster of Paris ... and ... harder than portland cement’ (Harborough Construction Co. Ltd., Astex Leaflet no.2, undated, n.p.). Koenig told the compiler that it could be regarded as a terracotta-coloured imitation of Coade Stone, a material widely used for building decoration in the nineteenth century. Perhaps because Astex had a reputation for durability, apart from the period of its display in the 1956 Whitechapel exhibition, T04864 stood outside in the artist's gardens from 1956 (first at St Mary Cray and then, after 1967, at her house in Sidcup, Kent) until it was acquired by the Tate Gallery.

The machinery controlled by the figures in T04864 is suggested rather than literally described by two pieces of jointed steel piping, each secured to the cast base and supporting a wooden wheel. The men stand behind an oak board and each figure rests its left hand on a wheel. In conversation with the compiler on 25 and 26 August 1987, the artist said that the larger wood section was made by a carpenter. Koenig did not comment specifically on the wheels, but their age suggests that they may have been found by her rather than made. She had found the piping.

Koenig first modelled the sculpture in clay in her studio at St Mary Cray. She told the compiler that she decided to make T04864 in half-scale, because this made it easier for her to work with the wire used to build up the armature for the clay, and because she wished to make the figures less obviously dominant. Before working on the scaled-up clay, she made a maquette, approximately 5 in high (private collection, London). She realised that a work of the scale of T04864 would need the services of a professional caster and had it cast in Astex at the Mancini-Tozer foundry in Surrey. Subsequent works, whether in relief or full figure, were smaller in scale.

The artist told the compiler that while she always based her sculpture on specific people observed at work or resting, she did not keep a record of the individuals and she rarely spoke to them. As many workers were on piecework, it was important not to distract them. However, the artist's husband, Dr Emanuel Tuckman, remembered that the workers she drew were usually invited to her studio to see the completed sculptures (conversation with the compiler on 23 March 1994).

‘The Machine Minders’ is characteristic of Koenig's sculptures of the 1950s in its detailed treatment of the facial features of the two figures. In her subsequent, smaller, works Koenig evoked her subjects' individuality less through detailed physionomy than through attention to posture and more generalised modelling of mass. When questioned about the identity of the men and the machinery they were using, Koenig confirmed that she did not remember their names. She described them as ‘doing the job - machine minding’, and thought that they were looking after ink vats or a machine for mixing ink.

Barry Herniston, Manager of the Information Department at Coates Lorillueux, writes in a letter to the compiler, dated 31 March 1994:

I have contacted several ex-employees of Coates who were working at our St Mary Cray factory in the mid-50s. The consensus of opinion is that the taller man in the sculpture was Stan Pretty (now dead), and the smaller man Tommy Anderson (still alive, but nearly blind). Both men were Millmen whose job was to work the roll mills used for [the] manufacture of printing inks. This machinery is designed to produce a finely dispersed ink by grinding the pigment particles into varnish between rollers which are squeezed tight together under hydraulic pressure. The pressure is adjusted (on the machines in use at the time) by hand using wheels on either side. After passing through the rollers, the ink is deposited on the ‘apron’ at the front of the machine, and then flows down into a suitable container. Since most of the inks made on roll mills are very viscous, the millman helps it down off the apron using a scraper of some sort.

As you suggest in your letter, the sculpture is not a realistic representation of men minding this type of equipment. For one thing, there was only one man to a mill. For another, although the mills at that time had two wheels of the type shown in the sculpture, they were about four feet apart and lying on the same plane, not at 90 degrees to one another. The photograph of our millroom in 1954 (reproduced in our employee newspaper Coatings, published in September 1986 [p.7]) shows a number of roll mills fitted with wheels on either side. These are of the spoke design, although I am told that we did have at least one mill with solid wheels as depicted in the sculpture.

When the artist referred to men minding vats, she probably remembered the containers of inks and varnishes lying around the factory, some of which would have been quite large. But these would not have needed ‘minding’, since the contents - ink and varnish - are inert and there is no process such as fermentation going on. There would have been work to be done in moving the containers to another part of the factory, but it is unlikely that they would have got away with standing idly by these containers!

With very few exceptions, for example, ‘Survival (Ezekiel)’, 1956 (repr. Ghisha Koenig 1921–1993, exh. cat., Boundary Gallery 1994, p.5), which commemorated the holocaust, Koenig worked from direct observation rather than from photographs. In 1987 she presented two sketch books of drawings made on the factory floor at Coates to the Tate Gallery Archive (TGA 8720.1, 8720.2). Both are Robersons black bound ‘Bushey’ No.3, 14 × 9 1/2 in. The first of these is inscribed by the artist ‘Machine Minders 1956 Coates’. The second is annotated by her ‘Coats [sic] - Inks 1957 Machine Minders’. The artist believed that this sketchbook was dated 1957 by her in error. Both books contains a number of charcoal drawings of male figures. Other drawings apparently refer to parts of the machinery shown in the 1954 photograph of the Coates millroom mentioned above. Drawings in both books appear to relate to the two men shown in T04864. Both men are variously depicted, standing at, or bending over sections of machinery.

Men and women at work on the factory floor provided the principal source of subject matter for Koenig's sculptures throughout her career. According to Dr Tuckman, she first became interested in factories at the end of the Second World War. After a brief time at Hornsey College of Art in 1939, Koenig's art education was interrupted by war service. She spent four years in the Auxiliary Territorial Service and, in 1944, edited the London Educational Bulletin, which provided careers information for people being demobilised from the armed services. Her duties included visiting factories to investigate job opportunities. After another period of study, she rediscovered factories in 1950 when she went to live at St Mary Cray, where Dr Tuckman was a founder member of a group practice serving a newly created residential and working community for South Londoners. Many had moved there after their homes were bombed during the Blitz. Local light industries, some newly created, became the focus of the new community, and here Koenig found her models.

Koenig, who was a socialist, said that she was first drawn to record life in the workshop and on the factory floor through a combination of expediency, political idealism and a wish to retain a certain anonymity for herself and her subjects. She found it easier to remain detached in less intimate, industrial settings. In 1974 she explained:

I find that in using a factory as the starting point for my work I can use it on many levels, the level of human beings, relationships to space, movement ... I don't choose a factory for the specific type of work done there. Every sort of human being is there. Not that I try to present them with any idea of propaganda. I'm not saying that people are working in disgusting conditions. Early on I did have such an idea, an approach which I thought people should take ... I first started to go to factories because I couldn't afford models and the environment was political ... After the first day or two the workers were there completely anonymous, and so was I ... It's enormously difficult getting permission to work and draw in a factory ... But once you're accepted there's no trouble at all. As long as you don't impose. Self-consciousness is never present on the factory floor.

(Townsend 1974, [p.2])

At St Mary Cray, Koenig initiated a way of working to which she adhered for the remainder of her career. She would first obtain permission to work in a particular place, frequently a factory or workshop. She would then spend weeks or sometimes months there, observing and drawing: ‘While I'm drawing I don't work in the studio. I never draw and model at the same time. I just do drawings every day and never think about any specific sculpture that might come out of them. In other words, I never draw with any preconceived ideas’ (ibid., [p.12]). After this period of intensive study, Koenig returned to her studio where she worked from her sketchbooks, transferring ideas and images onto large sheets of paper pinned up around the studio walls. From these studio drawings she translated her ideas into three dimensions. Her sculptures and reliefs of single figures or groups of figures in simplified settings, were made in plaster, terracotta and bronze, or, in the case of a few earlier, larger works, such as T04864, in Astex. Despite its size, T04864 shares with Koenig's subsequent works a solidity and bulk brought about by the compression and simplificaton of the two figures in relation to their ‘machinery’. For example, one of the wheels is pushed right into the body of the smaller man. According to Koenig, it is the largest and the most important surviving example of her early mature work and the second largest work she made, the largest being a life-sized plaster nude also cast at Mancini-Tozer in 1954 which remained in her collection.

