Arts: Material witness

For George Kennethson sculpting in stone was like 'walking on a tightrope'. But his mastery of the medium kept him faithful, despite critical neglect.

THE IRONY of George Kennethson's career as a sculptor was that, just at the point when he reached artistic maturity, his material - stone - went out of fashion. By the Fifties, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth had begun to work in bronze, and the new generation of British sculptors - Chadwick, Meadows, Butler, Paolozzi et al - worked almost exclusively in metal. The revival of direct stone carving in the Twenties and Thirties, although crucially important in the history of English sculpture, was all too brief.

Ever since the Second World War, the art world has become increasingly faddish. If an artist is even slightly out of sync with the latest trend, he or she is likely to be ignored. Such has been Kennethson's fate, although a new exhibition hopefully signals a turning-point.

Born in Richmond in 1910, Kennethson studied at the Royal Academy from 1928 to 1934. Although by this date the Modern Movement was well under way, teaching at the RA was still highly traditional. While appreciating the achievements of the Old Masters, Michelangelo in particular, Kennethson was equally interested in modern art, an appetite fuelled by exhibitions and the books of Herbert Read. Cezanne was a great hero, and among his contemporaries he particularly admired the stone carvings of Henry Moore.

Like many artists of the period, he became fascinated by African sculpture, while closer to home, medieval stone carvings fired his imagination. All these influences would later resurface in his sculpture. Although he excelled at drawing, it was sculpture he pursued on leaving the RA. On settling at Uffington in Berkshire, near the Vale of the White Horse, he quickly achieved mastery over stone.

With his notebook full of dimensions for the sculptures he had in mind, he would travel to quarries far and wide to select choice pieces. Limestones such as Hornton, Clipsham and Purbeck were among his favourites, along with English alabaster. Nature provided lifelong inspiration, although, in his words, he was "enthralled by everything in the visual world".

His sculptures fall into two main groups, figures and landscapes, the latter expressed through abstract forms. The rhythms of the sea, and the way it carved out the cliffs and the rocks on the coastline, fired his imagination. He was equally fascinated by people, the contours and rhythms of their features, and the relationship between these elements, which is why his figures are stylised rather than particular.

Kennethson worked in the great humanist tradition. Through art, he believed man could arrive at greater wisdom and understanding. He believed that it was the artist's duty to dig for truth and, above all, to take risks. Carving in stone is the riskiest medium of all, because instead of adding, the artist creates by subtracting; the margins between success and failure are a matter of millimetres. "Being a sculptor," he said, "is like walking on a tightrope. You can fall off at any minute."

Because of the vagaries of fashion, his work was mostly overlooked, except by an independent-minded few. Among these was Jim Ede, the founder of the remarkable collection at Kettle's Yard in Cambridge. He and Kennethson became great friends, and it was Ede who introduced him to the sculpture of Gaudier-Brzeska. As a result, Kettle's Yard (as well as the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art) is one of the few public collections in which Kennethson's work is represented.

Another person who appreciated his talents was the Sloane Street gallery- owner Madeleine Ponsonby (now known as Madeleine Bessborough), whose New Art Centre has flown the flag for British sculpture since the Sixties. The New Art Centre was one of the few galleries to show Kennethson's sculpture during this period, and although it eventually closed in 1993, it has now risen, phoenix-like, in a new location - Roche Court, near Salisbury - with a beautiful, purpose-designed sculpture gallery created by Munkenbeck and Marshall.

Appropriately, it is at Roche Court that an exhibition of Kennethson's work can now be seen, a choice selection of both figurative and abstract works spanning his career. Having failed to appreciate his work, and the patronage of Jim Ede, first time around, if the art world has any sense it will take notice now.

George Kennethson, the New Art Centre, Roche Court Sculpture Garden, East Winterslow, Salisbury, Wiltshire, 01980 862204. To 31 March

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