John Bridgeman

Fiercely unconventional sculptor who eschewed London galleries

John Bridgeman was one of the first sculptors in Britain to embrace fibreglass, plastics, concrete and cement fondue. He was also a pioneer of new forms, such as play sculpture for children, and integrated sculptural articulation for buildings. Behind the creation of both monumental and small-scale works lay a complete mastery of the technique of lost-wax modelling and bronze casting, and the discipline of a pre-war training in drawing from life.

Arthur John Bridgeman, sculptor: born Felixstowe, Suffolk 2 February 1916; Head of Sculpture, Birmingham College of Art 1956-81; married 1941 Irene Dancyger (one son, one daughter); died Warwick 29 December 2004.

John Bridgeman was one of the first sculptors in Britain to embrace fibreglass, plastics, concrete and cement fondue. He was also a pioneer of new forms, such as play sculpture for children, and integrated sculptural articulation for buildings. Behind the creation of both monumental and small-scale works lay a complete mastery of the technique of lost-wax modelling and bronze casting, and the discipline of a pre-war training in drawing from life.

Bridgeman's many public commissions were the product of a reputation gained entirely outside the conventional circuit of the London-based commercial gallery system, which he deliberately eschewed. As a teacher, his highly idiosyncratic and democratic method of running a sculpture school inspired fierce and long-lasting loyalty from his students, who refused to take part in the countrywide revolt of the late 1960s.

As a conscientious objector, his art was profoundly affected by wartime experiences in London where, often in dangerous conditions, he helped dig bodies out of bombed and mined buildings, and took rescued civilians to hospital.

The oldest of three children, Arthur John Bridgeman was born in 1916 in Felixstowe; his father was an NCO in the military police who had served all over the British Empire. His mother spotted her son's gift at drawing, approached the most famous local Suffolk artist of the time, Sir Alfred Munnings, for advice and was told that young John should be sent to Colchester Art School.

He started at the age of 14, studying under Barry Hart and Edward Morss, and was awarded a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, but his studies were interrupted by the outbreak of war in 1939 when he volunteered to work with rescue teams around Fulham. In 1941 he married Irene Dancyger, a writer and journalist, then working for the BBC external services.

Bridgeman ("Bridge" to his close friends) continued his studies at the RCA after the war with Frank Dobson. He won the Otto Beit award for sculpture in 1947 and graduated in 1949. Awarded a Rome scholarship in 1950-51, he opted to stay in London gaining teaching experience at the RCA, not wishing to leave his wife and now two children alone.

After working as a letter carver for Misha Black's Design Research Unit in 1951, and contributing large panels of marine life to the Dome of Discovery at the Festival of Britain, he was appointed head of sculpture at Carlisle College of Art in 1951, and then in 1956 succeeded William Bloye as Head of Sculpture at Birmingham College of Art, where he remained until retirement in 1981.

At Birmingham he taught several generations of well-known sculptors, including Saleem Arif, Barry Flanagan and Harvey Hood. During the early 1950s his work was sought after by a number of large companies who wanted to integrate sculpture into their new post-war buildings. These included Pilkington Glass, St Helens (a life-size figure of a glass-worker), Saville Tractors in Slough (a group of tractor workers) and Petrofina Oil at Waterloo, London (a life-size Icarus).

In 1956 Bridgeman set up home at Glebe House, half of the old rectory at Ufton, Warwickshire, and became a neighbour of R.T. Howard, the retired Provost of Coventry Cathedral who moved in next door. (Bridgeman's bust of Howard is on display in the cathedral.)

At this time Bridgeman created a series of large-scale works around Birmingham during its post-war reconstruction which helped the city redefine itself. With the architectural practice of Shepherd Fidler Associates he created over 20 large "play sculptures" conceived as integral to the new housing developments at Nechells Green, Lea Bank, Hawkesley Farm Moat, Turves Green and elsewhere in the city.

Characteristic of his work in the 1960s and 1970s is the bronze Mother and Child (Dudley Road Hospital, Birmingham, 1968), a cement fondue seated Mother and Baby (Birmingham Maternity Hospital, 1972) and his Mater Dolorosa for Coventry Cathedral, Lady Chapel (1970). He was proud of the way that these works touched people in a public environment where all could appreciate and (in the case of the play sculpture) physically enjoy them.

Although he abhorred all forms of organised religion, Bridgeman was not an atheist and took pleasure in the many commissions he received from small parish churches, in the Midlands (Yardley, Stirchley, West Bromwich, Rugby) and further afield (St Bartholomew's, in East Ham, London).

He often worked at cost for patrons. He could cleverly disguise cement fondue as bronze (for example, his tondo commemorating Sir Adrian Boult, at the Birmingham Conservatoire), enabling institutions to acquire works that fitted their budgets; that this left him with little or no profit seemed to give him perverse satisfaction.

His statue of a young girl for a fountain commissioned by West Midlands Water for its headquarters at Walsall (1985-86) was his last life-size sculpture to be cast in bronze. He was fond of relating how the chairman of the commissioning committee was worried about the large size of the girl's breasts and "protruding nipples" (seen through diaphanous drapery) and delayed acceptance of the piece until they were "toned down". News of the death of the chairman reached Bridgeman just in time for the breasts' increase in size to the anatomically correct proportion.

Much of Bridgeman's philosophy of art and his teaching practice may be gleaned from the book he co-wrote with his wife, Clay Models and Stone Carving (1974). Fiercely unconventional and almost anarchic at times, he is reported to have taken one of his larger female figures to a garden centre and simply left it there.

After the death of his wife in 1983 and the sale by the Church Commissioners of the rectory at Ufton, Bridgeman moved to Leamington Spa. Although he kept a studio at the disused church at Spurnall, Warwickshire, with Nick Jones, he was deeply affected by the loss of his wife, and found solace working in wax at home, where he again began to produce small bronze sculptures. Most of these were cast at the Art Bronze Foundry, Fulham, as one-offs directly from wax, by Michael Gaskin (Senior and Junior) and Bill Hayter, who had handled much of his work since the 1940s.

The recurring theme of the standing female figure, often inspired by ancient Greek sculpture, dominated his late work. He revised and reformed these figures, continually experimenting with subtle changes in drapery which altered the perception of form through the distribution of light. With failing eyesight and weakened by several strokes, he nevertheless continued to work in wax. At the end, even as he lay dozing, his thumb and index finger could be seen rubbing together in the act of softening the (absent) wax ready for modelling - an action anyone who had visited him in the last 20 years would instantly recognise.

Bridgeman's art was forged out of a deep compassion for humanity and it was profoundly affected by his wartime experiences. It was distressing for him that his last large commission, in 1984, a statue commemorating the Vietnamese boat people, to be erected at Cremorne Gardens, Chelsea, was not cast owing to changes in the political climate.

His figure of a fleeing mother carrying her child to safety epitomises not only the suffering of one group of refugees, but of all refugees and of all who are dispossessed by war, famine and natural disasters.

M. A. Michael

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