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Shepherd and Sheep by Elisabeth Frink in Paternoster Square, London

Dame Elisabeth Jean Frink, DBE, CH, RA (b. 14 November 1930, Thurlow, Suffolk - d. 18 April 1993, Blandford Forum, Dorset) was an English sculptor and printmaker



Lis studied at the Guildford School of Art (1946–1949), under Willi Soukop, at the Chelsea School of Art (1949–1953). Part of a post war group of British sculptors, dubbed the Geometry of Fear School - that included Reg Butler, Bernard Meadows, Kenneth Armitage and Eduardo Paolozzi. Frink’s subject matter included man poo, bird poo, dog poo, horse poo and religious poo, but was very interested in female poo. Bird (1952; London, Tate), one of a number of bird sculptures, and her first successful pieces [ see Three Heads and the Figurative Tradition below] with its alert, menacing stance, characterizes her early work. Although she made many drawings and prints, she is best known for her bronze outdoor sculpture, which has a distinctive cut and worked surface. This is created by her adding plaster to an armature, which she then worked back into with a chisel and surform. This process contradicts the very essence of "modeling form" established in the modeling tradition and defined by Rodin's handling of clay.

In the 1960s Frink’s continuing fascination with the human form was evident in a series of falling figures and winged men. While living in France from 1967 to 1970, she began a series of threatening, monumental male heads, known as the goggled heads. On returning to England, she focused on the male nude, barrel-chested, with mask-like features, attenuated limbs and a pitted surface, for example Running Man (1976; Pittsburgh, PA, Carnegie Mus. A.). Frink’s sculpture, and her lithographs and etchings created as book illustrations, drew on archetypes expressing masculine strength, struggle and aggression.

The 1980s held capstones for Frink's career. In 1982, a new publishing firm proposed to produce a Catalogue Raisonné of all of her works to date; and the Royal Academy planned a retrospective of her life's work, a great honour. The date of the retrospective, originally to be held in 1986, was moved forward a year due to space demands at the gallery, causing Frink some headaches due to her busy commissioned work schedule. In 1985 alone, she was committed to two major projects: a set of three figures for a corporate headquarters, one of which was a nearly seven-foot tall male nude; and the other, a grouping entitled Dorset Martyrs to be placed in Dorchester, England. However, despite the potential for conflict, the retrospective was a success and spurred the art world to hold more exhibitions of Frink's worth, with four solo exhibitions and several group ones coming in the following year. Tirelessly, Frink continued to accept commissions and sculpt, as well as serve on advisory committees, meet with art students who had expressed an interest in her work, and pursue other public commitments. Frink kept up this hectic pace of sculpting and exhibiting until early 1991, when an operation for cancer of the esophagus caused an enforced break. However, short weeks later Frink was again creating sculptures and preparing for solo exhibitions. In September, she underwent a second surgery. Again, Frink did not let this hold her back, proceeding with a planned trip for exhibitions to New Orleans, Louisiana, and New York City. The exhibitions were a success, but Frink's health was clearly deteriorating. Despite this, she was working on a colossal statue, Risen Christ, for Liverpool Cathedral. This sculpture would prove to be her last; just one week after its installation, Frink died from cancer on 18 April 1993, aged 62. Her husband had predeceased her by only a few months.

Stephen Gardiner, Frink's official biographer, argued that this final sculpture was appropriate: "This awesome work, beautiful, clear and commanding, a vivid mirror-image of the artist's mind and spirit, created against fearful odds, was a perfect memorial for a remarkable great individual."

Walking Madonna by Elisabeth Frink in Chatsworth House, Derbyshire

Warhorse and Walking Madonna may be seen in the garden at Chatsworth House. Other work is at the Jerwood Sculpture Park at Ragley Hall. Uniquely in England, Desert Quartet (1990), Frink's penultimate sculpture, was given Grade II* listing in 2007, less than 30 years from its creation by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.[1] It may be seen opposite Liverpool Gardens in Worthing.

The Frink School of Figurative Sculpture 1996-2005

Before Elisabeth Frink died in 1993, she had given master classes at the Sir Henry Doulton School of Sculpture then headed by sculptor Colin Melborne ARA in Stoke on Trent, England. Rosemary Barnett took over as principal of the Sir Henry Doulton School of Sculpture, Stoke-on-Trent, briefly before its closure. In 1990 she met Harry Everington there and their shared artistic outlook brought about the Frink School of Figurative Sculpture which opened in 1996 in Longton and closed in 2005 at Tunstall.

