Bernard Meadows

Standing Figure


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Not on display
Bernard Meadows 1915–2005
Elm on plywood base
Object: 1549 x 457 x 381 mm
Presented by the Arts Council of Great Britain 1954

Catalogue entry

Bernard Meadows b.1915

Standing Figure 1951


Elm 1549 x 457 x 381 (61 x 18 x 15)

Presented by the Arts Council of Great Britain 1954

Commissioned from the artist by the Arts Council of Great Britain 1950

60 Paintings for ’51, Arts Council exhibition, Royal Society of British Artists Galleries, June-July 1951 (no number)

Tate Gallery Report 1953-4, London 1954, p.21
Alan Bowness, Bernard Meadows: Sculpture and Drawings, London 1995, pp.10-11, 31, pls.10a-b

Andrew Carnduff Ritchie, Sculpture of the Twentieth Century, New York 1952, p.197

Standing Figure is remarkable in that it was produced for a major public commission even though it is one of Bernard Meadows’ earliest recorded sculptures. It is numbered ‘BM 17’ in the catalogue raisonné of the artist’s work, and of the one hundred and thirty sculptures listed it is the only carving.[1] Ironically perhaps, it is also one of his largest pieces.

The sculpture was commissioned by the Arts Council of Great Britain for the exhibition 60 Paintings for ’51, which, along with commissions for individual works of art for the South Bank site, was the Council’s major contribution to the Festival of Britain in 1951. The main intention of the exhibition was to stimulate the production of large scale paintings by providing each of the sixty chosen artists with a canvas at least forty-six by sixty inches in size. The resulting paintings (actually fifty-three in total) were exhibited at the Royal Society of British Artists in London and then toured around Britain. Five were selected for purchase by the Arts Council. In addition, the Council invited twelve sculptors to produce work for the Festival on a similarly large scale. Of the resulting works, eight were included in the London showing of 60 Paintings for ’51 and these included Standing Figure. Three works were placed at the South Bank: Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure, 1951 (Arts Council Collection), Jacob Epstein’s Youth Advances, 1951 (Manchester City Art Gallery) and Barbara Hepworth’s Contrapuntal Forms, 1950-1 (Harlow Arts Trust).[2] Woman and Fish, c.1951 by Frank Dobson (Tower Hamlets Borough Council) was shown at the London County Council’s open-air sculpture exhibition in Battersea Park.[3]

Meadows also produced a sculpture for the Battersea exhibition. This too was a Standing Figure (whereabouts unknown), but cast in concrete and as a result it was more solid and monolithic than the Tate’s work. An earlier open-air sculpture exhibition in Battersea Park in 1948 had attracted considerable attention and this second show, coinciding with the Festival, was seen as a major event. It is, therefore, doubly extraordinary that Meadows, who had barely shown until then should have been selected for both prestigious events and, furthermore, that he should have responded to this sudden exposure with such developed works. The artist later explained that, though his own sculpture only began at the end of the 1940s, his experience as assistant to Henry Moore from 1936 to 1940 and after the war had given him considerable technical experience and a mature style.[4]

Meadows belonged to the generation of British sculptors whose production of predominantly metal sculpture marked their departure from the ‘truth to materials’ ideology of the senior generation of Moore and Barbara Hepworth. While Reg Butler’s forging of iron inevitably produced spikey forms, Meadows was one of a number of artists who made sculptures in plaster to be cast in bronze, or, initially, in iron. The use of cast, forged and cut metal in favour of carving facilitated the new style of angular, pointed and textured forms which were interpreted in terms of the contemporary interest in Existentialism and related to Cold War anxieties. Meadows was seen as central to this phenomenon. That Standing Figure proved an exception and was carved should not be seen as a new departure, however, as he had had considerable experience of carving as Moore’s assistant. Shortly before working on this piece he had helped Moore with his stone Three Standing Figures, 1947-8 (Battersea Park)[5] for the ground-breaking open-air exhibition in Battersea Park in 1948. Before the war he had also worked on the two major reclining figures that helped secure Moore’s pre-eminence: Recumbent Figure, 1938 in Hornton stone (Tate Gallery),[6] made for Serge Chermayeff, and the large elmwood Reclining Figure, 1939 (private collection).[7]

Meadows was, therefore, familiar with elmwood. This timber was particularly favoured for such major carvings because, until the outbreak of Dutch Elm Disease in the 1970s, elm provided the largest indigenous logs. It is, however, prone to splitting and Meadows remembered: ‘one of the first things Henry [Moore] told me was that you cut the centre out to prevent cracking’.[8] Thus the hollowed out form of Standing Figure has a practical as well as formal dimension. Nevertheless, there are several extended splits running down the middle of the figure and on the right hand side. These have been filled, presumably by the artist, but appear to have widened further. A piece of timber was planted on to the back of the head where a section seems to have broken off from the narrow bridge produced by the boring of the spiralling hole. The wood was stained to its dark colour and does not have a high polish. The figure stands on a constructed plywood base painted to look like marble.

The working of the wood, and in particular the way that the form is in sympathy with the elm’s characteristic broad grain, links Meadows to the earlier ‘truth to materials’ aesthetic with which Moore had been associated in the 1930s. The hollowing out of the figure is also reminiscent of the work of Barbara Hepworth but, though she was intimately associated with the piercing of the sculptural form, such a fundamental excavation would not appear in her work until the mid-1950s. The Reclining Figure, 1939 on which Meadows had worked with Moore was, however, pierced and hollowed in such a way as to create a similar central void. It is possible that the distinctive and somewhat unexpected diagonal form on the head of Meadows’ figure is intended to distance the work from this earlier tradition. This element, which suggests a jauntily poised hat, serves to cut off the sculpture’s vertical movement. More than that, it has been carved to look as if it was a separate piece of wood inserted, and so introduces a constructive aspect. It is certainly the case that for many years Meadows regretted this work because of its resemblance to Moore’s style. It was for this reason that he abandoned carving, believing that he was unable to ‘disestablish’ himself from the Moore idiom in any other way.[9]

This desire might also be discerned in his choice of subject, as the motif of a standing figure was relatively rare in Moore’s oeuvre. The reclining woman came to epitomise his work and, in contrast to its formal fluency and allusions to landscape, Meadows recalled the difficulty the elder artist had in resolving the relationship of the vertical figure to the ground. In the Three Standing Figures for Battersea drapery concealed the feet, but, though he worked on that piece, for his own work Meadows adopted a different strategy. Standing Figure rises on two relatively angular and deep legs and the space between them ensures the separation of the sculpture’s mass from its base. This style reveals an apparent debt, equally consistent with the ‘truth to materials’ approach, to non–western cultural objects. Though much larger in scale, Standing Figure is reminiscent of African carvings, the angular conjunction of the hips and the simple form of the legs being especially close to such pieces. Famously, Moore had drawn on non-western models in the British Museum in the formulation of his style in the late 1920s and this prompted Meadows to pursue a similar path. He recalled knowing the ethnographic galleries of the Museum ‘inside out’ and noted that his interests were eclectic, ranging from sculptural objects to the ‘jokey’ or ‘strange’.[10] Such issues, and an interest in anthropology, would become dominant aspects of British art in the 1950s, especially centred around the Institute of Contemporary Arts.

Though it is in a sense an early work, one might also see Standing Figure as transitional. It stands at the intersection of the pre-war aesthetic within which Meadows had served his apprenticeship and the style of the bronzes which ensured his inclusion in the group of young British sculptors that were promoted during the 1950s under the label of the ‘geometry of fear’.

Chris Stephens
November 1998

[1] Alan Bowness, Bernard Meadows: Sculpture and Drawings, London 1995, pp.136-7
[2] Henry Moore, Reclining Figure, 1951, reproduced in Alan Bowness (ed.), Henry Moore: Complete Sculpture, Vol.2: Sculpture 1949-54, 3rd ed., London 1986, pls.46-53; Jacob Epstein, Youth Advances, 1951, reproduced in Evelyn Silber, The Sculpture of Epstein: with a Complete Catalogue, Oxford 1986, p.206, no.423; Barbara Hepworth, Contrapuntal Forms, 1950-1, reproduced in J.P. Hodin, Barbara Hepworth, Neuchâtel and London 1961, pl.165
[3] Frank Dobson, Woman and Fish, 1951, reproduced in Neville Jason and Lisa Thompson-Pharoah, The Sculpture of Frank Dobson, London 1994, p.158, no.210
[4] Interview with the author, 8 October 1998
[5] LH 268, reproducedibid., pp.166-8
[6] LH 191, reproduced ibid., pp.112-13
[7] LH 210, reproduced ibid., pp.120-4
[8] Interview with the author, 8 October 1998
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.

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