Dame Elizabeth Frink CH DBE RA (1930-1993)
Elisabeth Frink was born in 1930 in Thurlow, Suffolk, the daughter of Ralph, an officer in the 7th Dragoon Guards and of the renowned Indian Army cavalry regiment, Skinner’s Horse. From a very early age, Elisabeth developed a love and fascination with the outdoors. She was competent in riding and shooting and adored dogs – all of which were, at the time, considered male activities and attributes. It could be said that this fascination with masculinity would become a dominant feature of her art.
There are suggestions that war, which broke out shortly before her ninth birthday, provided an important context for her life and career. Growing up near a military airfield in Suffolk, she would have heard bombers’ returning from their internecine missions and on one occasion was forced to hide under a hedge to avoid the machine gun attack of a German fighter plane. Her early drawings, from the period, before she attended arts school in London, have a powerful apocalyptic flavour: themes include wounded birds and falling men.
Having begun her education at a convent in Exmouth, Frink studied at Guildford and Chelsea schools of art between 1947 and 1953, where Bernard Meadows and Willi Soukop were her tutors. She herself went on to teach at Chelsea (1953-60) and St Martin’s School of Art (1955-7).
Frink was part of a postwar 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 men, birds, dogs, horses and religious motifs, but very seldom any female forms.
Frink achieved commercial success at a young age when, in 1952, Beaux Arts Gallery in London held her first major solo exhibition and the Tate Gallery purchased one work entitled ‘Bird’. This marked the beginning of a highly acclaimed career in which Frink earned a reputation as one of Britain’s most important post-war sculptors.
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.).
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. 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 7-foot-tall (2.1 m) male nude; and the other, a grouping entitled Dorset Martyrs to be placed in Dorchester, Dorset.
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 oesophagus 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, in Blandford Forum, Dorset. 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.”
She was awarded Honorary Doctorates by the University of Surrey (1977), Open University (1983), University of Warwick (1983), University of Cambridge (1988), University of Exeter (1988), University of Oxford (1989) and University of Keele (1989). In 1977 Frink was elected a member of the Royal Academy. Her achievements also earned her a CBE (1969) and in 1982 she was created a Dame of the British Empire.