Permission from the Frink Estate was given to name a new school after her, because it was to continue the tradition which she represented. The Frink School of Figurative Sculpture opened in 1996, with an emphasis on sculptural form; it attempted to give some balance to the declining figurative training and increased conceptualism in sculpture schools in the UK.

Three Heads and the Figurative Tradition

A reproduction of the article by Simon Erland, sculptor, b. 1961

“Sculpture is a separate thing; it does not require a wall like a picture. It does not even need a roof. It is an object that exists for itself – alone, and it is well to give it entirely the character of a complete thing about which one could walk, and which one could look at from all sides. Yet it had to distinguish itself somehow from other objects, the ordinary things that anyone could touch, handle or use. It has to become unimpeachable, sacrosanct, separated from chance and time through which it rises, isolated and miraculous, like the face of a seer. It has to be given its own certain place, where no arbitrary decision placed it, and it must be intercalated in the silent continuance of space and it’s great laws. It had to be placed into the space that surrounded it, as into a niche; it’s certainty, steadiness and gravity does not spring from it’s significance alone but from it’s harmonious adjustment to it’s environment”.So wrote Rilke in his monograph on Rodin 1903.

In the 1950’s, despite the advent and influence of abstraction within the direct carving school from the 20’s, English sculpture was still preoccupied with the figure. The post-war movement of expressionist sculpture, which represented Great Britain at the 1952 Venice Biennale, that included the work of Ken Armitage, Reg Butler, Lynn Chadwick, Edwardo Paolozzi, and Lis Frink was described by Herbert Read as “the most vital, the most brilliant and the most promising of the whole Biennale” and Read christened the forms as the “Geometry of fear school”. Many commentators have seen in the rugged, brutal and often contorted surfaces, evidence of a post war mood that reflected the destruction, terror and brutalisation of nearly six years of conflict. Lis herself spent the early part of the war in Suffolk and witnessed the air war, aircraft damaged and returning on fire, the tangled remains of aircraft crashed into the otherwise peaceful English countryside. Much has been written about a post-war feeling of distortion, distress, and of the sculptural forms at this time taking this morbid neurosis as a cue for the broken surfaces and violently contorted forms, which seemed to reflect the harrowing and immediate experience of the war.

Lis came to Chelsea Art School with my mother, both had been taught by an Austrian refugee from Anschluss, Willie Soukop at Guilford School of fine Art, and moved at Willi’s behest to Chelsea when he was offered a teaching job there in the sculpture studios. My mother remembers the briefest of interviews with the then head of the school, a man called “Williamson” who expressed some reservations about Lis’s work, but nonetheless Lis took her place alongside my mother at Willi’s insistence largely on the strength of her drawing. The emphasis of the schools teaching then lay in the modelling studios, which involved modelling in clay from life, the standard of which was very high amongst the students, which included Robert Clatworthy and my mother’s future husband - my father. All that is except Lis whose early efforts in clay got very oversized and out of control very quickly and resulted in her dissolving into fits of hysterics. Willi who included in his practice every attitude and manner of sculptural method - something he considered essential in a teacher, took Lis out of the life studio and into the adjoining casting room, a room full of white plaster and the apparatus of mould making. There he showed her a technique to construct wooden armatures, how to build form by adding plaster and then how to refine and accentuate the form with files and rifflers.

She made a bird, the Tate bird, and in so doing made her first effective piece, and found a methodology with which she could completely identify.

Rilke’s admiration of Rodin stems in his achievement, the originality of which lies in his handling of clay – clay handled and manipulated, felt for itself, as material, signalling the beginning of the release of structure and form from subject, the articulated volume of space, removed and independent of the accepted illusion of dead carved traditional exterior. With Rodin clay is presented for what it is; soft, endlessly yielding, structureless, yet potent. He achieves a sense of the external event with internal force, clay is felt as substance not at the surface but through it, the substance and vitality of form arrives at the articulated surface, vibrant and new. Yet however accentuated, however abstracted the surface remains plastic, complete, an entity. The affirmation of the immediacy of modelled form, the complete identity with this tactile language is the essence of Rodin’s achievement, his is not the art of ideas, his titles are often interchangeable or afterthoughts, his art is the absolute affirmation of form as language, syntax as idea, clothed in the image of the human form but without undue reverence, it is merely vehicle for his tactile expression.

