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


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The Independent Online

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.