John Skeaping



Not on display

John Skeaping 1901–1980
Lapis-lazuli stone on marble base
Object: 100 × 180 × 110 mm
Transferred from the Victoria & Albert Museum 1983

Display caption

John Skeaping and Alan Durst shared the enthusiasm for direct carving shown by Jacob Epstein’s Doves displayed on the plinth opposite. The carving of animals was particularly popular during this period because it was felt that they could be more easily abstracted than the human form.  As shown by Skeaping’s Fish, carved from a large ironstone pebble, such works combine fine carving with sensitive handling of the material.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry


Lapis lazuli on green marble base, 81 x 155 x 74 mm (3 1/8 x 6 1/8 x 2 7/8 in) on base 19 x 175 x 79 mm (3/4 x 6 7/8 x 3 1/8 in); weight: 190 gm.
Incised by the artist ‘JRS’ under marble base
Transferred from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London 1983

...; purchased by Mrs A.A. Cresswell in 1931 and bequeathed by her to the Department of Architecture and Sculpture, Victoria and Albert Museum, London 1941 (A.20-1941)

Sculpture by John Skeaping and Barbara Hepworth, Arthur Tooth and Sons, London, Oct.-Nov. 1930 (26)
John Skeaping 1901-80: A Retrospective, Arthur Ackermann and Son, London, June-July 1991 (32, repr.)
Two-way Traffic: British & Italian Art 1880-1980, Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter, July-Sept. 1996 (13, repr.)

Nicholas Hely-Hutchinson, ‘The Reluctant Modernist: John R. Skeaping, R.A. 1901-1980’, unpublished MA Dissertation, University of St Andrews 1982, p.24, repr. pl.6
Sam Smiles and Stephanie Pratt, Two-way Traffic: British & Italian Art 1880-1980, exh. cat., Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter 1996, p.23 repr.

Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1982-84, London 1986, p.325

Buffalo is one of the many animal pieces which constituted a staple in John Skeaping’s work. Such a small scale allowed the use of semi-precious lapis lazuli, a hard stone taking a high polish but difficult to carve because of its natural fissures; it is notable that the marble base has sustained considerably more chipping and scratching. The survival of an iron stone Duck, 1930 on an onyx base,[1] which is of the same dimensions and similarly initialled and mounted, suggests a group of works. Both the subject and material indicate the sculptor’s awareness of Chinese and Japanese art, specifically recalling miniature netsuke. As Penelope Curtis has noted,[2] Richard Bedford discussed such work in his article ‘Chinese Animal Sculpture’, where he specifically stated that primitive works might serve as ‘possible sources of inspiration for modern artists’.[3] Skeaping described Bedford, a V&A curator, as ‘anxious to help young carvers of talent’,[4] and such examples would have been instructive in approaching new subjects and types of stone. An interest in Oriental art may also have been encouraged (as Curtis has suggested)[5] by the support of other Orientalists such as George Eumorfopoulos and Charles Seligman.

Skeaping’s reputation as an animalier was established concurrently with his modernist reputation. This gave rise to a divergence between the formal experiment of works such as Blood Horse (Tate N05455), and the sweet naturalism of other animal sculptures. Public acceptance and financial necessity encouraged the production of the latter after the success of the models made in 1927 for mass-production in ceramic by Wedgwood. Buffalo embodies the resulting ambiguities. The characteristics of the animal demonstrated in the pose help identify it as the shy Anoa (Bubalus deppressicornis), a straight horned buffalo from Celebes. Skeaping included two drawings of anoas in the exhibition at the Beaux Arts Gallery that he shared with Hepworth (1928); he had made them at the zoo ‘where I would go once a week as in my early days at Goldsmiths’.[6] While the pose suggested the animal’s shyness, it was transformed by the blue stone.

The choice of lapis lazuli suggested a commercial intent, and Buffalo appeared alongside pieces in anhydrite and malachite under the heading ‘Sculpture in semi-precious stones’ in the Tooth’s catalogue. This was implicitly acknowledged in 1931 by Kineton Parkes, who described Skeaping as ‘a true glyptic practitioner, even to the extent of tackling gem and bibelot work’.[7] Such works were made, as Curtis has noted,[8] in response to a growing demand for affordable sculpture ‘for the flat-dweller’. In this connection, the difference in prices between two Skeapings proves instructive. A stone Buffalo was priced at £31 when shown in an exhibition in the Selfridges Roof Garden in 1930.[9] Given the site, it may be presumed to have been larger than the Tate work, but the latter was priced at £50 at Tooth’s at the end of the year. According to the V&A records, Mrs Cresswell paid 40 guineas for it in 1931 which represents a reduction after the exhibition’s closure.

Matthew Gale
December 1996

[1] Reproduced in John Skeaping 1901-80: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Arthur Ackermann and Son, London, 1991, p.35, no.31.
[2] Penelope Curtis, ‘Barbara Hepworth and the Avant Garde of the 1920s’, Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Tate Gallery Liverpool 1994, pp.16-17.
[3] Richard Bedford, ‘Chinese Animal Sculpture’, Old Furniture, no.4, Aug. 1928, pp.223-4.
[4] John Skeaping, Drawn from Life: An Autobiography, London 1977, p.76.
[5] Curtis 1994, pp.16-17.

[6] Skeaping 1977, p.75.

[7] Kineton Parkes, The Art of Carved Sculpture, London 1931, pp.128-9.
[8] Curtis 1994, p.18.
[9] London Group: Exhibition of Open-Air Sculpture, Selfridges Roof Garden, London, June-August 1930, no.6.


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