Obituary: Steven Sykes
Wednesday 24 February 1999
He was born in 1914 in Formby, Lancashire, where his father was a GP. He was educated at the Oratory, in Caversham, Berkshire, and studied design at the Royal College of Art from 1933-36, specialising in stained glass. He won a design travelling scholarship on leaving, visited Italy and France and went on to work with the stained glass artist Herbert Hendrie in his Edinburgh studio.
In February 1940, soon after the outbreak of war, he married a fellow RCA student Jean Judd. At the suggestion of a former tutor, the stonemason Barry Hart, Sykes joined an army camouflage course shortly after witnessing the Dunkirk evacuations in May 1940. He was posted with the Royal Engineers to the Middle East, travelling with the painter Robert Medley and the magician Jasper Maskelene and taking lessons in classical Arabic from the scholar Freddie Beeston. He was promoted to Major in 1941.
Sykes was an ingenious camouflage officer. He created a series of realistic dummy railheads in the Western Desert and was able to convince sceptical fellow officers of the value of his activities. During the D-Day landings of June 1944 Sykes worked tirelessly, camouflaging snipers and blocking enemy sightlines. He also recorded scenes with his camera and claimed to have found time to sketch and draw.
The Second World War was central to one aspect of Sykes's art - his watercolour and ink sketches and drawings. Although Sykes wished to be recognised as a war artist, it seems likely that most of his work - like a sequence which recorded the D-Day landings - was done retrospectively rather than in the theatre of war.
His greatest burst of creativity came in the summer of 1947 when he painted and drew a remarkable series of Neo-Romantic landscapes, strongly influenced by Samuel Palmer and William Blake and by Graham Sutherland. Little of his graphic work was much seen until 1984 when his D-Day watercolours appeared in the Sunday Times Magazine. In 1989 he was rediscovered anew when the New York dealer Guillaume Gallozzi mounted a show of British War Artists to be followed by the exhibition "Metamorphose" in 1992 and a highly successful solo show for Sykes also in 1992.
In 1946 Sykes began teaching at Chelsea School of Art where he remained until his retirement in 1979. He took up pottery, learning techniques from his wife. He soon evolved ingeniously decorated relief tiles which took motifs from popular and folk art and surreal thrown Picasso-esque figurative vases. All these were well represented in many pavilions of the South Bank Exhibition of the Festival of Britain. Like the potters Margaret Hine, William Newland and Nicholas Vergette, Sykes represented an alternative to the neo-Oriental aesthetic which had dominated inter-war studio pottery.
For his chapel at Coventry Sykes adapted his pottery techniques, modelling the angel St Michael and the sleeping disciples in reverse relief and casting them in concrete. He covered the background with gold leaf and a mosaic of blue tesserae. The result was dazzling. Sykes carried out many other decorative art commissions - tiles for the Dorchester Hotel, a reredos for the US National War Memorial Chapel in Washington Cathedral, a tapestry for Hammersmith and West London College Library and decorative relief panels for Sainsbury's in Braintree and for the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester.
His most magnificent and idiosyncratic creation was his garden at his studio home, Hopkiln, near Midhurst in Sussex, created out of a piece of rough ground he bought in 1967. It was a triumph of bricolage and improvisation, incorporating a maze, a grotto, a waterfall and small raised canal, statues and mosaic work. To meet him (naked) beside his swimming pool, which was embellished with a gold peacock, was to encounter a charming sun worshipper from some ancient lost culture who had taken up unexpected residence in a fold of the South Downs.
Steven Barry Sykes, artist and craftsman: born Formby, Lancashire 30 August 1914; teacher, Chelsea School of Art 1946-79; married 1940 Jean Judd (died 1992; two sons, one daughter); died 22 January 1999.
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