Obituary: Max Barrett
Tuesday 17 June 1997
For the past 25 years Barrett worked in a variety of media, from the granite he found in the hills and quarries around his Cornish home to alabaster, slate, wood (including driftwood) and coal. He cut the sculpture Meeting Place, which now stands outside Sainsbury's in Truro, from a 10- ton granite block. He used a 6cwt block of alabaster to make Five Semi- Quavers, inspired by the bird-catcher Papageno in Mozart's The Magic Flute, and in a BBC television programme made in the summer of 1996 and broadcast early this year he sat on an enormous granite boulder in a field near his home and described how he was going to find "the shape within the stone".
Barrett came from old Cornish and gypsy stock. His early years were marked by clashes with the law, his family and society. He was the son of one of Cornwall's famous boxers, Tommy Barrett, who was welter-weight champion of the West of England in the 1930s. Barrett himself was an amateur boxer for a while, and also worked on the land and at sea in a variety of jobs. He did two years' National Service, during which time he trained as an engineer and travelled the world with the Navy, then settled in Southampton for a short while before eventually returning to his native West Penwith in the 1960s.
Although he "whittled away at wood" and dabbled with painting as a youth, it was not until he was in his late thirties that he wandered into an art gallery in St Ives and was inspired to start carving seriously.
Barrett's work and life were characterised by courage and a strongly individual streak. He had no respect for the orthodox artistic community - he always had a few ripe words for its representatives. They, in turn, found it hard to come to terms with his obvious talent combined with a scathing honesty and lack of reverence for the artistic establishment. For many years he struggled financially because he refused to recognise committees or organisations which he felt "promoted mediocrity". Now his work is exhibited widely throughout the West Country and in London, and at the time of his death he was planning an exhibition in America.
From early on in his career Barrett lived with his partner Madeleine and their daughter Azure in a caravan in a wood near St Ives, before moving to a field near Trencrom Hill outside St Ives, to live in what was little more than a hut. Gradually he filled the field around his little home with huge sculptures and carvings, and, when a few pieces sold, he slowly made improvements to his cottage. In recent years, as his work gained recognition, he bought a Land Rover and a few other luxuries, though he never wore shoes. His choice to go barefoot was not without its price (he once cut off his big toe with a garden strimmer, and the dog ran off with the toe and ate it) but it was a continual reminder to him of how near we always are to nature.
A deeply spiritual man, Barrett saw nature as the inspiration for his art, and himself as a conduit through which nature expressed itself. He was often angry with the world about him and hated its injustices and ignorance, but in later life was able to channel his anger into passion for his work. His early work is often described as violent, expressing his wildness and frustration. He said, "All my life . . . people have thrown stones at me. In anger, I threw them back, but not now. Now I pick up the stones and carve them."
Some of his best works came from scrap metal, cast-offs from the industrial society. He would wander around the port of Newlyn, looking for relics from the fishing boats, which he would turn into original and beautiful pieces. He said that he would "look for the shape within the piece" and would never seek to impose his own will upon an object. He would know when to stop, he said, because the wood, stone or metal would tell him: "It's like a dance where you don't dictate the moves but the material takes the lead - but if you lose concentration it's gone."
He carved dolphins and cellos out of encrusted blocks of coal hauled up from the seabed where they had fallen from passing ships, and he cast bronze figures of sleeping cats and stretching nudes at the local foundry at Hayle. His scope ranged from giant outdoor pieces to small pieces which sit in the palm of your hand. His work is mainly of simple shapes and outlines and fits comfortably with the modernist school of west Cornwall, although Barrett would have hated to be pigeon-holed into any particular movement.
With very limited formal education, he taught himself to appreciate and understand literature and music. He loved poetry, but saw music as the ultimate art, listening to complex orchestral and operatic works, and interpreting them in the materials around him. He was an artist who, in his own words, "strived to channel the beauty of life through my work".
If there is one word to describe Max Barrett it is "uncompromising", a characteristic which, in his art, has led him to produce some of the most innovative carving and sculpture of the 20th century. His constant search for new ways to express the beauty of nature and his bravery and single-mindedness in tackling any object or medium has created an unrivalled legacy. "Art," said Barrett, "is like food. It's life. It's a basic truth. Art reflects life, in all its moods. You have to trust your instincts and you'll get it right. It might be a chord from a tune or a birdsong. You don't need to know about it cerebrally, but you can still get it right.
"I try to work with things that have love in them and then get a song and dance out of them."
Max Schmeling Barrett, sculptor: born Penzance, Cornwall 25 May 1937; (one daughter by Madeleine Ladd); died Trencrom Hill, Cornwall 15 June 1997.
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