En route for Scotland for sittings with sculptor Ronald Rae and Founder/Director of Yorkshire Sculpture Park Peter Murray as part of my sculpture series of heads, I was privileged to spend a few hours with Fenwick Lawson, an artist whose work is less well-known internationally than it perhaps should be. After training at the Royal College of Art under John Skeaping (at a time when Jacob Epstein was working on a major commission in the spaces there), he eschewed a potentially lucrative alliance with a top Gallery early in his career to maintain his independence and resist being requisitioned to London. He subsequently was an important force in setting up the Sculpture Department at the Newcastle School of Art, and became Principal of the Polytechnic it became.
His sculptures are often named with a religious connection, but have a human presence far beyond. After experiencing the warmth of the seven figures of ‘The Journey’ (right) cast in bronze for permanent display in the city centre – remarkably wholly financed by public subscription – I read up on St Cuthbert. The sculpture evolved from the story of monks’ escape from Lindisfarne in 875AD through fear of Viking invasion. Undertaking an epic journey across Northumbria carrying the coffin of Saint Cuthbert, they eventually settled in Durham in 995AD; the Cathedral was built as a shrine to the saint. This sculptural group does not need its narrative – it seems to hint more universally at community spirit and working together, but its formal positioning also suggests parallels to the imagery seen in one of the scenes of the Armed Forces Memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.
The beechwood Pieta (left) presently in Durham Cathedral would grace a hill if cast in bronze for perpetuity in the weather… and would cope admirably at its near human scale to those prepared to approach it rather than lazily view from a car window. The Pieta – a mother and her dead son – would be equally at home in somewhere like Wootton Bassett, as a memorial to those who have been returned from Afghanistan and Iraq.
Public sculpture has largely changed from something that primarily involves the physical manipulation of material, to being led by the idea. The Arup and Partners/Gormley and Cecil Balmond/Kapoor designs at Gateshead and London’s Olympic Park respectively seem rather distant emotionally, in comparison. But they are big, which is always something.
Fenwick Lawson’s archive can be seen at www.fenwicklawson.co.uk