Kenneth Armitage

60 Years of Sculpture & Drawing
Biography Gallery of Works

ollowing the acclaimed exhibitions of Ivon Hitchens (1893-1979) and Roger Hilton (1911-75), Jonathan Clark presents a similar survey of the work of Kenneth Armitage CBE, Hon. R.A.

Armitage is an equally historical figure but at 84 remains as productive as ever; in fact he is making the largest sculptures of his life, as those who saw his five metre-high Both Arms at last year's millennial sculpture exhibition in Holland Park will know.

The international recognition of modern British sculptors from Henry Moore to Antony Gormley, who has cited Armitage as a key influence, is one of the great success story of modern British art. Never before has the reputation of British sculpture stood higher in the estimation of the world. Kenneth Armitage has played a vital part in this achievement, a key link between the monumental figuration of Moore and painted abstraction of Anthony Caro.

This solo show, his first in Britain since the 80th birthday tribute at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, also recognises that he is one of the finest figurative draughtsman of his abundantly talented generation - almost the last to benefit from being taught to draw as a statuary discipline of art training.

Armitage first trained as a painter and he has always made drawings as artifacts in their own right as well as preparatory sketches for sculptures. The selection emphasises this constant and fascinating relationship; revealing his abiding delight in the human figure, from a 1940s terracotta of a seated girl to a model for his latest monumental bronze, People Walking.

I have been a friend of Kenneth Armitage's for 30 years. When we first met, through my late brother, the painter Rory McEwen, he was as big a star of the London art scene as Damien Hirst today. But by the mid-1960s, a decade he enjoyed for its optimism and youthful liberation, the fashion for Pop Art inevitably eclipsed his dominant position in England.

Figuration, bronze, even the notion of "fine art" was momentarily despised. Kenneth was undisturbed. Figurative art had inspired man for 15,000 years and no metal was so versatile, appealing and, with the exception of gold, enduring as bronze. The ripples of his reputation had long ensured that somewhere his work would always inspire new champions. So he was delighted to accept an invitation in 1968 from the German Academic Exchange to work for two years in Berlin.

In his absence he generously allowed me to live in his wonderful hundred-year-old studio-house in Hammersmith on a peppercorn rent and it was then that we became friends. Nineteen sixty-eight was a revolutionary year. London was infected by the virus of revolt but it was nothing to events abroad at this most confrontational and contradictory period of the Cold War. The Prague Spring of democracy was followed by Russia's communist suppression while even London schoolchildren chanted "Ho! Ho! Ho Chi Minh!" in support of the communist leader of the North in the war with the capitalist West in Vietnam.

Kenneth's occasional flying visits showed a gleeful pleasure in a no-holds-barred English breakfast matched by an enthusiasm for the passionate protest songs of the East German singer Wolf Biermann, who made John Lennon seem like weak tea. From that period came the giant and fisted Arm, like a great punch for freedom. It could not have been more appropriate to the time. The fisted salute of black protest by the two American 100-metre medal winners at the Mexico Olympics was the symbolic gesture of the year. "Johnson's resigned!" Roared Kenneth up the stairs early one morning to an exhilarating camp-fire smell of frying bacon. Anything seemed possible.

Kenneth's intense interest in current affairs and ideas is matched by an equally deep empathy with the past. On his trips home from the political cutting edge of Berlin, he would find solace taking early morning walks in Richmond Park, a still-point in the turbulent and turning world. He had always venerated this piece of wild country in the depths of London but it was only when he returned from Germany that the old Richmond oaks became the subject of his art.

He had learned this love of nature and reverence for the immutable on childhood holidays to his Uncle Willie at Lackan House in County Longford. Richmond led to a re-discovery of Ireland, and in particular the flat rock waste of the Burren in County Clare. a landscape as strange and solitary as the moon's.

Kenneth has an Irish relish for words, and it was the name Dagda, a Celtic deity, which caused him to make The Dagda, worked on between 1992 and 1996. Its genesis is found in one of his Burren drawings given in 1980 as a Christmas card to his wife Joan. Joan died in 1996 after a long spell in hospital and this celebration of an embrace is the product of that sad time.

Kenneth's knowledge of the past was fostered by his discovery of the British Museum, what he calls a "museum of life", when he first came to London from Leeds to complete his art training at the nearby Slade; and he has haunted it ever since: "You cannot imagine the exhilaration of seeing Egyptian and Cycladic work! After all the classical decadence of 19th century sculpture, the drapery and fiddling with form, it came like a great gust of fresh air - pure, direct and simple. The difficult thing about figurative art is to make it simple".

