Obituary: Joyce Bidder

Click to follow
JOYCE BIDDER'S slight, almost bird-like frame, and outwardly diffident manner, concealed a woman of strong convictions and firm faith, as well as a sculptor of great integrity.

Her father, grandfather and even her great-grandfather were civil engineers; so, as an only child, she was brought up in a professional household where projects and plans were discussed and people were naturally expected to do and make things.

If there was any residual reservation in the Bidder household about the role of women, it was swept away by the First World War, and Joyce faced no objections about her studying at Wimbledon School of Art, and later with the sculptor Stanley Nicholson Babb, whose work and example was to be her yardstick.

By the time she went to Wimbledon Henry Moore had already had his first one-man exhibition, and the sensation of Epstein's Rima - the woman bird figure from W.H. Hudson's Green Mansions and sculpted as his memorial in Hyde Park - had rocked the nation, but Joyce Bidder chose a route more closely allied with the traditions and aspirations of the Arts and Crafts Movement. In addition to Nicholson Babb, her exemplars included Gilbert Bayes and Harold Brownsword.

She was a polymath, working in a wide range of media - marble, bronze, terracotta, ceramic, wood and ivory - and she created an impressive body of work during a career that spanned over 60 years. It was only in the last five that the onset of glaucoma forced her finally to stop work.

She made her debut at the Royal Academy in 1932 with a remarkable group in plaster of two rugger players, entitled Tackled, following it up the next year with an even more ambitious group, Labour, of two navvies carrying between them poles festooned with a dense assemblage of shovels and ropes. The men, united by their common load, move as one, whilst the weight of their burden and sense of fatigue are realised with masterly effect.

These two groups, plus the splendid relief in green Westmorland slate, The Roadmakers, of 1935 (now in the Wolfsonian Collection in Miami, Florida), all created during the Depression years, not only express Bidder's compassion for the lot of the working man, but display an acute awareness of the international language of conservative modernism.

The Roadmakers, with its contrast between the highly polished figures set against a rough and chalky background, and delicate gilding along the road's surface, was the first piece of Joyce Bidder's work that I saw, and it was one of the revelations of the Fine Art Society's 1986 exhibition "Sculpture in Britain Between the Wars". Trying to write the biographical and catalogue notes for this exhibition I managed to trace her and her companion, Daisy Borne, to their home in Wimbledon, but it was only after they had seen and approved of the exhibition that I was finally invited to visit them.

This was a memorable occasion, first in their home with its lovely garden, a source of inspiration to them both, and then being driven by Borne in her vintage Jaguar to the studio they had shared since 1933. The studio was a treasure trove. They had acquired it from the architectural sculptor Charles Doman, best known for his frieze on the Regent Street facade of Liberty.

Despite initial reservations from Bidder, I persuaded them to have a joint exhibition the following year. In the introduction to the catalogue of that show I described my first impressions of the studio:

The interior was still hung with the plaster casts that were there when Doman left; whilst every flat surface had gradually filled with those accretions natural to a working studio; the clutter of tools, colours, pots, cloths, little bits and pieces all of which had had some function at one time or another. Finished sculpture and carvings stood around as well as unfinished pieces put by for one reason or another; work still in hand; broken or imperfect ceramic figures, all covered with a palpable layer of dust. Not the cold dust of neglect but the warm, organic dust that is integral to any living workshop.

Among the many dusty works was the 1932 plaster of Tackled. Due to the slump it had never been cast in bronze, so the Fine Art Society had it cast for Bidder: more recently the plaster of Labour has come to light in a private collection, having been sold some years ago, and this, too, has now been cast and will be on show this spring for the first time.

A dozen years of friendship followed this exhibition. When I telephoned Daisy Borne on her 90th birthday I was told that they were having a celebratory lunch and then she was "going to take the Jag out for a spin". Borne died early last year but, thanks to kind friends and neighbours Bidder was able to live on in the home they had shared, until she was crippled by a severe stroke shortly before Christmas. However, her mind remained fully alert, as she showed her concern for others and fussed about her cat and whether anyone was feeding the fish in the garden pond. Muriel Joyce Bidder, sculptor: born London 5 January 1906; died London 26 February 1999.