Sheila Mitchell

Leading sculptor in the figurative tradition
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Sheila Mitchell, sculptor: born Farnham, Surrey 24 November 1926; married 1951 Charles Bone (two sons); died Puttenham, Surrey 8 May 2006.

In a richly varied artistic career stretching over 60 years, Sheila Mitchell played a distinguished role in the preservation of the figurative tradition of British sculpture, during decades of official indifference or downright hostility. This she achieved by example through her own work, and by her dedication to the Royal Society of British Sculptors and, above all, the Society of Portrait Sculptors.

Born in Farnham, Surrey in 1926, she showed early talent and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1945, aged 18, before beginning her formal studies at the Farnham School of Art, under Charles Vyse. Moving on to the Guildford School of Art, Mitchell studied for a year under Willi Soukop before she was accepted for the Royal College of Art (1948-51). Studying there under John Skeaping, Frank Dobson and Edward Folkard, she received a thorough grounding in the figurative tradition stemming from the New Sculpture, although she was also exposed concurrently to the more radical approaches of Henry Moore and Sir Jacob Epstein.

A fellow student at both Farnham and the RCA was the painter Charles Bone and in 1951 they were married and set up house in Winters Farm, at Puttenham in Surrey, where the former farm buildings were to provide them with studios for the next 55 years.

While studying at the RCA, Mitchell continued to have work exhibited at the Royal Academy, but from 1964 she became most closely associated with the Society of Portrait Sculptors, exhibiting with them almost every year until the society went into a quiescent state in 1984.

The society was founded in 1953, at a time when the euphoria of the Coronation and a heightened sense of national identity was being challenged by the Modern Movement and the internationalism of abstract art. The portrait sculptors banded together to preserve their discipline, and their annual exhibitions became an increasingly important means by which portrait sculpture could retain its vitality.

An important early patron of both the society and Sheila Mitchell was the musician Arthur Davison and her lively portrait head of Davison was one of the highlights of the society's 1967 Annual Exhibition. In all, she modelled over 150 portraits, varying the surface treatment to reflect the characters of the sitters. Amongst the most distinguished is the bust of Sir George Edwards OM, commissioned by British Aerospace for Surrey University.

Sheila Mitchell was elected President of the Society of Portrait Sculptors in 1978. With its deteriorating financial position, the society's use of the Mall Galleries in London for the Annual Exhibitions became increasingly difficult. During her presidency (1978-83) Mitchell tried to forge a closer relationship with the Royal Society of British Sculptors, of which she was already a fellow, but without success, and faced with the prospect of being absorbed into it, the Society of Portrait Sculptors decided in 1984 to go into voluntary hibernation. This lasted until 1996 when Franta Belsky, Anthony Stones, David Houchin and others revitalised the organisation. Mitchell immediately returned to the fold, exhibiting every year, but in the meantime she had greatly consolidated her artistic career.

Her sitters for portraits in bronze included the Duchess of Kent (1982) commissioned for HM Forces, Sebastian Coe, commissioned for the Sports Aid Foundation, Sir Edward Tuckwell, commissioned for the Barber-Surgeons' Hall, and Sir Frederick Wood commissioned by Croda International. Alongside, she was receiving commissions for monumental bronze sculpture in Mallorca as well as for patrons in the United Kingdom, such as her pietà for Wintershall Chapel, separate from her flourishing practice as a leading portrait sculptor.

A recurring theme was that of the Mother and Child. Her student thesis had focused on this subject and she later explored it through a number of compositions including a large Madonna and Child group she created for Walsingham in Norfolk and that for the chapel of the Royal Surrey Hospital.

A sensitive sculptor of small figures, Mitchell modelled small bronzes such as the equestrian statuette of William Cobbett exhibited in 2004, and ceramic figures for the Royal Worcester Company.

The partnership between Mitchell and her husband, Charles Bone, extended to joint exhibitions in Europe and the United States of America, and she supported him closely during his 10 years as President of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours, while they collaborated on sculpture conservation projects.

Peter Cannon-Brookes