On his regular pilgrimages to the Museum he strolled through the great sculpture halls of Egyptian and Cycladic art as a matter of course, but invariable he would also visit "a tiny room on a mezzanine floor containing a handful of Stone Age artifacts, items of pre-history".

For Kenneth prehistory is a touchstone. The most inspiring artistic experience of his life was seeing the cave paintings at Lascaux not long after the war; the most fascinating, the ten days in the late 1950s he spent in the primeval rainforests of Venezuela with a tribe of Stone Age Indians; the most awesome, his entry one day in the 1980s into the inner chamber of the megalithic passage grave called Newgrange in County Meath, older than all those other monuments which have so stirred his imagination through the years: Avebury, Stonehenge, Carnac, the very Pyramids themselves.

He has travelled widely and seen much, always to artistic benefit and as intrepidly in the 1980s and 1990s as in previous decades, most recently to Russia. In particular he fulfilled a lifelong ambition to visit the Middle East and Egypt-Petra, Babylon, Samarra and Abu Simbel, where the colossal seated figures of Rameses II and his queen were 'probably the most spectacular sculptures' he reckons he has ever set eyes on.

Now he himself has accepted the challenge of the monumental, fired by the enthusiasm and encouragement of Dick Budden, who specialises in enlargement. It is a collaboration similar in warmth and mutual trust to the one Kenneth has enjoyed for so many years with Hermann Noack and the Noack foundry in Berlin. This exhibition coincides with the unveiling of the first of these colossal pieces, Both Arms, as a permanent monument in the new Millennium Square in Leeds, the city of his birth; and includes a maquette for the most recent 14 ft high People Walking.

It is typical that the subject of People Walking are the legs of women in their youthful prime, patinated in a joyful medley of colours. He has made solemn and, in the case of the Legend of Skadar - the dreadful story of a mother built into a fortress wall to placate the spirits - even grim pieces; but joy, the counterpart of simplicity, will out.

It is for its gusto that he so admires the poetry of Chaucer, especially the story of The Reve, where youth triumphs over age, the ripeness of the tale matched by the richness of the language:

"This wenche thikke and wel ygrowen was,
With kamus nose and eyen greye as glas
With buttokes brode and brestes round and hye,
But right fair was hire heer, I wol nat lye."

Kenneth's high-spirited girls always tend to have 'buttocks brode and brestes round and hye' and flaunt them as carelessly and unself-consciously as the noble savages he met in the primeval rainforest.

In that secret corner of the British Museum devoted to the Stone Age his favourite piece is an engraved fragment of deer antler. It is estimated to be 12,000 years old and yet remains as 'direct and fresh' as the day it was chiselled. It gives him a thrill 'shaking hands, so to speak' with this unknown artist "in spite of differences of race, language and way of life. It is an example of the role of art, a form of direct communication quite independent of other human activities'.

Kenneth's art, always so direct and fresh, needs no words to be understood; that is its beauty and power.

John McEwen 2001

1916 Born Leeds July 18
1933-7 Leeds College of Art
1937-9 Slade School of Art
1939-46 Served in the Army
1946-56 Head of Sculpture, Bath Academy of Art, Corsham
1953-5 Gregory Fellow in Sculpture, Leeds University
1956 First Prize, International War Memorial Competition, Krefeld, West Germany
1958 David E. Bright Foundation Award, Venice Biennale
1964 Visiting Professor, University of Caracas, Venezuala
1967-9 Berlin ArtistsÕ Programme Fellowship, West Germany
1969 Awarded CBE
1970 Visiting Professor, Boston University, Massachusetts
1974-9 Visiting Tutor, Royal College of Art, London


