Highly controversial from the moment of its first public unveiling, Kenneth Armitage’s People in a wind, 1950, represents the post-war shift away from two aspects that had dominated the vision of the previous generation of sculptors under the influence of Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, namely, direct carvingAn approach to producing carved sculpture in which the process and intrinsic characteristics of the material suggest the final form, instead of working from a preliminary model. In Britain the tradition was established by avant-garde sculptors, including Eric Gill, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, in the first part of the twentieth century. and the monumentality of the single figure.
Armitage trained at the Slade School of Fine Art, London, where he had worked principally as a direct carver. Following his demobilisation from the army as a designer of aircraft and tanks in 1946, he accepted a teaching post at the Bath School of Art, Corsham Court, Wiltshire, where the painter William Scott was also teaching. There his working methods underwent a profound shift towards construction and modelling. In later reflections upon his army experiences, he observed that ‘those years had a tremendous effect upon me, because I had been looking at shapes of aircraft and tanks all that time, every day, every week, every month. There was a constant awareness of shape, particularly of aircraft, and these shapes of aircraft came into my work when I started making sculpture at Corsham, no one knew where it had come from; even I didn’t realise until later’.1Tamsyn Woollcombe, Kenneth Armitage. Life and Work, Henry Moore Foundation with Lund Humphries, London, 1997, pp. 25–6. A transition to modelling – essentially a more investigative procedure than direct carving – enabled Armitage to explore the tensions between constructed forms and their materials.
Working from a rented cottage in self-imposed isolation in Corsham, Armitage began to create a series of linked-figure sculptures modelled from wire, mesh and plaster, from which People in a wind, his most important work, later emerged. His first effort, Linked figure, 1949, used mesh and plaster ‘sheets’ wrapped around tilted rods. In the months that followed, he reworked this idea into a more elongated, four-figure linked ensemble.
Armitage has told two different stories of how People in a wind was conceived in an experimental flurry during 1950 and 1951. One is that it was inspired by the long stalks of a plant growing at the door of his studio, an explanation that seems to account for the form’s primary impulse towards abstract naturalism.2ibid. p. 26. A variant anecdote suggests that at an early stage the sculpture became anthropomorphic for Armitage:
One day in London, looking out of the window on a very windy day I saw a woman walking, holding two children, all three leaning against the wind, and this gave me an idea: I started making tiny maquettes with, I think, three figures with long necks and they had a little bunch of arms in the front, extended forwards with hands.3ibid.
In addition to numerous maquettes of the work, Armitage produced one cast edition of six and two larger scaled editions, which incorporated variations in the placement of the arms.
When Armitage presented a plaster maquette of People in a wind to the selection committee of the 1952 Venice Biennale, one selector, British art curator Philip Hendy, acquired it on the spot. In April 1952 Armitage submitted the finished bronze work to the Young Sculptors Exhibition at the British Council in London (a preview show for Venice Biennale exhibitors). In reviewing it for a London paper, Hendy praised its sense of structure and humanity:
The groups of people which have now emerged from his studio to battle against the wind have a strange and original dramatic charm. Their humanity and their struggle with nature are unmistakeable; though each group is conceived as an almost abstract mass, tenuous as skins stretched and dried on poles, tense with the balance of strains and stresses. The simplicity of their conception, the directness of their feeling and the broad facets which they offer give them an unusual harmony.4Philip Hendy, Britain Today, no. 192, Apr. 1952, quoted in Jonathan Benington, ‘Kenneth Armitage’s “People in a wind” ’, Burlington Magazine, vol. 142, no. 1165, Apr. 2000, p. 233.
When the bronze later appeared at the Biennale, Armitage gained sudden notoriety, thanks to the influence of the critic Herbert Read, who propelled it, along with fellow exhibits by contemporary British sculptors, into an international conversation about sculpture in the aftermath of the Second World War. In the British Pavilion catalogue Read published an ominous meditation upon Armitage’s work and the ‘new British sculpture’ in Venice. Using terms such as ‘geometry of fear’ and ‘iconography of despair’, Read’s essay interpreted the diverse works of Armitage and his co-exhibitors Robert Adams, Reg Butler, Lynn Chadwick and Bernard Meadows as symptoms of a post-war neurosis. Their type of sculpture, he noted,
is close to the nerves, nervous and wiry. They have found metal, in sheet, strip or wire rather than in mass, their favourite medium … The consistent avoidance of massiveness, of [the] monumental is what distinguished these epigoni from their immediate predecessor, Moore … Armitage is an expressionist: a degothicised Barlach, moving, in his latest work, towards a sardonic commentary on the stretched agony of human relationships, a master of the superficial intricacies of cast bronze.5Herbert Read, XXVI Venice Biennale, British Council, London, 1952, quoted in Benington, p. 234.
Not everyone subscribed to Read’s apocalyptic interpretation. In 1964 Eric Westbrook, then Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, reporting upon the Gallery’s recent acquisition of People in a wind, professed to find the group of leaning figures sheltering together profoundly reassuring. Admiring their essential human dignity, Westbrook was moved to cite English poet John Donne’s sentiment, ‘no man is an island’.6Eric Westbrook, ‘Two additions to the collection of British sculpture’, Annual Bulletin of the National Gallery of Victoria, vol. 6, 1964, p. 21.
Sophie Matthiesson, former Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria
Tamsyn Woollcombe, Kenneth Armitage. Life and Work, Henry Moore Foundation with Lund Humphries, London, 1997, pp. 25–6.
ibid. p. 26.
Philip Hendy, Britain Today, no. 192, April 1952, quoted in Jonathan Benington, ‘Kenneth Armitage’s “People in a wind” ’, Burlington Magazine, vol. 142, no. 1165, Apr. 2000, p. 233.
Herbert Read, XXVI Venice Biennale, British Council, London, 1952, quoted in Benington, p. 234.
Eric Westbrook, ‘Two additions to the collection of British sculpture’, Annual Bulletin of the National Gallery of Victoria, vol. 6, 1964, p. 21.