John Skeaping

Burmese Dancer


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Not on display

John Skeaping 1901–1980
Object: 470 × 170 × 140 mm
Transferred from the Victoria & Albert Museum 1983

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Skeaping studied at three art schools in London and won the British School at Rome Prize for sculpture in 1924. He then lived and worked for a while in Italy, where he met the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, who had been runner-up for the Rome Prize. They were married in Florence. Skeaping first exhibited his work in company with Hepworth at the Reid and Lefevre Gallery in Glasgow in 1928. In that exhibition he showed the head of a Burmese Girl carved in white marble, and it may be that this figure depicts the same model. However, the work also indicates that Skeaping was interested in the formal characteristics of non-western models.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry


Alabaster, 470 x 170 x 140 mm (18 1/2 x 6 3/4 x 5 ½ in); weight 9.5kg
Incised by the artist ‘J. SKEAPING 28’ below left foot on right hand side of base; inscribed (probably in another hand) underneath in pencil ‘336’
Transferred from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London 1983

...; Sir Edward Marsh by 1932; ...; given by the Contemporary Art Society to the Department of Circulation, Victoria and Albert Museum 1964 (Circ.79-1964)

Paintings, Drawings, Engravings and Sculpture by Artists Resident in Great Britain and the Dominions, Imperial Gallery, London, April-June 1928 (198)
XVIII Esposizione Biennale Internazionale, Venice, May-Sept. 1932 (Great Britain, 139)
travelling exhibitions of the Department of Circulation, Victoria and Albert Museum, London 1964-83
John Skeaping 1901-80: A Retrospective, Arthur Ackermann and Son, London, June-July 1991 (23, repr.)

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

In the late 1920s, John Skeaping made a rapid transition from Rome Scholar to prominent member of the ‘new movement’ in sculpture, to which he was introduced by Barbara Hepworth. Fortified by the pre-war work of Jacob Epstein and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, and that of Parisians such as Constantin Brancusi and Ossip Zadkine, those gathered into this group included Henry Moore, Maurice Lambert, Richard Bedford and Alan Durst. Their perceived novelty lay in the practice of ‘direct carving’ associated with a modernist concentration on ‘truth to materials’ and contrasted with sculptural modelling. Charles Harrison has emphasised that this facilitated a sculptural equivalent to Clive Bell’s theory of an aesthetic emotion in painting evoked through ‘significant form’,[1] as exemplified in R.H. Wilenski’s assertion at the time that a work with ‘sculptural meaning need have no other’.[2] These issues were also combined in Kineton Parkes’s tellingly entitled The Art of Carved Sculpture (London 1931), where the ‘glyptic’ quality was associated with personal expression and traced to ancient origins.

Skeaping’s contribution lay in his experience of stone carving. He demonstrated his skills - as did Hepworth - through single animal or figure subjects in a wide variety of stones. In his work ‘the quality and character of the marble, wood, or stone [played] a great part in the conception and in the finish of the subject carved’.[3] In this respect, the rounded forms of Burmese Dancer demonstrated the relative softness of the alabaster, which, as a result, was ‘not usually ... used for carving of great fineness and precision’.[4] With the exception of the deep cutting around the neck and arms, the mass of the block was largely maintained; as seen in the flat back of the figure’s legs. The circular dimple in the upper lip appears to have been drilled, and the face was generally quite crudely cut. A number of blemishes - particularly those on the left side of the head - were filled with plaster or putty. The four curves in the front of the skirt anticipate the use of incised line by both Skeaping and Hepworth over the following years.

The choice of a creamy alabaster for Burmese Dancer allowed for a natural translucence. Skeaping worked with the pinkish veins, the most noticeable of which runs through the right side of the head, right breast and leg, and down the centre of the back. Prior to being acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum, the work had been coated with a wax or varnish which discoloured and was replaced in 1988.[5] The removal of the yellowed coating confirmed that the stone was lighter than the strong ochre and white alabaster used for the life-size three-quarter length Woman with Bird, c.1928 and for the small Female Torso, 1933.[6] Skeaping is said to have introduced his sculptor friends to the richer coloured Cumberland alabaster, having been sold lumps of the stone ploughed up by a farmer.[7] However, this sequence suggests that Skeaping considered alabaster to be particularly suited to the female figure. Burmese Dancer and Woman with Bird share the swaying pose culminating in the hands raised to the left shoulder; where Burmese Dancer is robust, the larger work achieves a more subtle articulation.

