Obituary: A. H. Gerrard

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The Independent Culture
FEW TEACHERS have been as revered as A. H. Gerrard. Kindness, generosity of spirit and unselfishness are terms frequently used of the man who taught for over 40 years at the Slade School of Fine Art, where he was Professor of Sculpture from 1949 to 1968, when he retired as Emeritus Professor. "In India they have a word for it, Mahatma - great soul," wrote his former student F.E. McWilliam, in the catalogue of Gerrard's retrospective at the South London Art Gallery in 1978.

That show was a revelation. Like many born teachers, Gerrard, while working assiduously, had spurned self-exhibition. There were important public commissions, but no courting of dealers. For Gerrard that meant artistic restraint and publicity, and he and his first wife, Katherine, also Slade- trained, preferred a quiet life to work uninterrupted.

For almost 40 years from the early 1930s they shared an old dairy house in Kent, where Katherine ("Kaff") created a superb garden. They kept donkeys and cats and Gerrard worked on portrait busts, major carved sculptures, paintings and wood engravings.

In 1991, long after his wife's death, Gerrard was persuaded to exhibit Kaff's work at Canterbury Art Gallery. She was unknown as a painter. Visionary landscapes were seen for the first time even by friends. Gerrard would not sell any paintings, Kaff having said that burning was better. Public galleries were offered a choice, and 48 pictures were distributed. The Imperial War Museum and, tardily, the Tate Gallery were among recipients.

By the time of his marriage, in 1933, Gerrard had carried out impressive commissions. His huge Memorial to a Hunter was the first piece of sculpture to be exhibited in the gardens of the Tate, in 1926. In 1927, he was commissioned by the Aeolian Hall to illustrate with woodcuts the Life of Beethoven, for which Gerrard toured sites associated with the composer. Probably his most publicised work was the North Wind carving, on the Underground Railway offices at 55 Broadway, Westminster, part of an ambitious 1928 scheme to which Eric Aumonier, Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill, Henry Moore, Sam Rabinovitch and Allan Wyon also contributed.

The 1930s saw more commissions in bronze and stone and murals for ocean liners. Gerrard remains unknown as a painter and wood engraver. but completed some singular work - in 1924 with his wife he made cuts for Elephants and Ethnologists by G. Elliott Smith, and Egyptian Mummies, by the same writer with Warren R. Dawson. Gerrard also completed 31 engravings for The Book of Bath (1925), by various authors.

Alfred Horace Gerrard was born in Hanford, Cheshire, in 1899 and grew up on a farm that had been in the family for 400 years. He was the youngest of five, and his chief joy was nature and animals. He was a direct descendant of John Gerard, author of the important 1597 Herball. In later life, Gerrard picked the leaves of sea spurge and became violently ill. On checking the Herball he found that his ancestor had similarly been poisoned.

Gerrard left Northwich Technical School and from 1916 saw war service with the Cameron Highlanders, Black Watch, Gordon Highlanders and Royal Flying Corps. Although tall and thin, he was prodigiously strong, able to cope with 25-mile marches under heavy kit, typically aiding others not so tough.

With less than two hours' instruction he flew solo, in Morris-Farmers and FE2Bs, bamboo structures and wings covered with cellulose-painted linen fabric. Because night bomber pilots were scarce he was sent up solo without night-flying instruction. For six consecutive nights fellow flyers in his billet were killed.

On one occasion Gerrard took up a Morris-Farmer and noticed people running about below holding a wheel. Half his undercarriage was hanging off, so he crash-landed but suffered an injured spine. During the Second World War, while working in camouflage, he again crash-landed, the resulting jolt curing the earlier injury.

He was discharged in 1942 with multiple injuries after a plane crash while photographing. When surgeons wanted to amputate his badly crushed right arm, in a semi- conscious state he swore loudly at them, and thus saved it to sculpt again. Between 1944-45 he was a war artist.

After the Manchester School of Art in 1919, Gerrard had studied under Professor Henry Tonks at the Slade from 1920. He knew how to deal with the formidable Tonks, and even accompanied him on a working holiday in Holland. Tonks appointed him head of sculpture in 1925, and would have liked Gerrard to succeed him when he retired as Slade Professor in 1950 but this did not prove possible. Gerrard would have declined the offer, disliking administration. Instead, his part- legacy is a string of notable pupils, including Kenneth Armitage, Karin Jonzen and Eduardo Paolozzi.

Gerrard returned from war service to the Slade in 1946, became its acting head in 1948 and in 1949 was appointed Professor of Sculpture, the year that William Coldstream became Slade Professor. In 1950 Gerrard travelled to Nigeria as visiting professor, serving in a similar role at Bristol, Reading, Corsham Court, Camberwell and Oxford.

His own work continued, often on a large scale. A landmark was in 1960, when the Royal Society of British Sculptors granted him its silver medal for his sculptured wall The Dance, exhibited in Battersea Park.

The legend of Gerrard's generosity grew. He invited McWilliam to join the staff in 1947. He found a war- depleted department which Gerrard was re-equipping not by appealing to committees, but by resorting to bomb sites, from which he flooded the Slade with vast quantities of stone, wood and iron. Gerrard created an efficient modelling stand from railway axles.

The only other member of staff was his assistant Albert, born deaf. Gerrard taught him to lip-read, to make fairly intelligible speech and to become a competent caster.

Post-war austerity hit the students' Slade Dinner one year. It was saved when Gerrard drove his Land Rover up from Kent stuffed with enough chickens to feed several hundred. Potent homemade wine and beer was provided, although Gerrard's Wesleyan upbringing had made him a lifelong abstainer.

Gerrard went on sculpting into his eighties and in his later years was still drawing his cat Tommy. A stream of former students would visit him in the country, bringing their students to work in the studio.

"Gerry" remained a recognisable figure over the decades, partly due to his clothes. In the 1920s he had decided that a sports coat, corduroy trousers, collarless shirt and a yellow stock were the ideal garb. So he bought dozens of each, and thereafter commonly wore them, noted McWilliam, "thus solving satisfactorily one of life's perennial problems".

David Buckman

Alfred Horace Gerrard, artist and teacher: born Hartford, Cheshire 7 May 1899: Head of Sculpture, Slade School of Fine Art 1925-38, Acting Head 1948, Professor of Sculpture 1949-68 (Emeritus); married 1933 Katherine Leigh-Pemberton (died 1970), 1972 Mary Sinclair (died 1995), 1995 Karen Sinclair; died Leyswood, Kent 13 June 1998.

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