Obituary: George Kennethson
Monday 23 January 1995
It would have been a pity, but not out of character, if the death of the sculptor George Kennethson had gone unremarked. Lack of attention on the part of critics and curators was something that Kennethson had to put up with for most of his life. By far the greater part of his work remains with his family, though there are works in the collections of Kettle's Yard art gallery, in Cambridge, and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, in Edinburgh, and late in his life he was fortunate to have foundan exhibiting home with the New Art Centre, which mounted exhibitions of his work in London and still shows it in beautiful surroundings at Roche Court in Wiltshire.
I met Kennethson in the early Eighties when I worked for the Arts Council, which has a good tradition of visiting neglected artists. Letters arrive in the office from all over the country. Kennethson wrote enclosing photographs and I was delegated to make the visit to Oundle. I found his work difficult because it was what I regarded at the time as passe. Not because it was figurative but because it was the modernism of a previous generation. But his determination and the real quality of his work with stone was evident. And I was struck, as others have been, by the atmosphere of the old brewery in which he had his studio. Even then it was packed with work so that entering it has been described as "like going into a Chinese tomb". After my visit we corresponded for a time. I failed to get his work purchased for the Arts Council Collection and he failed, despite fierce persistence, to gain recognition in London.
It must have been at this time that he wrote to the collector and supporter of artists Jim Ede that he was "reaching the absolute edge of despair at being quite unable to show my work anywhere, let alone sell it". At some point he had changed his surnamefrom Arthur Mackenzie to George Kennethson, apparently in the belief that "Kennethsons" might receive more attention than "Mackenzies". But a measure of acceptance did come to him late in life when he found a gallery in the New Art Centre, enthusiastic patrons in Germany (who have made some inroads into the hundreds of sculptures in the studio), and some sympathetic writing about his work, notably in the autumn issue of Modern Painters in 1988 coinciding with a retrospective exhibition. A film about his work, In Place of Words, was made by Central Television in 1987.
Kennethson trained as a painter in the Royal Academy Schools. He and his wife, the painter and textile designer Eileen Guthrie, lived at Uffington, near Oxford, below the celebrated white horse, before moving to Oundle, in Northamptonshire, in the mid-1950s. It is worth noting, since it is absent from his catalogues, that Kennethson taught art at Oundle School for almost 20 years. He must have been an inspiring teacher with an independence of mind that went with his craggy figure. He was a physically strong man, strong enough to both teach and make sculpture without any loss of energy in either area.
After he turned to sculpture before the Second World War he seems to have devoted himself entirely to carving fine local stone - Purbeck, Hornton, Clipsham, Ancaster and, perhaps most memorable, alabaster. It has been remarked that his subjects are thoseof a painter - waves and the sea, birds and cornfields - but there are many fine images of young women of a "blockiness" which recalls Eric Gill, Frank Dobson and Henry Moore, though these figures often have a light-heartedness and a relish for their subject which is entirely his own. He was a very English sculptor, which is to say that he belonged to an enduring tradition which has proved as strong in this century as it was in the Romanesque period.
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