Skeaping also made a Burmese Girl, Head, exhibited in both of the couple’s joint shows of 1928.[8] It was carved in white Pentelicon marble, the same stone used by Hepworth for Mask, 1928 (Wakefield City Art Gallery). Although it is unlikely that Skeaping worked from life, this has prompted the suggestion that the two ‘Burmese’ pieces were ‘perhaps of the same model’.[9] Both the style and title of Burmese Dancer signal an interest in ‘primitive’ art. Like Epstein, Gaudier and Moore before them, he and Hepworth appreciated both the technique employed in ancient and non-European works and the formal stylisations. As the carving of Burmese Dancer has little relation to the fine sculptures of Burma, Skeaping’s interest seems more generalised. Indeed, the perception of dance as one of the most archaic arts may be of equal importance. While the acceptance of the ‘primitive’ as art challenged accepted values, it also carried a latent colonialism. This is inherent in the use of exotic materials: dark Burmese wood was used by both Skeaping and Hepworth - respectively for Kneeling Woman, c.1931 (private collection)[10] and Infant, 1929 (Tate T03129). More particularly, Penelope Curtis has remarked upon the colonialist spirit of the Imperial Gallery;[11] although Skeaping exhibited there as a member of the British School at Rome in 1927,[12] his decision to exhibit Burmese Dancer there in the following year placed it in a distinct establishment context.

Nevertheless, several artistic sources seem to have been combined in Burmese Dancer. The pose recalls the serpentine curve of medieval Madonnas, while suggesting the eroticism of Indian figures - such as those of Shiva’s bride Parvati. The heavy features of the face are close to those of Standing Woman Statuette, 1928, in Jaune lamartine marble (private collection),[13] and both suggest an awareness of African sculpture. Such modifications of ‘primitive’ sources were shared with Hepworth, so that the massiveness of the body and facial features may be compared with her Figure of a Woman, 1929-30 (Tate T00952). This conveyed a common stylistic purpose within the ‘new movement’. In retrospect, Skeaping would view this propensity with scepticism, suggesting that he was ‘doing what I thought a work of sculpture ought to be like, never mind what I felt’. Perhaps recalling the works of the late 1920s, he added ‘because Barbara carved her figures with great hefty legs and Harry carved his with great hefty legs, I carved mine with great hefty legs’.[14]

The first owner of the sculpture was the civil servant Sir Edward Marsh, whom Skeaping remembered as an early supporter.[15] Marsh’s extensive collection of contemporary art included three drawings by Skeaping when it was shown in 1929 at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. Although not included there, it seems likely that he bought Burmese Dancer from the Imperial Gallery the year before; he lent it to the Venice Biennale in 1932. He was a long-standing committee member of the CAS, through whom it was given to the V&A prior to transfer to the Tate. This may lie at the root of the sculptor’s mistaken recollection in 1975 that Marsh may have bought ‘a small figure of a woman carved in Sienese marble which was presented to the Tate Gallery from where it mysteriously disappeared, presumed stolen’.[16]

Matthew Gale
December 1996

[1] Charles Harrison, ‘Sculpture and the New “New Movement”’, in Sandy Nairne and Nicholas Serota, eds., British Sculpture in the Twentieth Century, exh. cat., Whitechapel Art Gallery 1981, p.103.
[2] R.H. Wilenski, The Meaning of Modern Sculpture, London 1932.

[3] ‘Foreword’, Sculpture, Drawings and Drypoints by John Skeaping and Barbara Hepworth, and Engravings and Drawings by William E.C. Morgan, exh. cat., Alex Reid and Lefevre, Glasgow 1928.
[4] Kineton Parkes, The Art of Carved Sculpture, London 1931, p.4.

[5] Tate conservation file.
[6] Each reproduced in colour in John Skeaping 1901-80: A Retrospective, exh. cat. Arthur Ackermann and Son, London, 1991, pp.30, 38, nos.19 and 40.
[7] Henry Moore, quoted in Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1976-8, London 1979, p.117.

[8] Sculpture, Engravings and Drawings by Barbara Hepworth, William Morgan and John Skeaping, Beaux Arts Gallery, June; and Sculpture, Drawings and Drypoints by John Skeaping and Barbara Hepworth, and Engravings and Drawings by William E.C. Morgan, Alex Reid and Lefevre, Glasgow, September.
[9] Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1982-84, London 1986, p.325.
[10] Reproduced in Ackermann exh. cat., 1991, p.36, no.36.
[11] Penelope Curtis, ‘Barbara Hepworth and the Avant Garde of the 1920s’, Barbara Hepworth: A Retrospective, exh. cat., Tate Gallery Liverpool 1994, p.18.
[12] Curtis, ‘British Modernist Sculptors and Italy’, British Artists in Italy 1920-1980, exh. cat., Canterbury College of Art 1985, p.14.

[13] Reproduced in colour in Ackermann exh. cat., 1991, p.33, no.25.
[14] John Skeaping, Drawn from Life: An Autobiography, London 1977, p.82.

[15] Ibid., p.83.
[16] An Honest Patron: A Tribute to Sir Edward Marsh, exh. cat., Bluecoat Gallery, Liverpool 1976, p.46.

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