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Designing Britain 1945 - 1975 > Art for Social Spaces > Themes > Language


This section asks you to think about the ‘language’ of sculpture more generally in the period, regardless of the public sphere. What kind of sculptural vocabulary, grammar and syntax were artists using? What form did sculpture take? What materials and techniques were being used? What interpretations and readings were brought to sculpture at the time and since?

It is not intended to be a survey of developments between 1945 to 1975. Instead, it directs you to think about a selection of specific issues and developments affecting sculptural practice more widely just after the war. As with other sections in ASS, it offers starting points – you will need to consult suggested texts for further reading.
The new British sculptors who have appeared since 1947 were born, almost without exception, between 1913 and 1924. The first to exhibit were Robert Adams and Eduardo Paolozzi, followed by William Turnbull, Reg Butler and Lynn Chadwick. More recently, Kenneth Armitage, Geoffrey Clarke, Sarah Jackson, Rosemary Young and others have attracted attention with styles in varying stages of experiment and maturity. To judge from the large number of students in the schools, sometimes taught by these sculptors, more may be expected in the near future.

L. Alloway, ‘Britain’s New Iron Age’, in Artnews, Summer 1953, Vol. 52, pp. 19-20, 68-70.
'Mobile' by Lynn Chadwick ASS00500 'Mobile' by Lynn Chadwick

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‘Forms on a Bow No 2’ by Eduardo Paolozzi ASS00498 ‘Forms on a Bow No 2’ by Eduardo Paolozzi

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Search the Image Archive for more work by these and other artists named by Alloway.

Alloway’s article in Art News, reviewing the highly acclaimed exhibition of British sculpture held at Venice Biennale in 1952, identified a new generation of post-war sculptors. Their use of new materials, forms and techniques attracted international attention. For Alloway, Reg Butler was characteristic of the ‘new generation’ – carving in stone or wood was rejected in favour of welded metal and work in plaster and wax, monumentality and solidity was replaced by linearity and drawing-like qualities.
Linear sculpture takes possession of space with the gestures made possible by light and sinewy materials. The sculptor’s ability to enclose space without filling it, by means of a kind of three-dimensional drawing, has been extended by the metals technology made available.
Alloway, ibid., p. 20.
The eight young sculptors who showed at Venice in 1952 - Eduardo Paolozzi, Kenneth Armitage, Lynn Chadwick, Geoffrey Clarke, Bernard Meadows, Reg Butler, William Turnbull and Robert Adams – were by no means a homogeneous group. Some worked in new metals with innovative techniques whilst others - such as Armitage, Adams and Meadows – worked with wood or produced bronzes.

Look at work by these artists in the Image Archive. Consult directories of sculpture, survey publications and exhibition catalogues listed including Collischan’s Welded Sculpture of the Twentieth Century, for a historical account of the use of metal in sculpture.

How far can continuity of practice and tradition be identified in the new work as well as innovation?

The obstinate romantic conception of external nature as the proper place for the artist to meet inspiration halfway shows in their work. To justify the openness of form in their sculpture, artists have turned to non-human sources : insects, with their extensive legs, antennae, wings and long, thin bodies being particularly convenient.
Alloway, ibid., p.
‘Startled Bird’ by Bernard Meadows ASS00499 ‘Startled Bird’ by Bernard Meadows

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‘The Gladiators’ by Leslie Thornton ASS00501 ‘The Gladiators’ by Leslie Thornton

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In his essay, Alloway identifies animal and insect imagery as a common theme in British sculpture. Attenuated, wiry and spiky forms featured in the work of other sculptors such as John Hoskin and Leslie Thornton.

Look up work by other sculptors in the period. Was such imagery exclusive to British sculpture?

Other themes and symbols recurred in the work of sculptors in the early post-war period – ‘flight’ was a particular preoccupation for Lynn Chadwick, Kenneth Armitage and Elisabeth Frink.

The human figure was a persistent feature of sculpture too.

See Image Archive – Conway, Brown, Clarke, Caro, Vogel and Dalwood.

How do these sculptors employ the human figure? If anything, what might the human figure represent, symbolise or signify? What readings can you bring to these works?

In the catalogue for an exhibition entitled, Looking at People, staged in Manchester in 1955 and London and Moscow in 1957, John Berger wrote,
These artists in defiance of artistic fashion, apathy, gentility, gloom, clever cynicism and the imaginatively blind, are interested in the people.
John Berger, Looking at People, (ex cat), 1955
Here and in his regular articles for the New Statesman, Berger urged support for a group of artists – including Betty Rea, George Fullard and Ralph Brown. These artists were continuing to work with the human figure – in what he called a ‘social realist’ style.

What does ‘social realism’ imply in terms of politics and aesthetics?