1952-7 Gimpel Fils, London
1954-6 Bertha Schaefer Gallery, New York
1958 Paul Rosenberg & Co, New York, Venice Biennale toured in 1958-9 by British Council to Muse National d'Art Moderne, Paris, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, Kunsthaus, ZŸrich & Boymans Museum, Rotterdam
1959 Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, retrospective
1960 Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hanover
1962 Paul Rosenberg & Co, New York, Marlborough Fine Art, London, Galerija Suvremene Umjetnosti, Zagreb
1963 Galerie Charles Lienhard, Zurich, Galerie Wilhelm Grosshennig, Dusseldorf, Galeria Blu, Milan
1965 Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol, Marlborough Fine Art, London
1972 Arts Council, touring exhibition
1974 Drawings, Hester van Royen Gallery, London, Gallery Kasahara, Osaka & Tokyo
1975 New Art Centre, London
1978 Fuji Television Gallery, Tokyo. Galerie HumanitŽ, Nagoya, Gallery Kasahara, Osaka
1980 Gimpel Fils, London
1981 Stoke-on-Trent City Museum & Art Gallery
1982 Sala Mendoza, Caracas, Taranman, London
1985 Artcurial, Paris, retrospective
1996-7 Kenneth Armitage: 80th Birthday Survey, Yorkshire Sculpture Park
1996 Works on Paper, Royal Academy of Arts, London
1997 Works on Paper, Victoria City Art Gallery, Bath
2000 Werkstattgalerie Hermann Noack, Berlin


1952 ICA, London
1952 Venice Biennale (with Adams, Butler, Chadwick, Clarke, Meadows, Paolozzi, Turnbull)
1953 2nd Open Air Sculpture Exhibition, Middelheim Sculpture Park, Antwerp
1954 Documenta I, Kassel, Germany
1955 The New Decade, Museum of Modern Art, New York
1957 S‹o Paulo Bienal, Brazil
1958 5th International Drawing and Engraving Exhibition, Lugano
1959 New Images of Man, Museum of Modern Art, New York, Documenta II, Kassel, Germany
1960 International Sculpture Exhibition, di Tella Institute, Buenos Aires
1962 British Sculpture Today, San Francisco Museum of Art
1964 Contemporary British Painting and Sculpture, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, Documenta III, Kassel, Germany, 54-64: Painting and Sculpture of a Decade, Tate Gallery, London
1965 British Sculpture in the Sixties, Tate Gallery, London
1966 Sculpture in the Open Air, Battersea Park, London
1967 International Sculpture Exhibition, Guggenheim Museum, New York
1972 British Sculptors Õ72, Royal Academy of Arts, London
1981 British Sculpture in the Twentieth Century, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London
1988 World Expo 88, Brisbane, Australia Seoul Olympiad of Art, Korea
1993 Chelsea Harbour Sculpture Exhibition, London
1995/6 Summer Exhibition, Royal Academy, London
1995/6 New Art Centre Sculpture Garden, Salisbury



Ulster Museum, Belfast
City Museum & Art Gallery, Bristol
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Ferens Art Gallery, Hull
City Art Gallery, Leeds
London: Arts Council of Great Britain
British Council
Government Art Collection
Royal Academy of Arts
Tate Gallery
Victoria & Albert Museum
Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester
Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne
University of Nottingham


Austria: Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts, Vienna
Australia: City Hall, Brisbane
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Belgium: Middelheim Sculpture Park, Antwerp
MusŽe Royale des Beaux-Arts, Brussels
France: Chate‰u Mouton Rothschild, Bordeaux
MusŽe Nationale dÕArt Moderne, Paris
Finland: National Gallery, Helsinki
Germany: Berlin Opera House
Nationalgalerie, Berlin
Kunstmuseum Duisburg
Kunsthalle, Hamburg
Sammlung Spengel, Hanover
StŠdtische Galerie, Hanover
Von-der-Heydt Museum, Wuppertal
Israel: Billy Rose Sculpture Garden, Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Italy: Municipal Museum of Modern Arts, Carrara
Galleria Nazionale dÕArte Moderna, Rome
Museo Civico, Turin
Peggy Guggenheim Museum, Venice
Japan: Hakone Open Air Sculpture Museum
Museum of Modern Art, Hyogo
National Museum of Art, Osaka
Civic Commission, Yokohama
Korea: Seoul Olympic National Park
Mexico: Museo Rufino Tamayo, Mexico City
Netherlands: Rijksmuseum Kršller-MŸller, Otterlo
Sweden: Konstmuseet, Gothenburg
Arkiv for Decorativ Kunst, Lund University
Switzerland: Villa Ciani, Lugano
U.S.A.: University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Wichita State University, Kansas
University of Nebraska, Lincoln
Des Moines Institute of Fine Arts, Iowa
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York
Brooklyn Museum, New York
Museum of Modern Art, New York
Museum of Modern Art, Philadelphia
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC
Venezuela: City Metro, Caracas
Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas