Bernard Meadows

Four Reliefs


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Not on display

Bernard Meadows 1915–2005
Object: 394 × 349 × 38 mm
object: 394 × 292 × 41 mm
object: 394 × 324 × 41 mm
object: 394 × 292 × 41 mm
Purchased 1960

Catalogue entry

Bernard Meadows b.1915

Four Reliefs 1958



Relief 1: 394 x 349 x 38 (15 ½ x 13 11/16 x 1 ½)
Relief 2: 394 x 292 x 41 (15 ½ x 11 ½ x 1 5/8)
Relief 3: 394 x 324 x 41 (15 ½ x 12 ¾ x 1 5/8)
Relief 4: 394 x 292 x 41 (15 ½ x 11 ½ x 1 5/8)
In a painted wood frame: 573 x 1614 (22 9/16 x 63 9/16)

Cast inscription ‘M’ [circled], bottom right on reliefs 1, 2, 3 and bottom left on relief 4

Purchased from the artist through Gimpel Fils 1960

Exhibited († = unidentified cast, ‡ = other cast):
Recent Sculpture by Bernard Meadows, Gimpel Fils, London, April 1959 (45†, as Four Large Reliefs)
Contemporary Art Society Recent Acquisitions, Cheltenham Art Gallery, July 1959 (99†)
British Artist Craftsmen: An Exhibition of Contemporary Work, exhibition toured through USA by Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., 1959-60 (33†, as Four Reliefs on a Bird Theme)
Beeldententoonstelling Floriade, Museum Boymans-van-Beuningen, Rotterdam, March-September 1960 (95†, as Four reliefs on the theme of a cock)
Recent British Sculpture: Robert Adams, Kenneth Armitage, Reg Butler, Lynn Chadwick, Hubert Dalwood, Barbara Hepworth, Bernard Meadows, Henry Moore, Eduardo Paolozzi, British Council tour of Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Japan and Hong Kong 1961-4, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, April-June 1961, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, August-September, Winnipeg Art Gallery, September-October, Norman Mckenzie Art Gallery, Regina College, November, Art Gallery of Toronto, January-February 1962, Public Library and Art Museum, London, Ontario, February-March, Vancouver Art Gallery, March-April, Auckland Institute and Museum, July, Dominion Museum, Wellington, August-September, Otago Museum, Dunedin, October, Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, November-December 1962, Western Australia Art Gallery, Perth, January-February 1963, National Gallery of Victoria, Melborne, July-August, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, September-October, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, November-December 1963, Newcastle War Memorial Cultural Centre, January 1964, Albert Hall, Canberra, February, Bridgestone Art Gallery, Tokyo and other Japanese venues, including Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, July-August, City Hall Art Gallery, Hong Kong, August-September 1964 (48‡)
Sculpture 1961, Arts Council Welsh Committee tour, National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, July-September 1961, Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea, September, National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, October, University College, Bangor, November (38‡, reproduced as Four Reliefs on a Cock Theme 1959)
Roger Hilton Paintings, Gwyther Irwin Collages, Joe Tilson Painted Constructions, Bernard Meadows Sculpture and Drawings, British Pavilion, XXXII Venice Biennale, May-Oct. 1964 (no number†, reproduced)
Roger Hilton, Gwyther Irwin, Bernard Meadows, Joe Tilson, British Council European tour 1964-5, Modern Gallery, Zagreb, Kunstamt Reinickendorf, Berlin, Museen der Stadt Recklinghausen, Kunstverein Braunschweig, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, May-June 1965 (42†)

Tate Gallery Report 1959-60, London 1960, pp.22-3
Alan Bowness, Bernard Meadows: Sculpture and Drawings, London 1995, p.140, reproduced

Listed in the artist’s catalogue raisonné under their original title, Four Large Reliefs,[1] these four bronze panels framed together to form a single work, were a reworking of an earlier concept. Meadows was commissioned to make a sculpture for Bowmansgreen School in London Colney, Hertfordshire by the architects Yorke, Rosenberg and Mardell. The piece he came up with was a larger than life-size cockerel in a representational style that was in defiance of his established manner. He is reported to have chosen the form because he thought the children would enjoy it.[2] Cock was installed in 1954, but had been anticipated by a number of ‘maquettes’ dated to 1950; one of these, Maquette for Cock, 1950/1953 is in the Arts Council Collection.[3] Meadows had originally intended to complement the sculpture with the insertion of reliefs on the four faces of its plinth but decided they were inappropriate. These were considerably smaller than the Tate’s reliefs – 120 x 100 mm (4 ¾ x 4 ins.) each – and were subsequently cast in bronze as an independent set, Four Small Reliefs on Cock Theme, 1952 (Birkenhead Art Gallery), and issued in an edition of six plus one artist’s copy.[4]

