Peter Thursby: Sculptor whose work playfully combined human and mechanical elements

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The Independent Online

During a productive 50-year career, the Exeter-based sculptor Peter Thursby fashioned abstracted forms in bronze, aluminium and latterly stainless steel that achieved a playful and witty combination of human, mechanical and architectural elements. A West Country sculptor, therefore, who in the pursuit of urban and industrial themes established an independent voice at a remove from the purer abstraction and distilled landscape anthropomorphism of Barbara Hepworth and her followers. His setback in not securing a full-time lectureship at Clifford Fishwick's Exeter College of Art (he taught in local schools instead) was later compensated for by his presidency of the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol.

Born in Salisbury, Wiltshire in 1930, the only child of an army officer, Thursby studied under Ted Atkinson at Exeter College of Art during the late 1950s before qualifying as a teacher in Ernest Pascoe's sculpture department at the West of England College of Art, Bristol in 1961. A peripatetic upbringing gave Thursby early self-reliance and adaptability. A happy, if childless, marriage to the socially outgoing Mo, lasting from 1956 to his death, saw a stable domicile at Pinhoe, Exeter.

After national service, Thursby developed during the student years of the 1950s an abstract pictorial language of colour planes and linear trajectories that would inform the sculpture that followed during the early 1960s. Influenced by lyrical Ecole de Paris painters like Vieira da Silva, Thursby's grid-like abstract pictures drew on natural phenomena like trees, or on man-made structures such as scaffolding around buildings or stacked chairs.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Thursby partook of the widespread style – common to both painting and sculpture – which used thin, pared-down armatures and skeletal structures. While possessing poetic naturalism, early pictures like Trees in a Mist predicted the late stainless-steel Optimism sculptures in which the upward growth of trees was expressed through plastic metaphor and a schematic use of flat, cut and welded fragments. In terms of its title, another early picture, Metal Objects in Space, tangibly anticipated the move over to sculpture.

During these early years, Thursby's exhibiting career stayed close to his roots, taking in annual displays with the Salisbury Group, a Devon Festival show at the Exeter Museum and Art Gallery and a prestigious Young Contemporaries art-student exhibition at RBA Galleries, London (1957). In 1956 he made an auspicious debut at the Royal West of England Academy Autumn Show, Bristol and in 1972 acted as chair of the local Exeter Kenn Group, where he exhibited work alongside that of Exeter art lecturers including Fishwick, Mike Garton and Alan Richards.

Turning from painting to sculpture as his main expressive vehicle at the turn of the Sixties, Thursby pursued a disturbed humanist vision in roughly modelled pieces like the ciment fondu Face (1960), Totem Torso and Stretching Figure (1962). The new expressionism, echoing the work of Butler, Armitage and Chadwick during the 1950s, was accompanied by new exhibiting horizons. Thursby's regular contributions to group displays at the Allied Artists Association, London (1958-68), to contemporary Newlyn Society of Artists shows and to Penwith Society members exhibitions in St Ives (1963-73) culminated in two retrospective exhibitions at Plymouth City Art Gallery and with his subsequent joining of the new Marjorie Parr Gallery in London.

Parr's supportive nature was legendary; after acquiring two Thursby winged forms, the dealer gave her sculptor two mid-1960s solo exhibitions, which included the bronze Sprouts and Pipe series, both of which were composites using organic and mechanical elements. An outcome of Thursby's Marjorie Parr years was to follow Parr's St Ives sculptors, such as John Milne and Denis Mitchell, in editioning streamlined, elegantly reduced bronze forms that attained what Vivienne Light, co-author with Simon Olding of a 2006 monograph, Peter Thursby, called "a mannered classicism".

A commission from architect William Harvey led to Mural 1 (1966), a jagged though rhythmic concrete relief for the exterior of Sun Life Assurance, Croydon which revealed Thursby's continuing architectural interests. Large outdoor commissions would follow throughout the 1970s and beyond: Looking Forward (1977), celebrating the Silver Jubilee, was placed in Guildhall Square, Exeter; High Levels (1988) was displayed outside McDonald's East Finchley headquarters in London; and Jubilee (1980), was made for a corporate Texan client in Dallas.

In later years, limited by age and opportunity, Thursby produced stainless-steel pieces akin to architectural models or "towers". Among these were the Sarum sculptures of the millennium period which celebrated the great cathedral spire of his Salisbury birthplace. These, appropriately, were displayed in a 2003 solo show at Salisbury museum.

Such later sculptures had, in Olding's view, "a more representational and less challenging aesthetic" than the earlier, more "felt" pieces. Thursby also turned to fabricators and craftsmen, like silversmiths, for the realisation of his graphic designs. The Soaring Flight stainless-steel pieces were like aviation models and were displayed at a 2005 retrospective at Guernsey Museum. A specific Channel Island theme was behind Les Autelets, comprising three textured rock-like bronze forms made for the concurrent Year of the Sea celebrations there. As well as being RWA president, Thursby became a Fellow of the Royal British Society of Sculptors and received an honorary doctorate from the University of the West of England. His last years were sadly blighted by the debilitating Alzheimer's disease that prevented new work emerging after the middle of the last decade.

PETER DAVIES

Peter Thursby, sculptor: born Salisbury 23 December 1930; married 1956; died Exeter 6 January 2011.

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