Andrew Lambirth

Sculpture of the imagination

Though famous for his sculpture, Clarke also worked in enamel, ceramics, living moss, polystyrene and embroidery

At the height of his fame in the mid-1960s, the sculptor Geoffrey Clarke (1924–2014) was buying fast cars and flying to architects’ meetings by helicopter. Within a decade the commissions for public sculptures had dwindled, and the rest of his career was something of an anticlimax. Yet he remained largely undaunted and was exceptionally prolific, making some 900 sculptures and more than 200 etchings, as well as 3,500 monotypes.

He first came to public attention in 1952, as one of the artists representing Britain at the Venice Biennale. He was a ‘Geometry of Fear’ sculptor, along with Kenneth Armitage and Lynn Chadwick, and his work at this point was like sophisticated ironmongery, full of grilles and probes, spears and sickles, though Clarke’s formal control invested the work with far deeper symbolic meaning. A man might be an upright cluster of metal rods with a tiny sphere for a head — more like a dockyard crane than anything human — but the sculpture has a spiritual presence and energy that makes it lastingly memorable.

Clarke is perhaps most closely associated with the metal he subsequently adopted, aluminium, which he cast in slabs and troughs and boxy extrusions. The succession of troughs and flats in a typical sculpture may be taken as a metaphor of the human condition, but in Clarke’s work there are plenty of high points of exaltation as well. He worked on a number of major commissions, including sculpture and glass for churches.

Until recently, there has been very little written on him, apart from exhibition catalogues and a slim monograph by Peter Black, published in 1994, which was really the catalogue for a touring show. Then in 2012 Judith LeGrove produced her superb book Geoffrey Clarke: A Sculptor’s Prints, which listed all his etchings and lithographs and discussed his approach to printmaking in perceptive detail.

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