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Obituary: Freda Skinner

Freda Nellie Skinner, sculptor, woodcarver, letter cutter: born Limpsfield, Surrey 31 January 1911; Head of Sculpture, Wimbledon School of Art 1945-71; died West Amesbury, Wiltshire 19 July 1993.

FOR more than 60 years Freda Skinner practised the art of sculpture.

Freda was three years old at the outbreak of the First World War and remembered the prisoners of war working on her father's farm, near Limpsfield, in Surrey. At the age of seven she started modelling from clay found in a local pond and at 11 she knew that sculpture would be her main interest in life. At 17 she gained admission to the Royal College of Art, in London, direct from school. Unfortunately her parents were unable to support her college fees but her talent was so obvious that money was raised by a number of their neighbours amongst them Ethel and Sybil Pye - Ethel was herself a sculptor and Sybil became a well-known bookbinder - the illustrator Arthur Rackham and the painter Louis Fry.

At the RCA Skinner studied under Henry Moore and Alan Durst, the notable wood carver. In the early Forties she started teaching toy making and sculpture at Kingston School of Art. During the war she was in charge of 20 ATS girls and women volunteers creating landscape maps in relief constructed in hessian which illustrated where vehicles could be parked safe from observation.

After the war, Skinner continued her teaching career as head of the Sculpture Department at Wimbledon School of Art. She had an incredible capacity for imparting knowledge in a simple and direct way. She fulfilled the idea of a teacher respected by her colleagues and loved by her students, amongst whom was the sculptor William Pye, who said: 'She imbued all of us students with the sense that we were embarking on something of great worth and importance and for which no standard was too high to aim for.'

Skinner was not concerned with fashion in art and was true to her own convictions: her acute observation as well as simplicity of design created unique sculptures of a very high standard. The great range of her work was recently seen in a retrospective exhibition of sculpture from 1928 to 1993 at the Bruton Street Gallery in central London. She was at the private view of her own exhibiton a few weeks ago and many of her old friends and colleagues attended. The sculptures exhibited were in terracotta, wood, stone and bronze, full of the inner strength, form and expression characteristic of her work.

Skinner was a Fellow of the Royal Society of British Sculptors and a member of the Society of Portrait Sculptors, where she served on the council, contributing her knowledge, advice, and high standards of integrity. She held firm opinions on what was good sculpture and had no hesitation in stating what was not. Her own portrait sculptures were full of vitality and excellent likenesses; as recently as January she completed an impressive portrait bust of David Pinto, a businessman .

Skinner's commissions are too numerous to list but amongst them was a war memorial at Battersea Parish Church in high relief, 8ft high, of 1948, and two outstanding wood carvings: The Risen Christ in Glory (1960), in St Paul's Church, Lorrimore Square, Southwark - 8ft high with a 16ft cross; and the Virgin and Child (1972) in the Lady Chapel of St Elphege's Church, Wallington, which is both moving and profound. Her book A Standard Work: wood carving (1961) became a comprehensive text for beginners in this dying craft. Many garden figures and domestic sculptures including her Harlequin and Horse series were produced, and she was also regarded as one of the finest letter cutters of her day.

Other commissions included the foundation stone for the Barbican Art Centre in London, completed in 1972, the Plaque and Coat of Arms in the foyer of the Barbican Arts Centre unveiled by the Queen in 1982, and the Cromwell Debates at St Mary's Church, Putney in the same year.

Freda Skinner was always ready to experiment with new materials, and worked with painted crystacal, stoneware, ciment fondue and fibreglass. At the time of her death she was working on a limewood figure 5ft tall of Hamlet and had just completed a bronze of the ballet dancer Nureyev.

Freda had a simple and direct attitude to life and work which to her was so exciting and her infectious enthusiasm made you caught up in her joy of sculpture.

When she retired from teaching in 1971 she remained in Putney, where she had her studio, and in 1987 moved to Wiltshire.

(Photograph omitted)