Geoffrey Clarke was one of the most powerful, innovative British artists of the last century. He is mostly known as a sculptor, ever open to the challenges of new materials. But study of his huge output reveals wonderful and imaginative works in stained glass, enamel, mosaic, as a medal-maker and on paper: watercolours, drawings and many prints, monotypes being a favourite medium.
Clarke had important exhibitions but aspired to be a public works artist, contributing to people's surroundings to enhance their lives. Mankind, often in symbolic form, was a continuing preoccupation of his work, which also had a strong spiritual element. Unlike some sculptors, Clarke was able to accommodate the demands of architects, which facilitated commissions for major projects.
As a young man he was able to exploit opportunities offered by postwar redevelopment in the 15 years from the mid-1950s. During that period he accomplished some 50 architectural commissions for a variety of modernist buildings. At the heart of this was his long association with the building of the new Coventry Cathedral, replacing the old St Michael's Cathedral destroyed by German bombing in 1940.
Work on the new cathedral began in 1956. The architect, Basil Spence had given the job of making 10 stained glass windows for the nave to the workshop of the Royal College of Art in 1952, the year after Clarke had been awarded his diploma there for stained glass, engraving and iron sculpture.
The three windows Clarke made – Wisdom of Man, Wisdom of God and Man in Maturity – were completed for the Cathedral's consecration in 1962. Two other Royal College students, Keith New and Lawrence Lee, each produced three windows, the 10th being a co-operative effort. For Clarke this led to other stained glass commissions, such as the west window at All Saints Church, Stretford, and other churches in the Manchester area, and four Treasury Windows for Lincoln Cathedral.
Clarke was born in Derbyshire, in 1924, spending much of his early life in Preston, where his grandparents lived. The Lancashire landscape made a lasting impression. There was an ecclesiastical thread running through Clarke's background, his grandfather being a church furnisher and his father an architect with an interest in etching, which he cultivated in Geoffrey. Clarke attended Preston School of Art (1940-41), and Manchester School of Art (1941-42), where he met his future wife, Ethelwynne Tyrer, known as Bill. After his studies were interrupted by air crew service in the RAF he resumed them at Lancaster Art School under an inspiring teacher, Ronald Grimshaw.
Stained glass was not Clarke's principal interest when he enrolled in the College in 1948. However, when in the graphic design department he was asked to complete a Roman alphabet, he chose to transfer to the stained glass department. His work, which impressed the principal Robin Darwin and influenced Spence in his Coventry commissioning, won a College silver medal. Clarke was now working feverishly, producing hundreds of allegorical etchings as well as his early wire and plaster and iron sculptures, showing awareness of the work of primitive art and that of Klee, Miró, Modigliani and Picasso. Like Miró he developed his own symbolic and sign language.
His work soon gained public exposure. The early 1950s would witness a surge of new British sculptural talent with different aesthetic preoccupations and approaches to materials from those of pre-war practitioners. Clarke was among eight sculptors in the British Pavilion at the 1952 Venice Biennale whose work prompted the oft-quoted description "the geometry of fear". In the same year he won a gold medal at the Royal College and showed at Gimpel Fils gallery, London. He featured in the 1953 New Burlington Galleries International Sculpture Exhibition, The Unknown Political Prisoner, and was again at the Venice Biennale in 1954,
Clarke's work at Coventry was not restricted to stained glass, but included major sculptures such as his Crown of Thorns, High Altar Cross, Candlesticks and Flying Cross, the last so big that it had to be sited by helicopter. The artist's Coventry commissions persuaded Spence to use him on further buildings, such as Thorn House, for Thorn Electrical Industries, and the physics departments of Liverpool and Newcastle Universities. After Coventry, numerous small ecclesiastical commissions followed.
In 1954 the Clarkes moved from London to Hartest, Suffolk, where he set up his own foundry, although he claimed that the flat East Anglian countryside, unlike that of the north, never inspired him. Three years later he made his first sculptures in aluminium, a material used for the Crown of Thorns and Flying Cross at Coventry. He had become frustrated with iron as a sculptural medium, so in 1957 abandoned it. Instead of using the traditional route in which a mould is employed to create identical casts, Clarke's model was made in expanded polystyrene, embedded in sand, which vaporised when molten metal was poured in, a variant of the lost-wax process. It was sufficiently innovative for Shell Film Unit make the film Cast in a New Mould.
Clarke continued over several decades to employ aluminium for some of his finest reliefs and free-standing pieces. The first of the latter was in 1961 for Spence's house at Beaulieu in Hampshire. Aluminium was relatively inexpensive compared with other metals and, as he used it, the artist found that he could produce a range of attractive finishes. It was adopted by his son Jonathan, also a sculptor.
In 1965 Clarke had a retrospective at the Redfern and was included in British Sculpture of the Sixties at the Tate, two years before completing two large sculptures, Triunii and Uniforge, for the Federal Land Bank in St Paul, Minnesota. Another important overseas commission, in stained glass, was panels for Majlis, Abu Dhabi, in 1982. From 1968-73 Clarke returned to the Royal College as head of the light transmission and projection department. He was elected a Royal Academician in 1975. Clarke's restless invention and creativity did not flag. His work was in many collections, including the Tate Gallery, Arts Council Collection and Victoria & Albert Museum.
Geoffrey Petts Clarke, artist: born Darley Dale, Derbyshire 28 November 1924; married 1947 Ethelwynne Tyrer (died 2007; two sons); died Bury St Edmunds 30 October 2014.