Obituary: John Skelton

JOHN SKELTON was a productive and varied sculptor, working in stone, bronze and other media. He executed sculpture and lettering for specific sites and buildings, and also worked on many uncommissioned sculptures which were exhibited at intervals.

He was one of six children. His mother, Angela, was the youngest sister of the sculptor Eric Gill and the model for his largest sculpture, the female nude Mankind (1927-28). After education at Norwich Cathedral Choir School and Bablake School, Coventry, where he enjoyed good art teachers, John, according to a long-standing plan, was apprenticed to Eric Gill at Pigotts, Buckinghamshire, in 1940, only four months before Gill's death.

He continued to work with Gill's assistant, Joseph Cribb, at Ditchling Common before joining the Army in 1942. He served with the Royal Artillery in India, Burma, Malaya and Thailand. He filled out his education at Coventry School of Art, studying drawing and architecture, and then as assistant in Bridgeman's stonemason's yard at Lewes. He married in 1948 and two years later set up his workshop at Burgess Hill, East Sussex.

In later life, Skelton looked very like his uncle, with a bristling beard, spectacles, bright eyes and a broad grin. He was skilful with words, but unlike Gill did not seek a public platform to change the world, except through his work. His early sculpture, such as Motherhood (1952), carved soon after the birth of his daughter Helen Mary (who later became his apprentice and partner), closely resembles Gill's and he followed his master in his willingness to work to commission.

Many of his jobs were for churches and show a deep understanding of the human dimensions of Christianity, although Skelton was not religious in a conventional sense. They include the font for Chichester Cathedral, a large Clipsham stone figure of St Augustine arriving at Thanet for St Augustine's Church, Bexhill-on-Sea, and Our Lady of Pity for an existing Gothic niche in the Bauchun Chapel at Norwich Cathedral. His St David, worked in Welsh slate with a machine hammer, stands outside the Catholic church of St David, Tywyn, in Gwynedd, a commission from a patron who also ensured that the fittings in the church came from Skelton's workshop. His sculpture Axis Mundi at Bishop Otter College, Chichester (1990), symbolised life in its vertical member and after-life in the horizontal, at the same time representing the conflict and interaction of male and female forces.

There were many lettering and memorial commissions, including in 1979 a set of plaques commemorating the 10 Allied Field Marshals of the Second World War, in St Paul's Cathedral, London, where he also designed and made the memorial to Ivor Novello.

He divided the rest of his work between pieces "done to satisfy an interest in a particular form", usually inspired by an individual piece of stone or wood, and those "motivated by an interest in a theme". In the former category, he often worked in a completely abstract way. The Rhythmic Form (1967), in yew wood, is comparable to certain works by Barbara Hepworth. Some pieces which might pass as abstract were given titles, transferring them into the thematic category.

One of a series of works based on ideas of pregnancy and motherhood was Variation on the Willendorf Venus (1963), a version of which was carved in a piece of Pentelic marble which he happened to have waiting in the workshop. The full roundedness of this piece was the beginning of a breakthrough in his sculpture, which had previously, like much of Gill's, tended to be flat and linear.

A further version of this design was carved in Yugoslavia as a contribution to a national sculpture park at Portoroz, in 1964, and the experience of working on this piece out of doors in Mediterranean light led Skelton to a theory that English art has always tended to linearity because of the fixed direction of light in indoor working conditions: "I noticed when working with the sun constantly on the move round the work, how one is unconsciously persuaded to move with it."

Another group of works deals with the subject of war, showing wounded victims more directly moving than Henry Moore's Fallen Warrior series. Several of Skelton's thematic works can be found in Stratford-upon-Avon, in the Shakespeare Centre and the adjacent Shakespeare Birthplace Garden. The human figure, particularly the torso, was the underlying theme of a great deal of his work, even when apparently abstract.

John Skelton found the time and energy for many other activities, including watercolour painting and life drawing. He made a tour of India in 1987- 88, recording dance, music and drama in drawings. He also worked on preparing a catalogue of Eric Gill's sculpture, contributing much of his knowledge to the catalogue by Dr Judith Collins published in 1998.

In 1985 he was a vigorous master of the Art Workers Guild, whose principles of artistic independence and versatility were evident in his working life. His brother, the printer and Gill scholar Christopher Skelton, published John Skelton, a sculptor's work, in 1977 in a limited edition, with a foreword by Joan Ellis and an introduction by the sculptor himself which perfectly captures his mixture of insight and matter-of- factness. He organised a large retrospective exhibition of his work in his house and garden in 1993, entitled "Skelton at Seventy".

Alan Powers

John Stephen Skelton, sculptor and letter-cutter: born Glasgow 8 July 1923; FRBS 1963; MBE 1989; married 1948 Myrtle Bromley Martin (one son, two daughters); died Streat, East Sussex 26 November 1999.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015