Paul Mount: Abstract sculptor and painter inspired by music and architecture

The sculptor Paul Mount exploited the sensual qualities of hard metals, particularly cast iron, bronze and stainless steel, which he used freely to express a vision that ranged from the architectural to the figurative. In common with many distinguished sculptors, Mount began as a painter and continued to make paintings as a vital accompaniment to his three-dimensional work.

Mount's abstracted sculptures, however, never originated from graphic designs or other cerebral plans, but rather evolved directly from scale models made in makeshift and versatile materials like card, wax and polystyrene. Although the final sculptures have the durable presence of cast or constructed metal, the rhythmic interplay between solid form and open void were created by free manipulation of easily constructed components.

Born in Devon and living in St Just, Cornwall from the early 1960s, Mount worked as an essentially abstract sculptor in an area celebrated by artists like the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. He had no direct professional contact with Hepworth, though he became, along with her former assistant Denis Mitchell, the most prominent sculptor in the region after her death in 1975.

Mount was born in 1922 in Newton Abbot. Educated at the local grammar school, he began art studies at Paignton School of Art and later attended the Royal College of Art in London. During the Second World War, Mount drove for the Friends' Ambulance Unit in France. A spell teaching at Winchester School of Art after the war led to seven years in West Africa, where he worked as a design consultant on architectural projects in Nigeria.

It was here that Mount found a path as a sculptor. While the power of indigenous tribal sculpture exerted an inevitable impact, Mount's real sources of inspiration were music and architecture. The characteristic rectilinear movements of his forms reflect his love of music, while the disciplines of the architectural relief called into play subtle formal engineering within often shallow or compact spaces. Mount's early extended concrete wall for the Swiss embassy in Ikoyi, Nigeria (1960) established what would become a lifelong dialogue with buildings.

His awareness of sculpture as architectural embellishment – informed by the bas-reliefs on the Romanesque churches he visited in France, where he kept a holiday home – led to some notable large-scale sculptures sited in prominent urban locations. Spirit of Bristol (1968) and SkySails (1970), both stainless-steel compositions originally made for sites in the centre of Bristol, evoke the theme of sailing, the abstracted shapes of cut, bent and welded stainless-steel plate "moulded" into a streamlined semblance of boats and taut sails caught in the wind.

SkySails was inspired by a childhood passion for windjammers, which he experienced through a sailor grandfather in Devon. The relief's current location, pinned to an outer wall of a campus building at Exeter University, reveals a powerful story of materials, an armada of stainless-steel components dancing up the vertical brick exterior of the building.

The lyrical energy of Mount's sculpture entertained both a literal and metaphorical preoccupation with the theme of movement and dance. Loose, multi-part structures encouraged audience participation in the sense of inviting a rearrangement of interchangeable steel elements. Even with the hard material of steel, Mount made light-hearted mobiles, shaped elements of steel plate attached to axes and moving like rustling leaves in the wind. The romantic overtones of these works expressed natural process and flux and so tempered the impact of hard materials, industrial processes and an abstract language of steel plate.

In many cast bronze and stainless-steel sculptures of the 1980s and 1990s, however, Mount moved his work toward a more "readable" representation of the figure, particularly that of couples embracing or in animated dancing postures. The whimsical stylisation of these dancing forms are perhaps the least sculptural aspect of his work and do not have the earthy gravity of compact, interlocked compositions, cast in bronze or stainless steel, which are inspired by the power of ancient Cornish rock formations of metholithic quoits strewn across the Penwith moorlands.

A quiet, modest man, Mount exhibited both locally and in London and abroad, but his main success lay in the commissions gained through his connections with architects. Forging an ideal working partnership with his second wife, the painter June Miles, Mount also exhibited from home, a sign on the road entering St Just enticing motorists to enter and see a display of their work. This typically West-Country cottage-industry aspect of his enterprise complemented his involvement as an artist member of the Penwith Society of Arts in St Ives and of the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol, the city where much of his metal sculpture was fabricated by the engineer Michael Werbicki.

Mount also sold work to a discriminating Spanish collector whose acquisitions included the cast-iron sculptures Umbrella Man (1984) and Fantasia (1996). Compact and totem-like, these sculptures are also full of movement, curved and linear sections never blocking off space but letting it in as an active part of the overall image.

The deployment of heavy shapes to express outline or encapsulate space reflects the influence of the Spanish sculptor Eduardo Chillida. In contrast to the sculptor-welders David Smith and his English "follower" Anthony Caro, Mount did not use objets trouvés, but rather what he described as objets fabriqués, bits of discarded fragments of metal or of polystyrene cut up and adapted from earlier works.

Such recycling and backtracking highlighted the open-ended, work-in-progress aspect of Mount's enterprise. For this reason, his sculpture, whether sharply geometric or softer in form, resisted a rigid symmetry. The baroque spirit and moving energy of his work was further enhanced by a use of reflective or pitted and opaque surfaces that broke down the distinction between object and surrounding.

The distinction between Mount's painting and sculpture lay in the inherent differences of the media. Instead of being plans for sculptures, Mount's paintings were informed by particular shapes and textures of three-dimensional work. The paintings are indeed reminders of the shared concerns between the two main branches of the plastic arts both within Mount's work and within that of ambitious abstract artists belonging to the mainstream of the modernist movement.

Peter Davies

Paul Morrow Mount, sculptor and painter: born Newton Abbot, Devon 8 June 1922; married 1946 Jeanne Martin (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1977), 1978 June Miles; died Penzance, Cornwall 10 January 2009.


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