DENIS MITCHELL was one of the greatest craftsmen in post-war British sculpture, writes Peter Davies. At a time when traditional craftsmanship is unfashionable and viewed as delaying the spontaneous urge of individual expression, Mitchell's painstakingly executed oeuvre of sparkling bronzes and refined woods reminds us of the classical virtues of poise, strength, balance and formal perfection.
One innovation he can call his own is the way that rough bronze casts, returned from the foundries, were subsequently subjected to hours of laborious filing, chiselling and polishing. The results were extraordinarily beautiful surfaces, in which a playful contrast often exists between the smooth and hewn, the polished and patinated, the convex or concave. His sculptures are generally slim, often frontal or relief-like, contrasting with Hepworth's rounder forms. He titled the sculptures with Cornish names in a way that reminded us of the Cornishness of all his work.
Something of the unyielding character of Cornwall's granite landscape enters his work. Timelessness is not only a classic quality associated with the Latin world, for in sub-Mediterranean Cornwall a sense of the same pervades the culture. Mitchell's spiralling corkscrew or fish-hook shapes clearly derive from the tools of his trade. He started out as a painter when, as a young 18-year-old, he adopted Cornwall as his home. He wrote of wanting to develop an outlook 'on Cornish landscape as felt and seen through my job of working on the land and under it in the mines, and around it on the sea'. But his natural facility with his hands led to employment at the Leach pottery, then with Hepworth, and inevitably to his own sculpture practice.
In later years Mitchell shared a studio with the painter John Wells. Together they perpetuated the abstract and constructive, yet also lyrical, principles that Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, as sophisticated urbanites, first brought down to Cornwall in 1939. Mitchell was a modest man who welcomed everyone to his studio. Talk was congenial but often pointed and humorous, aided by the obligatory shot of whisky dropped into morning coffee. His contribution to Cornish, and therefore British, art was immense and his work has yet to be fully appreciated.
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