Bernard Meadows

Sculptor of the 'geometry of fear' school
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The Independent Online

Bernard William Meadows, sculptor and teacher: born Norwich 19 February 1915; Professor of Sculpture, Royal College of Art 1960-80; married 1939 Marjorie Payne (two daughters); died London 12 January 2005.

Bernard Meadows belonged to a loose-knit group of expressionistic sculptors who won prominence at the Venice Biennale in 1952. The critic Herbert Read dubbed them the "geometry of fear" school of British sculpture. Meadows and his contemporaries formed an intermediate generation between Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, the pre-war pioneers of modern British sculpture, and the new generation of Anthony Caro and Phillip King who would later dominate the 1960s.

Although Read's critical epithet was a response made after the event, the term did prove particularly relevant to Meadows. His early bronze-cast sculptures of crabs, cocks and dead birds became a pertinent metaphor for the perceived vulnerability of the human condition in the early Cold War period. The recurring icon of the crab originated in Meadows's specific war-time experience; while serving in the RAF he was stationed on the strategically important Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean where he became fascinated by the daily spectre of armies of crabs and other amphibious creatures parading along the shoreline of the coral atoll.

As with many sculptors, Meadows's early studies indicated a painting career. Born in Norwich in 1915, Meadows studied painting first under Walter Watling at the local art school and then, between 1938 and 1940, under Gilbert Spencer at the Royal College of Art, London. A teaching diploma from the Courtauld Institute qualified him for a distinguished teaching career, conducted mainly at Chelsea, the Bath Academy (Corsham) and the Royal College of Art itself, where he became sculpture professor in 1960. His real vocation, however, proved to be as a sculptor, for which he had much to thank Henry Moore.

Between 1936 and 1940 Meadows spent his spare time assisting Moore at his country workshop outside Canterbury. Despite maintaining a lifelong friendship and intermittent professional relationship with Moore, working on such celebrated post-war sculptures as the stone Three Standing Figures (1948) shown at Battersea Park, the Stevenage Family Group (1949) and the well-known Time Life Screen (1953) in Bond Street, London, Meadows increasingly sought to shed the Moore influence in his own work. In this he was largely successful, tempering the early influence of Moore with that of Hans Bellmer and Germaine Richier.

In common with Richier, Meadows used animal imagery symbolically as "a human substitute". Images of the human figure finally emerged during the 1960s, though the Armed Bust, Armed Figure and Pointing Figure series of that period continued to evoke analogies with the claws and hooks or with the defensive outer armour of crab shells.

Meadows's work developed positively and in new directions in response to his teaching career. He later confessed to a two-way influence between himself and prized students like Elisabeth Frink and Robert Clatworthy. Meadows saw teaching as an enabling process only, one in which the staff provided an environment for talent to flourish on its own terms. Despite having Frink and Clatworthy as students at Chelsea, Meadows was hamstrung by a department he described as little more than a life modelling class and which had no casting facilities.

His opportunity came in 1960 when, as Professor of Sculpture at the Royal College, he introduced a foundry where he could cast his own work. The vast majority of his subsequent sculpture was cast at this facility, where an evolving interest in differing bronze finishes, ranging from patina to satin to high polish. This delicate variety of surface texture complemented a growing dichotomy between soft, bulbous organic form and hard, architectural shapes.

In common with close contemporaries like Robert Adams, Kenneth Armitage, Reg Butler and Lynn Chadwick, Meadows exhibited widely both at home and abroad and in private and public galleries. He exhibited at Venice a second time, in 1964, and in the decade between 1957 and 1967 enjoyed no fewer than five one-man exhibitions at Gimpel Fils, London. Meadows's exhibiting schedule progressed unabated through the middle and later years of his career, a situation that reflected well on his ability to adapt to changing social and cultural circumstances.

He participated in several outdoor displays at Battersea Park in London and at Middleheim, Antwerp. He represented Britain at the Sao Paulo Biennale and was included in "Documenta II", Kassel, Germany in 1957 and 1959 respectively. At the Royal Academy's notable "British Sculptors 72" exhibition Meadows displayed with impunity eight works alongside sculpture by much younger artists who included Phillip King, William Pye, Martin Naylor and Brian Wall.

Among exhibits at Burlington House in 1972 were Help (1966) and a plaster maquette for the Eastern Counties Newspapers commission (1970) which is installed in his native Norwich. Both sculptures embody the violent encounter between crushed fruit or breast-like forms and large pincer blocks. The large Norwich sculpture engages with architecture, the mixed stone and bronze ensemble an almost structural part of the building which it traverses.

Throughout his long and distinguished working life Meadows made numerous studies and related sketches for sculpture. Armed with the sculptor's heightened feeling for the third dimension, these sketches were imaginative rehearsals for, or re- interpretations of, forms of sculpture. While they pursued in general terms the themes of his free-standing work, Meadows's graphic images had an independent character. They frequently achieved a greater level of distortion, spontaneity and metamorphosis than the sculpture, which was subject to slower working processes.

The trademark vermilion body colour of the drawings symbolised Meadows's sense of violence, danger and cruelty in nature. Despite its content, Meadows's drawing is sensitively modelled, achieving sculptural effects through a textural scouring of the sheet or a pronounced dichotomy between highlight and shadow. The resulting images were strange biomorphs.

Despite his secure position within the history of modern British sculpture, Meadows suffered a degree of neglect in later years. Like Henry Moore in old age, Meadows's declining sculptural productiveness was mitigated by a continued graphic playfulness and creativity.

A modest man of wit and intelligence, Meadows was a wry observer of humanity and created an enduring set of sculptural images to express the often discomforting truths he felt about the world and man's place in it.

Peter Davies