Karin Jonzen was a peculiarly attractive figure. Her peculiarity sprang from her endearing mixture of eccentricity, highmindedness and eternal optimism. These qualities overlaid, but did not conceal, the directness and simplicity which were also reflected in her work.
Born in London in 1914 to Swedish parents, Uno and Gerda Lowenadler, she was originally thrust into an artistic career by her father, who, because of her output of comic drawings, saw a future for her as a Punch cartoonist. He sent her to the Slade and, as she later reported in a brief autobiography (in Karin Jonzen Sculpture, 1994), was not at all pleased when she began to take art seriously.
She spent a good deal of time in the British Museum and the National Gallery, where she laid the foundations for her later "classical" style. In 1937, when she was 22, she was runner- up for the Prix de Rome, open to all UK and Commonwealth artists under the age of 30.
Her parents then sent her away to Stockholm in order to get her away from a boyfriend of whom they disapproved. There she met and fell in love with a penniless young Swedish poet, Ake Sucksdorff, and so was promptly hauled back to England again. In 1939 she won the Prix de Rome at her second attempt.
At this point the Second World War disrupted any plans she might have made. Separated from Sucksdorff, she corresponded with him for a while, but fell out of touch. She became a Civil Defence ambulance driver and was invalided out of the service with rheumatic fever. She said, later, that this illness gave her time to read and think. She had begun to fall out of love with the modernist current in sculpture. Though well aware of the work of artists like Henry Moore, Brancusi, Zadkine and Picasso, she came to believe that there was "a wave of sculpture that did violence to the human form in an attempt to force it into some sort of aesthetic finality".
In 1944 she met Basil Jonzen, another Anglo-Swede. Jonzen is now almost forgotten, but he was a kind of meteor in the British art world during the immediately post-war years. Originally an instantly successful painter, holding sell-out exhibitions at a time when British artists hardly sold at all, he was also a brilliantly funny raconteur and a magpie collector with a wonderful eye. He and Karin married soon after they met.
As soon as Basil got out of the service they set up an art gallery in the elegant house they had bought in South Bolton Gardens, Kensington, using their eclectic collection as their original stock. The gallery was an instant success, and attracted all the leading collectors of the day, among them the Sainsburys, Epstein and Kenneth Clark. Karin's own career as a sculptor was pulled along with it, and she was praised by critics such as Herbert Read and Eric Newton.
Basil was not one for the long haul, however. He spent more time drinking and talking than looking for new stock, and after three years the Jonzens decided to move to the country. Here Basil found and fitted out a lovely old farmhouse in Suffolk. The flow of commissions continued but Karin's health deteriorated. Eventually she was diagnosed with advanced tuberculosis - Basil also had the disease, in less serious form.
Recovered, they moved back to London, and Basil started a new gallery in Cork Street, the St George's Gallery, with Agatha Sadler and Robert Erskine. Basil's eye was as good as ever - he spotted the young Elisabeth Frink and gave her her first show - but his personality deteriorated alarmingly due to his now advanced alcoholism.
Karin's initial reputation had begun to fade. In comparison with that of a new generation of modernists her work seemed tame and old-fashioned. At the same moment her marriage came to an end, and she was left on her own with a young son.
Though she usually denied the fact, the ensuing years must have been hard. No commercial gallery would show her work, though she continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy and received occasional commissions. At one point she was reduced to making editions of miniature sculptures in bronze-resin for a firm called Heritage. Her parents aged, and she devoted three years to looking after them. In his will, her father left her enough money to buy the rather Spartan Chelsea studio in which she lived for the rest of her life.
In the 1970s she had another matrimonial disaster. She went to Stockholm and rediscovered her old flame Ake Sucksdorff. Impulsively she married him, only to find that he had become a totally negative personality, completely cut off from life. "It never entered my head," she said later, "that Ake wasn't telling the truth about himself. It took just one week of marriage to discover this!" The union, however, lasted until Ake died.
At this point her career, finally, began to recover. She was in demand as a sculptor of portrait busts. In 1994 she had her first commercial gallery exhibition for many years, at the David Messum Gallery in Cork Street. A small book was published about her. She retained her wonderfully insouciant personality to the end - talking about Schopenhauer at one moment, and about the delights of riding a motor scooter at the age of 80 the next. For her epitaph one hesitates between two sentences, both her own: "So far every ride has been a joy ride", or "I wanted to find out something of what life is all about." On balance, the latter seems the better choice.Reuse content