When T04864 was exhibited in 1956, it was singled out for special mention in reviews. Stephen Bone wrote that, apart from a bust by Epstein, ‘the outstanding work is the strange, funny, pathetic, rather impressive “Machine Minders” by Gischia [sic] Koenig - two sad stumpy figures, tired, bored but still human, standing by the controls which, one gathers, they have operated for years’ (Bone 1956, p.7). The artist did not comment specifically on the slightly humorous aspect of the work, simply remarking that this was an aspect of her work in general. The anonymous reviewer in Engineering (Oct. 1957, p.428) mentions that the artist remarked that ‘until she had entered a factory she had always imagined that machines were designed to suit the physical characteristics of the operators, but now she is surprised how frequently the man or woman has to arrange a box to stand on, or some other expedient to make the work comfortable’. In an interview given in 1974 (Townsend 1974, [p.2]) Koenig explained that she always tried to represent the physical attitudes and routine poses generated by repetitive physical labour:

To give people the chance to have a choice was my original political motivation. It's important for me that everybody holds himself differently ... One of the things I'm concerned about is the trapped nature of human beings. Their lack of ability to move, for example. The machines restrict their movement but when they are free, say, in tea breaks, they still take up the same positions day after day, they've been so conditioned that they've become incapable of real movement.

In this connection, the second of Koenig's Coates sketchbooks shows workers stretching out over machines and standing on boxes to reach their work. A contributor to Coatings (the Coates newspaper cited by Barry Herniston, p.7) writes of the factory floor at Coates during the period when Koenig was drawing there:

The noisy slap and flap of belt-driven machines powering two, three, five and six roll mills at St Mary Cray as they did until well into the 1950s is long past and the sight of comparatively little men ...jumping at full stretch to feed the back roller of a five roll Marchant with a long handled trowel is but a memory. Those were the days when concentrates with the consistency of hardened toffee had to be dug out of half a dozen trays, stacked ready and waiting one on top of another in trolleys. Back breaking work - and the hours were long too, from eight in the morning until six, often with two hours overtime making it a twelve-hour day.

Koenig had returned to art school in 1946, after the war, attending first Chelsea School of Art, and then the Slade. At Chelsea she was taught by Henry Moore (whose influence she acknowledged on the scale and technique of T04864 and works of that period) and Willi Soukop. Later, at the Slade, she was taught by F.E. McWilliam. She agreed that all these artists influenced her early development and she also mentioned Joseph Herman and Renaissance sculpture as having been influential at the time. However, she said her greatest influence was her father, the writer and art critic Leo Koenig (1889–1970), whose London house was a focus for an international group of artists, intellectuals and political figures (see Guy Brett, ‘Ghisha Koenig’, Ghisha Koenig Sculpture 1968–86, exh. cat., Serpentine Gallery 1986, p.4).

In the early 1950s Koenig had undertaken a series of public commissions including a carved wood panel commissioned in 1950 by the Ministry of Works depicting the building industry, measuring 5 × 4 ft and, in 1951, a large terracotta figure for a housing scheme in Poplar (Spencer 1960, p.22). T04864 would appear to be a more personal solution to the problem of making socially relevant art in the period immediately following the Second World War. Guy Brett has suggested that, with her move to the new community of St Mary Cray in the early 1950, Koenig's internationalist and cosmopolitan artistic conciousness became ‘absorbed in local experiences’. At the time many of her friends were making abstract work and she never formally indentified with the 1950s school of figurative realism. According to Guy Brett, however, her approach and choice of subject matter reflected her conviction that ‘After Hitler, the dignity of man had to be re-established’ (Brett 1986, p.4).

Asked to comment on the relationship between T04864 and her subsequent work, Koenig said that it marked the end of one way of working. It was one of the last of her large works. She no longer wished to be restricted by the use of armatures and by having to employ casters. She decided then to accept the limitations on size imposed by the material she was working with.

T04864 weighs approximately 300 kilos and for the purposes of display has been mounted on a low plinth. This method of display was approved by the artist. As the Astex had deteriorated by the time of acquisition, T04864 underwent some minor restoration including surface cleaning, the filling of cracks and the repair of small losses to the edges in the Tate Gallery's Conservation Department, with her approval.

Unless otherwise stated, this entry is based on conversations between the artist and the compiler (on 25 and 26 August 1987). A first draft was approved by the artist in 1991. Following her death, her husband, Dr Emanuel Tuckman, provided the compiler with additional information.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996

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