The reason for the rejection of the reliefs in the London Colney scheme is not clear, but it is possible that their abstracted, expressionistic style was considered to be too far removed from the relatively literal depiction of the main cockerel. In the looser handling of form and the expressive working of the surface, the reliefs are more consistent with Meadows’ usual style. With crabs, the cock had been the major motif of most of his work since 1950, the date of his first recorded autograph work. The artist explained that he saw the sculptures as at once distillations of the creatures’ own essential characteristics and as ‘vehicles, expressing my feelings about human beings ... they are essentially human’.[5] He used them as a means of addressing a particular aspect of ‘the human condition’, specifically a certain anxiety and vulnerability which he encapsulated in the term ‘threat’.[6] Meadows was interested in the philosophy of Existentialism and in writers associated with it, particularly Jean-Paul Sartre and Samuel Beckett, and this is reflected in his desire for a metaphoric expression of extreme emotions or experiences. He produced a number of works to which he referred in terms of ‘hysterical chickens’, but explained that with them he wished to address ‘that same sort of hysteria which people get when life gets on top of you’.[7] These reliefs would seem to fall into that category.

The artist also insisted that, rather than depicting a specific animal, he wished to express the essence of that animal – a crab’s crabness or a cockerel’s cockness.[8] This is demonstrated with these four plaques which seem to depict four characteristic stances adopted by cocks. Like many of his works they thus appear to be based on close observation of nature despite their formal abstraction. Like Large Flat Bird (Tate Gallery T07232), each shows a cock crowing with its head raised and neck extended, its wings puffed out or flapping in panic. While the compositions are clearly determined by the rectangular format of the plaques the images are also credible depictions of an actual cockerel.

The cock had entered the stock of modern art’s imagery through the work of Picasso and his bronze Cock, 1932 (Tate Gallery N06023) was acquired by the Tate Gallery in 1953. A traditional symbol of time and of robust sexuality, Picasso also made use of the cock’s symbolic association with the French nation. He made a number of drawings of shrieking cockerels during the political crises of 1938 and, though modelled earlier, the Tate’s bronze was shown at the Liberation Salon in Paris in 1944 where it became a symbol of a resurgent nation.[9] Picasso’s cockerels are frequently phallic in appearance and the same might be said of Meadows’ with their up-stretched necks. Such a symbolic representation of an assertive masculinity, and - it has been suggested - of castration anxiety,[10] anticipated the sculptor’s later production of works concerned with dictators and tycoons. He showed these to be outwardly aggressive patriarchal figures who, nevertheless, have a vulnerable interior beneath their protective carapace of wealth and power. So, to depict the cock as both aggressive and hysterical would not be counter to the artist’s intention to express a sense of vulnerability or threat.

In choosing to decorate the pedestal of the London Colney Cock with bas-reliefs, Meadows made recourse to one of the most traditional of art forms. In particular, the shallowness of the relief is particularly reminiscent of such Renaissance schemes as the narrative panels around the font at Siena Baptistry. A number of British sculptors worked in relief during the 1950s and this was fostered by the huge demand for public sculpture to adorn the new buildings that appeared as part of the process of post-war Reconstruction. For example, Barbara Hepworth carved a relief panel, Vertical Forms,[11] for Hatfield Technical College in 1951 and, that same year, Basil Spence included a relief beside the main entrance in his designs for the new Coventry Cathedral. He was dissuaded from pursuing this scheme by Henry Moore who, in 1955, was disappointed by the outcome of his Wall Relief at the Bouwcentrum in Rotterdam.[12] However, the most notable recent precedent for Meadows were the panels produced by the Italian Giacomo Manzú. During the 1940s Manzú made a series of extremely shallow reliefs on the theme of the Crucifixion which served as barely disguised criticisms of the Fascist authorities. In the wake of these he was commissioned in 1950 to produce relief panels for the doors of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. A prize winner at the 1948 Venice Biennale, his work was shown in group exhibitions in London for some years before his first one-person show at the Hanover Gallery in 1953 prompted him to visit Britain.