Here are images of flight, of ragged claws ‘scuttling across the floors
of silent seas’, of excoriated flesh, frustrated sex, the geometry of fear.
H. Read, ‘New Aspects of British Sculpture’, XXVI Venice Biennale, 1952
Herbert Read’s comments in the exhibition catalogue that accompanied the Venice Biennale in 1952 have come to define the canonical mainstream of modernist sculpture for the period. Read selected sculpture for showing inside the British pavilion – Moore’s Two Standing Figures of 1950 was sited outside the pavilion. Read’s comments and the siting of the works set up the younger sculptors as the inheritors of Moore’s legacy and as his successors in terms of modernism.

Read’s phrase ‘ the geometry of fear’ was taken up and equated with the work of these artists. He described the work as ‘close to the nerves, nervous, wiry’, referring to ‘iron waifs’, ‘blind encrusted larvae’ and ‘petrified twigs’.

What does Read’s language suggest?

In the essay, Read re-iterates his view that the sculptures were transmitting the collective consciousness of a society disabled by fear, guilt and anxiety.
These new images belong to the iconography of despair, or of defiance; and the more innocent the artist, the more effectively he transmits the collective guilt.
Read, ibid.
Read was an early pioneer of the ideas of Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961). For a full discussion see D. Thistlewood, Herbert Read, Formlessness and Form, An Introduction to his Aesthetics, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, Boston, Melbourne & Henley, 1984).

Read’s essay linked British sculpture to social undercurrents of ‘anxiety’ and existentialist ideas. For a fuller discussion, see D. Mellor, ‘Existentialism and Post-War British Art’, in F. Morris, Paris Post-War – Art and Existentialism 1945-1955, Tate Gallery, London, 1993.

In relation to sculpture at Venice, Read refers to ‘geometry’, implying an abstract element. The figuration v abstraction debate was pertinent to work produced in the period. The controversy surrounding Butler’s prize-winning entry for the International Sculpture Competition for the Unknown Political Prisoner in 1953, demonstrates the inter-relationship of politics, ideology and aesthetics. See essay by Lapp in Texts (below).

Questions for discussion

How might the debate about abstraction and realism affect the production and reception of public work?

Do you think the development of new techniques, forms and materials has any significance for public work?


L. Alloway, ‘Britain’s New Iron Age’, Artnews, Summer 1953, Vol. 52, pp. 19-20, 68-70.

R. Burstow, ‘Did the 1950s see a Renaissance of British Sculpture?’, Art and Artists, June 1984, No. 213, pp. 12-14.

Andrew Causey, Sculpture Since 1945, Oxford, 1998

J. Collischan, Welded Sculpture of the Twentieth Century, Lund Humphries, London, 2000

Penelope Curtis, Modern British Sculpture, Tate Gallery Liverpool, 1988

S. Duncan, ‘Tension and Vitality – Figurative Sculpture of the Fifties’, Artscribe, June 1982, No. 35.

M. Garlake, New Art New World – British Art in Post-War Society, Yale University Press, New Haven, U.S.A.,1998

A. Lapp,‘The Freedom of Sculpture – The Sculpture of Freedom : The International Sculpture Competition for a Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner, London 1951-3’, The Sculpture Journal, 1998, Vol. II, pp. 113-122.

D. Mellor, ‘Existentialism and Post-War British Art’, in Morris, F., (ed.), Paris Post-War – Art and Existentialism 1945-1955, Tate Gallery, London, 1993

Sandy Nairne and Nicholas Serota, (eds.), British Sculpture in the Twentieth Century, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London,1981.

H. Read, ‘New Aspects of British Sculpture’, The XXVI Venice Biennale, British Pavilion, British Council, Westminster Press, London, 1952

H. Read, The Art of Sculpture, Faber & Faber, London,1956

H. Read, Modern Sculpture, [first published as A Concise History of Modern Sculpture, 1964], Thames and Hudson, London,1994

C. S. Spencer, ‘The Phenomenon of British Sculpture’, Studio International, March 1965, Vol. 169, No. 863.

D. Thistlewood, Herbert Read, Formlessness and Form – An Introduction to his Aesthetics, .Routledge and Kegan Paul, London / Henley / Melbourne (Australia) / Boston (U.S.A,), 1984

D. Thistlewood, and B. Read, (eds.), Herbert Read – A British Vision of World Art, Leeds City Art Galleries/The Henry Moore Foundation/Lund Humphries, Leeds / London, 1993


This section has focused on developments in sculpture in the early post-war years. Other techniques, many borrowed from industry, and new materials such as fibreglass and plastics dominated later practice. The later 1960s witnessed a dissolution of form as artforms embraced a multitude of media. See Texts (above) for further reading. These issues will be raised in relation to specific case studies.
You should now work through Spaces – the final Theme section.