Geoffrey Wickham

Sculptor, painter and teacher
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The Independent Online

Geoffrey Earle Wickham, sculptor and painter: born Wembley, Middlesex 10 July 1919; Principal Lecturer, Fine and Applied Art Department, Sir John Cass School of Art 1970-82; three times married (four sons, and one son deceased); died Chelmsford, Essex 27 March 2005.

The art of the sculptor and painter Geoffrey Wickham traversed a broad spectrum of objective work from life, abstract constructions, relief, work in clay, paintings in vivid colour and drawings in mixed media, with a particular interest in using new materials and techniques.

He was born in Wembley, Middlesex, in 1919. At nine years of age he was already demonstrating a close affinity with the visual arts, through drawings and paintings which were of very high standard in one so young. He attended the Willesden School of Art between but put on hold any further art education owing to military conscription.

His Second World War service began in 1940 in the Forestry Commission, followed by the NCC Pioneer Corps and the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. In 1943, he joined the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (in 1944 he was based in North Africa and Italy), and in 1945 the Royal Army Education Corps with the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders. He produced dozens of drawings over the war period of fellow servicemen, observations and sketches of army life and landscapes made in Italy and Austria. In 1946, after his demobilisation, he was able to retrieve much of his graphic work, with many examples being purchased by the National Army Museum. His experience with the complex diagrams of radar circuitry was also to reappear in an entirely different context of his experimental artwork in the 1950s and 1960s.

So too might his contact with the Royal Army Education Corps have initiated his long-term future as an educationist - a passionate and compulsive teacher who used to say to students and colleagues alike: "I'm a teacher. Touch me and I will talk forever."

Soon after leaving the forces Wickham gained a place at the Royal College of Art and in 1949 was awarded his ARCA in Fine Art (Painting). A period as a visiting lecturer was followed by a part-time lectureship and then a full-time position - the well-trodden pathway of the artist/academic. In 1951, he became Senior Lecturer in charge of the Visual Studies Department in the School of Architecture at the Regent Street Polytechnic (which later became the Central London Polytechnic and is now the University of Westminster). Many of his students, now professional architects, have paid tribute to Wickham's teaching, his energy and encouragement and not least, to his approach, which as a painter/sculptor opened up new ways of seeing, tangential at that time, to courses in architecture.

In 1965, he was elected an Associate of the Royal Society of British Sculptors and in 1967 a Fellow. He was an active and imaginative member of the RBS and worked closely with Michael Rizzello, the former RBS president, who was both colleague and friend. Wickham involved himself in all aspects of promoting sculpture and in 1972 was awarded the RBS Silver Medal for the "Most Distinguished Sculpture in London", his Fountainhead commissioned by Sotheby's in Belgravia.

From 1970, he was the Principal Lecturer in charge of the Fine and Applied Art Department at the Sir John Cass School of Art, a faculty of the City of London Polytechnic (now the Metropolitan University). He was, in many respects, a polytechnic man. The interaction which took place between scientists and artists under the same roof appealed to him. He was erudite and articulate, and his arguments were robust, and therefore he was well placed to promote and at times defend the value of a visual education.

Throughout his time at the Sir John Cass, until his retirement as the Head of the Fine Art Department in 1982, Wickham made it his concern to place students not only in the most appropriate courses but, where possible, with the teachers who would best benefit the student at every level of their development. He was a champion of the inter-disciplinary school of thought, encouraging students to move their ideas across the specialisms. He encouraged students to look, study and experiment, believing that the intellect was very much part of the visual equation.

Wickham himself was always ready to experiment with materials. His "lost polystyrene" works cast in aluminium are a case in point, as are pieces using reinforced concrete and prefabricated elements. On one occasion, after he had broken his leg in a motorcycle accident and was confined to a hospital bed, I took him a set of miniature tools for carving and cutting balsa-wood blocks. He produced several models for later full-size works and filled his hospital bed with fine wood-chips - this was not appreciated at the time by the nursing staff, but he left the hospital able to walk again and with fresh ideas for sculptures.

In 1981, Geoffrey Wickham met the artist Akiko Fujikawa in London and they were married in Kyoto, Japan, the following year (she was his third wife). For four years they lived in Kyoto and Geoffrey was able to bring to fruition a lifelong desire to study Japanese art first-hand. The mass of the lump and the delicacy of the line had been one of his preoccupations for years and his time in Japan was the kind of rebirth which many artists seek in later years but often cannot find. He became a student again and learned how to use pen and ink and brushes, which are so responsive as to echo feeling as well as decision-making.

Through Akiko and Kyoto, Geoffrey Wickham filled the next two decades of his creative journey, changing and finding a new plastic philosophy. He worked constantly in his Burnham-on-Crouch studio in Essex and, even though hampered by progressive blindness, continued to work with the aid of a close-up lens and by pointing out instructions to his assistant Greta Levins.

Some of his works on paper can be seen at Burnham Museum until 12 June.

Clive Duncan

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