Trevor Bates: Sculptor of distinctive, spiky forms

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The Independent Online

The lean, upright and spiky sculpture of Trevor Bates belonged to the so-called "geometry of fear" school of post-war British sculpture. Although he is less well-known than Reg Butler, the winner of the landmark competition "The Unknown Political Prisoner" (1953), or Bernard Meadows, Kenneth Armitage and Lynn Chadwick, Bates created distinctive figurative forms that shared the existential mood, angst and disquiet of their work.

Like them he was influenced by Gonzalez, Picasso and Giacometti, and it was a piece reminiscent of thelast that Bates entered into the "Unknown Prisoner" competition hosted by the Tate Gallery, alongside entries from Chadwick, Elisabeth Frink, Barbara Hepworth, Eduardo Paolozzi and F.E. McWilliam. It won an Arts Council prize.

Trevor Bates was born in 1921 at Eltham, Kent, the son of an academic sculptor, Harry Bates. He was educated at Harrow School and then, after serving as a wartime pilot in the RAF (he was awarded the DFC), he studied at the Slade School in London until 1951. This rigorous and disciplined training was followed by a year in the private studio of Ossip Zadkine, the leading Parisian sculptor of part-Cubist, part-symbolic figures.

Zadkine offered a cosmopolitan example that leavened the academic tutelage of Professor Alfred Gerard at the Slade. Bates, though, favoured modelling in clay or plaster for bronze over Zadkine's carving mode. His images of emaciated figures or squawking birds spoke both of the era's prevailing mood of political vulnerability and of his wartime experiences in a cockpit.

The Times reported in 1953 that Bates's prize-winning entry, Crow, was "a curious and birdlike form which has a certain subtlety of balance". A 1960 feature in the magazine Motif noted that Bates's "interest is not in the full three-dimensionality of sculpture but rather with profile and frontal presentation creating vigorous silhouettes". To this, Bates himself added that his chief interest was "the unexpected and illogical form in nature . . . the winged plant, the bepetalled bird".

Bates's career-boosting early success led to exhibitions at the RBA Galleries, London, and the Salon de la Jeune Sculpture, Paris. A solo exhibition at the Waddington Gallery in 1959 crowned a decade of achievement that saw his unmistakeable pieces enter the V&A and National Museum of Wales, as well as Arts Council, collections.

He taught at Hornsey School of Art until the mid 1960s and then, in 1967, left his home in Sevenoaks and emigrated to Canada, where he continued to teach and sculpt. During the past 40 years he had disappeared from view and, unlike other expat British artists in Canada or on the West Coast of the United States, among them the former St Ives artist John Forrester, Alan Wood and Brian Wall, Bates did not resurface and neither did his work find itself subject to any revival of interest.

The extremely successful early part of Bates's career will, however, no doubt be explored by a British market hungry for 1950s art.

Peter Davies

Trevor Harry Bates, sculptor and teacher: born Eltham, Kent 16 May 1921; died Belleville, Ontario 27 April 2008.