Ralph Brown: Member of the 'geometry of fear' school of sculptors

 

The figurative sculptor Ralph Brown was a younger member of that distinguished postwar generation of internationally recognised British sculptors some of whom represented Britain at the 1952 Venice Biennale where they were dubbed by the critic Herbert Read the "geometry of fear" school. Brown's steadfast commitment to the figure – whether realised in roughly handled expressionist terms in the case of the celebrated Meat Porters (1960) or treated with the smoothly finished classicism of the later standing or crouching Girl bronzes – possessed a humanism charged with a pronounced erotic feeling. A traditionalist in terms of technique, Brown kept a vital balance between form and narrative.

Brown, who was born the youngest of three brothers in Leeds in 1928, was educated at Leeds Grammar School. National Service in the RAF immediately after the war was followed by studies at Leeds School of Art during the late 1940s and then the Royal College Sculpture School in London between 1952 and 1956. Brown thereby emulated the progress of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth who, a generation earlier, had gone from Leeds to the RCA. Brown's proud awareness of his Yorkshire roots was centred on Moore and Hepworth, whose work he had seen as a teenager at Temple Newsam House, Leeds in the 1940s.

Brown's other formative influences – Rodin, Germaine Richier and Medardo Rosso – pointed to a broader tradition in which impressionistic surface modelling (in contradistinction to the cult of truth to carved materials), animated postural intensity and iconic symbolism would prove decisive. A broad knowledge of these continental masters occurred through a student thesis Brown wrote on Rosso, later published in the RCA student magazine ARK in 1956, and then via two extended visits to Paris in 1951 and 1954, when he met Giacometti at the Galerie Maeght, saw the work of the revered Rodin and Richier and spent time studying under Zadkine.

Privileged access to hidden Rodin plasters at the sculptor's former house in Meudon came about through contact with the formidable Madame Goldschneider, curator of the Musée Rodin, and proved instructive in Brown's understanding of anatomical clay modelling. These experiences resulted in powerful early bronzes like Tragic Group (1953), whose conjoined figures recalled Rodin's Burghers of Calais and the contemporary human "shields" of Kenneth Armitage, and Sheep Shearer and Mother and Child (1954), made directly in plaster during the second Paris trip. Copies of this were purchased by Henry Moore and by Leeds City Art Gallery.

These successes were followed by further developments and milestones later in the decade. Friendship with Jacob Epstein, teaching stints in Bournemouth and at the RCA, and visits to Marino Marini, Emilio Greco and Giacomo Manzu in Italy consolidated his commitment to modelled figurative sculpture which, by the turn of the 1960s, had yielded a first public commission for Harlow New Town with The Meat Porters, a first acquisition by the Tate Gallery with Swimming and a series of brutalised Queen sculptures, one of which was banned for its supposedly irreverent eroticism from a 1963 exhibition at Welwyn Garden City. The Swimmer and Diver sculptures, while capturing the figure in dynamic movement through the water or air, were described by Dennis Farr in the catalogue for a major retrospective at Leeds City Art Gallery in 1988 as marking "a break away from the ragged rough surfaces towards much smoother textures".

Encapsulating the zeitgeist of the "swinging" decade in stylistic as well as thematic terms, new aluminium or brass pieces like Brass Torso or the Confluence sculptures (1966) achieved a surface immediacy and quick sensuous impact. At the same time the distorted, rearranged anatomies writhing or gesticulating at the base of an "architectural" screen or background "wall" accommodated an impressionistic play of light that in its very different way demonstrated the ongoing and abiding relevance of Rosso.

Brown's positioning of soft anatomy against hard geometry emulated his RCA colleague Bernard Meadows' contemporary work and, like Meadows', Brown's flowing biomorphic rearrangements betrayed an admiration for the surrealist mannequins and "Poupee" dolls of Hans Bellmer. Developing this theme into the late 1960s with the aluminium Lovers reliefs, where erotic silhouetted figures emerge from flat, sheet-like surfaces, Brown was creating variations on the perennial theme of the shallow relief, a medium suggested by his early packed crowd sculptures.

Brown's intention to make what the critic PJ Kavanagh called "a hymn to the body" yielded smooth neo-classical nudes of adolescent girls, a risqué theme that characterised his work in the later 1970s and beyond. Having moved from London to the Cotswolds in 1963 Brown continued to teach for the next decade before following his friends Elizabeth Frink and his former RCA tutor John Skeaping to the south of France. Their interest in animal subjects did not, however, divert Brown's attention from the human figure.

He returned to England late in 1975 and moved to Stroud, where he remained for the rest of his life. Finally becoming a Royal Academician in 1972, Brown cultivated a growing market for his work selling directly from his studio though two major exhibitions of recent work at Browse and Darby, London in 1979 and at Beaux Arts, Bath in 1983 led to the major retrospective and homecoming in 1988 in Leeds.

The late figures were heralded by Jeune Fille Assise (1976), standing or crouching nudes in static, impassive poses. The faces were often blank or anonymous, preferring graphic outline with rhythmic force to the personal or particular. In pieces like Girl Leaning (1979) or Cache-cache (1983) Brown positions the sculpture within a part-plinth, part-furniture arrangement of wood or marble planes. This again recalled preoccupations to do with pitting voluptuousness against hard "architecture". Brown's neatly delineated and schematically shaded drawings run parallel.

Isolated from the changing art world Brown, a gregarious 1960s socialite, became more reclusive in later years, though his support and respect for former colleagues and fellow sculptors resulted in the foreword he wrote in 2006 for my book on the Bristol sculptor John Huggins. A lifelong smoker, Brown suffered from chest problems towards the end of a productive career dedicated to the heroic mainstream tradition of modern sculpture.

Ralph Brown, sculptor and teacher: born Leeds 1928; married Caroline; died 3 April 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Digital Designer - Award Winning Agency

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity for a t...

Recruitment Genius: Project Manager

£35000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This global provider of call ce...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service and Business Support Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: By developing intimate relationships with inte...

Recruitment Genius: Application Support Engineer - Software

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A small rapidly expanding IT So...

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada