Dick Barton, the mapping of South Georgia… and a solitude experiment

In 1951 Duncan Carse, the voice of ‘Dick Barton – Special Agent’, a BBC serial thriller with a huge daily audience, abruptly gave up his radio acting career to lead a six-man private Antarctic expedition during 1951-52 that planned to make the first accurate map of South Georgia. It failed to achieve this, but Carse organised a second party in 1953-54, and then a third in 1955-56. Finally, his persistence was rewarded in 1958 by the publication of a map by the Directorate of Overseas Surveys which remained the definitive map of the island until 2004.

Alec Trendall was geologist on the South Georgia Surveys. Between 1954 and 2002 he lost contact with Carse, but met him again in Sussex in 2003. Recognising that the South Georgia Surveys merited a proper written record, after Duncan’s death in 2004 he began to write Putting South Georgia on the Map which was published in 2011. Carse’s abandonment of his professional career to become a freelance explorer is explained for the first time. As an apprentice on a square-rigged ship, then as a seaman on an Antarctic research vessel, and later on a British expedition to the Antarctic peninsula, he had developed a burning ambition to lead a trans-Antarctic expedition. He never fulfilled this desire, and died in 2004 a disappointed man. But his contribution to Antarctic exploration was rewarded by the award of a second clasp to his Polar Medal by Queen Elizabeth II in July 1982.


In the midst of this story, Carse embarked on a 18 month solitude experiment in 1961, becoming a hermit at Ducloz Head on the south coast of South Georgia. The 1976 documentary Survival in Limbo is an account of the remarkable story directed by David Cobham for the BBC, and relived by Carse.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Edgar portrait head of Carse is now cast in bronze at South Georgia Museum, South Atlantic and in the Scott Polar Research Institute collection. (The SPRI web archive includes several images of Carse and Trendall from the 1950s expeditions.) The original terracotta remains at Carse’s former home in Sussex where the sculptor now lives.

This Guardian article on Carse by Jon McGregor (2007) is also worth reading.

On the tradition of pre-conceiving sculpture

This short clip is part of a Documentary film by Anna Thornhill. It features archive footage of sculptor Alan Thornhill working on a sculpture in Putney in 1989 and the resulting work, Exodus,  some 20 years later at Kingscote Park in Gloucestershire.

Thornhill’s self-devised method of improvisation using clay allowed him to abandon the use of the sculpture armature and build freely creating a matrix with pre-prepared clay ‘elements’. His concern was to manipulate the material, to find ways of making it stand up or hold together, and through adding and taking away, to see what came. This allowed things to enter the work which were far from intentional, and were later seen to echo some of the sculptor’s preoccupations at the time of making the work. This way of working differs from sculpture commonly produced from the maquette, which is based on an idea and is essentially designed or pre-planned, often factored up to a chosen size in a chosen material, for public display. Thornhill sees pre-conceived ideas as essentially deadening to his creativity.

His teaching and trustee role at the Frink School of Sculpture and teaching at Morley College, London has been influential to several artists and several continue to introduce his methods to their own students. For me, translating the ethos behind Thornhill’s working method to the carved block (where one cannot add material) has been hard but eventful. The block is turned any number of times when imagery starts to occur, before something hopefully more enduring finally resolves itself… or the block ends up as wood chips or gravel! My sculpture Block (right) was initially worked in the horizontal with landscape-like references for several months before elements of one figure gradually emerged. This exerted a sufficiently strong force to re-orientate the stone vertically from that point. This work will be at the Leicester Botanic Garden International Centenary sculpture exhibition between 26th June and 30th October 2011.

The film Spirit in Mass is available from www.alanthornhill.co.uk where his archive of works is also accessible. The Putney Sculpture Trail is permanently accessible to the public, with 9 works by Thornhill on the south side of the river between the Exodus sculpture at Leaders Gardens, The Embankment and Prospect Quay adjoining Wandsworth Park. It is a considerable body of work on permanent public display in our capital city and deserves to be better known.

Leonora Carrington on intellectualising art

It is sad to hear Leonora Carrington has died aged 94. Her recent sculpture (in the link, seen here in the exhibition which she lived long enough to see open), is seemingly interpreted from the imagery of her earlier paintings. For me, it does not have the power of her two-dimensional work or earliest sculpture. Nevertheless, for the British artist who lived in Mexico City for sixty years and was adopted as one of their own, there appears to have been a growing demand for it.

The Guardian journalist Joanna Moorhead is a relative of Carrington. She produced a touching film which was shown at the travelling exhibition at Pallant House Gallery and Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in 2010. Here is an excerpt from Carrington’s discussions with Moorhead:

Her admonishment of her great-niece about the intellectualisation of art is refreshing, and when I first saw this it made me question the similarities between true improvisational working and surrealism.

Surrealists set out to liberate the workings of the subconscious and disrupt conscious thought processes, by the use of irrationality and mystery. Paradoxically, perhaps that last ‘by the use of’ bring things back into the conscious, intellectual mind?

In a dialogue between Andre Breton and Andre Masson, the former referred to one of the precursors to the Surrealists:

A good question for an advanced examination for art critics would be ‘Does the painting of (Henri) Rousseau prove he knew the Tropics, or that he did not?’

Did the exotic paintings spring from the imagination, or from memory? It’s a nice quote, but actually irrelevant here as the imagery is still cerebral. It seems to have narrative rather than just feeling.

Sculptor Alan Thornhill has remarked that true improvisational working comes from instinct rather than intellect; form emerges ambiguously from an interplay with clay or paint, rather than being imagined and created as an entity. For the artist, keeping free from pre-planned ideas is difficult. Responding to form, mass or colour for its own sake must have an input from somewhere – but perhaps from another part of the brain that is free of ego and somehow more ‘honest’. Conceptual work survives on its idea, and for me often dies through its inability to survive on its visual appeal alone.

Intellectualisation springs up on the other side of the fence too. For the viewer and the art historian, there is a continual need to ‘get’ visual art, with the former often spotted – pursed lips; hand on chin – analysing the imagery in front of them.

Carrington standing up for purely visual values might suggest that the only two outcomes for the viewer of “art” could be summed up as: being moved by it… or not being moved by it.

The Guardian’s obituary on Leonora Carrington.

Sculpture stimulating the creativity of young people

Looking back to Summer 2006, this short film reminded me just how essential it is to be working with children from time to time. Jigsaw worked with several Herefordshire schools for those with special needs. We introduced elements: Fire, Water and Wind, and young people responded to aural stimulus. The results were fresh and lively: this picture shows some of the studies from listening with eyes closed and working with clay.

New film – Spirit in Mass: Alan Thornhill

SPIRIT IN MASS: Journey into Sculpture is a 40 minute documentary which charts Alan Thornhill’s unconventional journey into sculpture. Discovering himself to be by nature an improviser yet committed to the time-honoured language and sensuous values of sculpture, he devised a way of working which embraced spontaneity and the unforeseen. This approach has inspired sculpture students and produced a body of challenging work drawn, in part unconsciously, from personal and shared concerns of the late 20th century.

Alan Thornhill was a founder trustee and teacher at the Frink School of Sculpture. The film includes footage of a Frink School sculptors’ re-union and the Edgar terracotta head of Thornhill.

A DVD is available. See a short clip of the film here.