Obituary: John Skelton

Alan Powers
Monday 06 December 1999 01:02

JOHN SKELTON was a productive and varied sculptor, working in stone, bronze and other media. He executed sculpture and lettering for specific sites and buildings, and also worked on many uncommissioned sculptures which were exhibited at intervals.

He was one of six children. His mother, Angela, was the youngest sister of the sculptor Eric Gill and the model for his largest sculpture, the female nude Mankind (1927-28). After education at Norwich Cathedral Choir School and Bablake School, Coventry, where he enjoyed good art teachers, John, according to a long-standing plan, was apprenticed to Eric Gill at Pigotts, Buckinghamshire, in 1940, only four months before Gill's death.

He continued to work with Gill's assistant, Joseph Cribb, at Ditchling Common before joining the Army in 1942. He served with the Royal Artillery in India, Burma, Malaya and Thailand. He filled out his education at Coventry School of Art, studying drawing and architecture, and then as assistant in Bridgeman's stonemason's yard at Lewes. He married in 1948 and two years later set up his workshop at Burgess Hill, East Sussex.

In later life, Skelton looked very like his uncle, with a bristling beard, spectacles, bright eyes and a broad grin. He was skilful with words, but unlike Gill did not seek a public platform to change the world, except through his work. His early sculpture, such as Motherhood (1952), carved soon after the birth of his daughter Helen Mary (who later became his apprentice and partner), closely resembles Gill's and he followed his master in his willingness to work to commission.

Many of his jobs were for churches and show a deep understanding of the human dimensions of Christianity, although Skelton was not religious in a conventional sense. They include the font for Chichester Cathedral, a large Clipsham stone figure of St Augustine arriving at Thanet for St Augustine's Church, Bexhill-on-Sea, and Our Lady of Pity for an existing Gothic niche in the Bauchun Chapel at Norwich Cathedral. His St David, worked in Welsh slate with a machine hammer, stands outside the Catholic church of St David, Tywyn, in Gwynedd, a commission from a patron who also ensured that the fittings in the church came from Skelton's workshop. His sculpture Axis Mundi at Bishop Otter College, Chichester (1990), symbolised life in its vertical member and after-life in the horizontal, at the same time representing the conflict and interaction of male and female forces.

There were many lettering and memorial commissions, including in 1979 a set of plaques commemorating the 10 Allied Field Marshals of the Second World War, in St Paul's Cathedral, London, where he also designed and made the memorial to Ivor Novello.

He divided the rest of his work between pieces "done to satisfy an interest in a particular form", usually inspired by an individual piece of stone or wood, and those "motivated by an interest in a theme". In the former category, he often worked in a completely abstract way. The Rhythmic Form (1967), in yew wood, is comparable to certain works by Barbara Hepworth. Some pieces which might pass as abstract were given titles, transferring them into the thematic category.

One of a series of works based on ideas of pregnancy and motherhood was Variation on the Willendorf Venus (1963), a version of which was carved in a piece of Pentelic marble which he happened to have waiting in the workshop. The full roundedness of this piece was the beginning of a breakthrough in his sculpture, which had previously, like much of Gill's, tended to be flat and linear.

A further version of this design was carved in Yugoslavia as a contribution to a national sculpture park at Portoroz, in 1964, and the experience of working on this piece out of doors in Mediterranean light led Skelton to a theory that English art has always tended to linearity because of the fixed direction of light in indoor working conditions: "I noticed when working with the sun constantly on the move round the work, how one is unconsciously persuaded to move with it."

Another group of works deals with the subject of war, showing wounded victims more directly moving than Henry Moore's Fallen Warrior series. Several of Skelton's thematic works can be found in Stratford-upon-Avon, in the Shakespeare Centre and the adjacent Shakespeare Birthplace Garden. The human figure, particularly the torso, was the underlying theme of a great deal of his work, even when apparently abstract.

John Skelton found the time and energy for many other activities, including watercolour painting and life drawing. He made a tour of India in 1987- 88, recording dance, music and drama in drawings. He also worked on preparing a catalogue of Eric Gill's sculpture, contributing much of his knowledge to the catalogue by Dr Judith Collins published in 1998.

In 1985 he was a vigorous master of the Art Workers Guild, whose principles of artistic independence and versatility were evident in his working life. His brother, the printer and Gill scholar Christopher Skelton, published John Skelton, a sculptor's work, in 1977 in a limited edition, with a foreword by Joan Ellis and an introduction by the sculptor himself which perfectly captures his mixture of insight and matter-of- factness. He organised a large retrospective exhibition of his work in his house and garden in 1993, entitled "Skelton at Seventy".

Alan Powers

John Stephen Skelton, sculptor and letter-cutter: born Glasgow 8 July 1923; FRBS 1963; MBE 1989; married 1948 Myrtle Bromley Martin (one son, two daughters); died Streat, East Sussex 26 November 1999.

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