Obituary: Mark Batten

John Skelton
Wednesday 20 January 1993 00:02

Mark Wilfrid Batten, sculptor, born 1905, President Royal Society of British Sculptors 1956-61, married 1933 Elsie Thorneloe (died 1961; one daughter), died 4 January 1993.

THE SCULPTOR Mark Batten was a most interesting, determined and unusual man. He was highly articulate and his authority commanded instant respect, while his knowledge of the world of sculpture was prodigious.

Batten's single-mindedness and devotion to stone sculpture did not prevent his having wide interests, notably a concern for the welfare of all artists but particularly sculptors. This culminated in his enthusiastic guidance of the International Association of Plastic Arts (IAPA) - the first such society to have an identification card with a photograph, and that has provided for many free entry into galleries and museums from Greece and Yugoslavia to Poland and throughout America. IAPA later gave way to the International Association of Arts (IAA), known on the Continent as the Association des Arts Plastiques. His daughter Griselda helped with the running of the UK branch. Batten was for five years President of the Royal Society of British Sculptors, and it was as members of the society that we first met.

Batten learned to carve granite in Cornwall in 1927 but began his life as a painter at Chelsea College of Art and was all but banished for his so-called shocking nude drawings. A champion in his tutor saved him. A recently discovered drawing of 1932 epitomises his power as a sculptor.

Batten was called up in 1939 into the Life Guards, and the war had a traumatic effect on him. Having a mechanical bent, he found a vocation in the training of those driving armoured vehicles.

Batten exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1950 and won the Gold Medal, but he was not the man for public acclaim, preferring rather the life at his country atelier, Christian's River, Dallington, Sussex. He was a great recluse, but sallied forth for meetings of our society and spoke as if the pent up strength of his self-imposed discipline gave added eloquence and forced his pronouncements.

Of burly build and middle height, with a slightly red beard of spade shape, he had a good head of hair which framed his healthy face. Batten always dressed exactly the same, winter or summer, for whatever occasion - a brown, loosely fitting corduroy suit, which somehow matched his beard, a darkish green shirt, no tie and stout brown working shoes. The only time one ever saw a change was at the presidential dinner in some smart London venue, when the effect of full evening dress, white tie and tails took all our breaths away.

Hard times hit a family clothing business with which his wife Elsie (nee Thorneloe) was associated, and she and their daughter moved to London. This was not an estrangement, it was merely a practical solution pursued by a devoted couple. Some years later Elsie was tragically murdered in the antique shop in which she worked.

Mark Batten's greatest contribution to the world of art was his dogged pursuit of Sculpture by the Direct Method or, as the French say, 'en taille directe'. His most famous work, The Diogenist, in Hopton-wood stone (Derbyshire marble - a hard grey stone of great beauty and delight in carving), featured in his book Stone Carving by the Direct Method (1956). This work had an authority which transcended its modest format and established its author beyond all doubt as the leading, and indeed the only master in Britain of this most exacting technique. Indeed, I had to travel as far as Yugoslavia before I came across it again.

The stone is split by drilling a series of holes adjacent to each other into which a 'plug and feathers' are inserted. The 'plug' is a tapered round chisel, the 'feather' is an open-ended split metal sleeve. In the hands of the initiate, the cumulative effect of hitting the plugs and feathers is to split the stone with dramatic accuracy. The Yugoslavs drilled their holes by compressor; Batten drilled his by hand.

The best-known sculptors practising direct carving in the Thirties and Forties were Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill and Henry Moore. Batten worked for Gill (who was my uncle; I was his last apprentice when he died in 1940) on a granite job near Aberdeen just before the war. But the records I have assembled for compiling Gill's sculptural life-story - every worksheet and job number - fail to reveal the work. Batten recalled it when I last spoke to him about 10 years ago. He told me that he, Batten, had obliterated all record of the job on purpose and this is confirmed by Batten's daughter. Apparently Gill did not like carving granite and had no experience of it.

Batten claimed that Gill passed the work off as his own. This I find very hard to believe for my uncle was the most open of men, and never failed to give praise or acknowledgement when it was due. The affair will remain a mystery.

(Photograph omitted)

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