Obituary: Arthur Dooley
Thursday 20 January 1994
ARTHUR DOOLEY became a sculptor almost by accident, his distinctive style evolving naturally from his experience as a manual worker in industry.
After leaving school at 14 he had a brief spell as a deckhand on Mersey tugboats, before joining the Irish Guards as a boy soldier. During his nine years' army service he was trained as a bagpiper and rose to the rank of sergeant, his six-foot-two frame an imposing - and doubtless intimidating - sight at the head of the kilted pipe-band, often seen changing the guard outside Buckingham Palace. He served in Palestine and Egypt but on impulse went AWOL to join the (pre-terrorist) Palestine Liberation Organisation as a mercenary - all without harbouring the slightest animosity against Israel or the Jews. In the PLO he reached the rank of colonel but was caught and returned to the army, which put him in prison for a year.
His exploits sound almost improbably colourful, but although in his youth he looked Behanesque and could display a belligerence typical of the Irish scouse (his great-grandfather came from Belfast), he was not a spinner of tales - nor, in recent years, a drinker. In prison he amused himself by modelling in sand and chipping away at lumps of rock though still without intending to become a sculptor. Only when working as a welder in the Cammell Laird shipyard, where he helped to build the Ark Royal, did he start to experiment in metal sculpture. 'The shipyard was really my art school,' he told Peter Davies, author of Post-war Artists on Merseyside (1992), and he said he was 'privileged never to have had an art education'.
For a year Dooley worked in London, as a janitor and part-time model at St Martin's School of Art, and although he resolutely denied ever having been taught it is no coincidence that his spell at St Martin's coincided with that of Professor Anthony Caro, who produced a distinguished crop of students. He also worked as rubber moulder at Dunlops in Speke, where, again, he developed up some of his metal- casting techniques.
Dooley's earlier work was 'workerist', though only in so far as he liked using industrial scrap for his welded constructions; never any suggestion of the monumental, square-jawed socialist-realist sculpture that might have reflected his membership of the Communist Party. His acknowledged influences were derived more from the starved, long-limbed figures of Giacometti and Reg Butler. As well as being a Communist he was a Catholic convert, but his best work was produced after he had turned away from both faiths to embrace a political and religious agnosticism. Much of his later work was neither industrial nor religious but heavily formalised figurative, like the bulls which London Weekend Television commissioned annually as a trophy for the Cyril Bennett Award for outstanding contributions to television programming.
In 1990 Dooley held an exhibition in the Dungeons at Windsor Castle but resisted all attempts by the art establishment, which he considered 'fashion-ridden and phoney', to get him to London. When a London gallery persuaded him to exhibit a few of his pieces he decided the others shown alongside them were 'bloody rubbish' and withdrew his. The Queen Mother, who is said to have befriended him, must have found his conversation refreshing.
In 1964, after Henry Moore turned down a commission for the Fourteen Stations of the Cross for St Mary's Church, Leyland, near Preston, the Benedictines - with some trepidation, as Dooley had by then acquired something of a tearaway reputation - asked him to do them instead. When he had finished they counted 15, each weighing three-quarters of a ton of bronze. His Black Christ was erected on an outside wall of a Liverpool Methodist church in 1967, and his work is represented in the collection of the Walker Art Gallery. One of his most recent works is the statue of St Mary in the Mariners' Chapel of the Quay in Liverpool Parish Church of St Nicholas. Towards the end of his life he became Chairman of the Liverpool Academy and gave much encouragement to young sculptors. He received numerous commissions and made many sales of his work, but never seemed to have any money because he gave it all away.
As a fiercely loyal Liverpudlian he fought against the spoiling of the city by developers and politicians, first by the threatened socialist-
Utopian Shankland Plan and then a monstrous, Ceausescu-style civic palace envisaged by the - pre-Militant - Labour leader Lord (Bill) Sefton. He is survived by his mother Bessie and his son Paul, a trained stonemason, who latterly worked alongside him.
Without big Arthur the city has suddenly become emptier.
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