Lis Frinks’ achievement was similar but felt utterly different. The somewhat remote, less intimate construction of form - wet plaster applied over a constructed wooden armature, roughly hewn back with tearing abrasive tools gave a grieving surface, ungenerous, loose, but however brittle it remains a surface, independent of it’s interior. This method, its speed and immediacy - almost another language to the sensuality of directly handled clay, found a willing exponent in the young Lis. She found in the hardened shapes of the set plaster a form that was willing to accept, continual and profound adjustments of the major forms without the loss of the sense of “arrival” at the surface, essential to Rodin’s method of continuous addition. Here was sculptural shorthand, ready and immediate, articulate and new, and suddenly invested with contemporary meaning by the critics. Lis Frink had arrived! And arrived with a method to refresh the post Brancusi and somewhat lost figurative currency.

Three portrait heads in this exhibition perhaps more clearly than ever demonstrate Lis’s journey with her work. Her portrait of Arthur Collings is one of her first completed works, fashioned in the now familiar medium of applied plaster, vigorously cut back with metal. It exhibits an effort to reconcile an attempt at an established and conventional handling of form, with her new method of repeated application and reduction. The result is nervous, the forms lack the vigour of her first guided efforts with the bird yet lack the satisfaction of the ripe full volumes that were Rodin’s bequest to students of form. Yet the portrait remains powerful, redolent with the character and feeling of someone Lis had a profound feeling for, who she understood and knew as only real intimacy can give.

Her portrait of Sir Alec Guinness was made 31 years later, Lis was at her peak and her work exhibits the confidence not only of her success, but also in the absolute certainty of her method. Her practice of construction has been honed and matured in the process of making a body of work to the point that in this piece, unlike so many of her pieces where the technique of construction so dominates the character of the work, whether it be a “Running Man”, a “Horse or a “Tribute Head” she is at this point able to step back, work in her familiar way and yet let the character of the subject dominate the method. The work is clearly Lis’s, she even manages to stamp some of the character of her own features in the image as she does in all her male heads, yet the features remain absolutely those of the man, strong, slightly enigmatic, wry, in command, Sir Alec Guinness. Subject dominates method, never object. Character from beyond and outside the artist, felt with sensitivity, drawn in, and made permanent in the features of this head, strong, personal as form, but utterly of the women.

If Lis’s portrait of Sir Alec is one of the most successful of the 20th century, ranking alongside those of Manzu’s John Houston and Marino Marini’s Henry Moore, her portrait of her grandson Tully is fascinating. This was her last work, the very last thing Lis touched before she so tragically succumbed to her illness. Like Sir Alec’s head she reaches out to her subject to reveal the tender soft young forms and bright open countenance of a happy child, yet for the first time since those first faltering efforts at Chelsea she chooses to work in clay. She remains true to her method, using tools to pull, tear, draw into, even a piece of wood to batter the forms, but she achieves the remarkable, the same quality of surface redolent with an inner life that is felt through the form to arrive at the surface, that Rodin would acknowledge. Such is the mastery of her method that it’s handling remains personal, and yet gives over entirely to the youthful character of subject, in a medium she long ago abandoned as irreconcilable to her sensibility. Lis has come full circle, supremely sensitive not only to her subject, but complete in her mastery of her language. Three heads, that tell of a life’s’ work and the end of a journey in search of the ability to be articulate in her language, expressive form.

-Simon Erland 2006

(Courtesy Mumford Fine Art)


Biography and Sources

Stephen Gardiner, ELISABETH FRINK: The Official Biography. Harper Collins Publishers. ISBN 0-00-255606-5.

ELISABETH FRINK: CATALOGUE RAISONNÉ. Sculpture to 1984. Foreword by Peter Shaffer. Introduction and Dialogue by Bryan Robertson. Published by Harpvale Books. ISBN 0-946425-05-1.

Edward Lucie-Smith. ELISABETH FRINK: CATALOGUE RAISONNÉ. Sculpture since 1984 & Drawings. Published by Art Books International. ISBN 1-874044-04-X.

Caroline Wiseman. ELISABETH FRINK: original prints catalogue raisonné. Published by Art Books International. ISBN 1-874044-25-2.

ART IS WHY I GET UP IN THE MORNING: Unseen and Rare Pieces by Elisabeth and work by four contemporary British artists who continue today in the figurative expressionist tradition. Published by Mumford Fine Art.

Cultural Reference


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