Obituary: Steven Sykes

STEVEN SYKES is best known for his jewel-like Gethsemane Chapel at the east end of Coventry Cathedral, made during 1959-60. It was a commission from the cathedral's architect, Basil Spence, who like Sykes had served as a camouflage officer during the Second World War. Sykes's artistic career was difficult to pin down chiefly because he fitted uneasily into any neat progressive history of post-war art.

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?