Meadows had trained as a painter and working in two dimensions remained a major part of his output throughout his career. Shallow relief allowed him to combine two disciplines, embodying as it does graphic and modelled elements. These plaques retain much of the quality of the artist’s original working. Meadows has described how he adopted the Italian method of modelling in plaster rather than in clay and making a plaster pattern as an intermediary stage before casting the bronze. By this process, the form of the sculpture would be roughed out and cast in plaster and further plaster could be applied while still damp. The forms of these reliefs are consistent with that practice as signalled by the contrast between the sharp rectilinear blocks that define some parts of the birds, particularly the heads, and the fluidity of certain areas of the surface. The latter looks as if the plaster was applied with a knife and drawn across the surface in manner that echoed much contemporary painting, such as the work of Nicolas de Stäel in France or Roger Hilton in Britain. That liquidity is also contrasted with a linearity, resulting from the incising and carving of the plaster, which more than any other aspect gives the images their sense of nervous movement and agitation. In some areas, notably in the third panel, the ground is quite deeply carved to give a greater sense of the bird’s form. In others, shallower and more gestural incisions create a sense of movement and, in the second plaque, allude to the cock’s feathers.

The depth of some of the excavation of the original plaster necessitated the bronze reliefs to bulge at the back and the artist’s frame had to be chiselled to accommodate this, though particularly prominent protrusions were filed down. Each plaque has two tapped holes and is attached to the frame with steel bolts. Though the panels are unevenly shaped, some of the edges were ground, while the birds’ eyes were achieved with a drill. The panels reveal the complexities of bronze casting: in each, one can see where blow-holes were plugged with bronze dowel and filed down. In the first relief one can discern a repaired crack that runs across from the left hand side, over the top of the wing, below the left most head and through the other. A triangular section on the left-hand side of the fourth relief also appears to have been mended during the process of its manufacture. The bronze appears generally black with areas of a ferrous brown patina and is described as ‘similar to old bronze paint with some darker modifications in the hollows’.[13] Some white residue remains in the crevices on both the front and the back of the panels.

The gestural style of Meadows’ working of the plaster gives an immediacy of handling which is retained in the bronzes. During the post-war years, in both painting and sculpture, such evidence of the artistic process was seen to stand for the artist’s own presence in the work and, as such, for broader existential ideas. Concepts of subjectivity were central to theoretical writings on Alberto Giacometti’s painting and sculpture, in particular, and on the Abstract Expressionists. Meadows’ technique thus contributes to his stated intention to address ‘the human condition’ through the metaphorical use of cockerels. The surfaces of his reliefs also recall the graphic brutalism of Brassaï’s photographs of Parisian graffiti which have been tellingly compared with Jean Dubuffet’s development of an Art Brut in painting. There is a particularly strong parallel between the rapid, repetitious incisions at the tips of the wings in the second relief and some of the wall markings recorded by the photographer. Thus, Meadows’ reliefs are securely positioned within the matrix of Exitentialist art of the 1950s.

Chris Stephens
November 1998

[1] BM 49, Alan Bowness, Bernard Meadows: Sculpture and Drawings, London 1995, p.140
[2] Ibid., p.12
[3] Cock, 1954, BM 26, reproduced ibid., p.26, pl.4; Maquette for Cock, 1950/1953, BM 10, reproduced ibid., p.136
[4] BM 20, reproduced ibid., p.137
[5] Quoted by Bryan Robertson, exh. cat., Recent Sculpture by Bernard Meadows, Gimpel Fils, London 1959
[6] Interview with the author, 8 October 1998
[7] Interview with Tamsyn Woollcombe, 1992, Artists Life Project, Tate Gallery Archive, TAV415A
[8] Interview 8 October 1998
[9] Neil Cox and Deborah Povey, A Picasso Bestiary, London 1995, pp.81-2
[10] Ibid., p.82
[11] Repr. J.P. Hodin, Barbara Hepworth, Neuchâtel 1961, BH 169
[12] LH 375, reproduced in Alan Bowness, Henry Moore: Sculpture and Drawings, Vol. 3: Sculpture 1955-64, 2nd ed., London 1986, [pp.63-5], pls.1-3
[13] Tate Gallery conservation files

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