John Spurling

The Manx factor

Bryan Kneale comes from the Isle of Man and, after winning the Rome Prize from the Royal Academy Schools, was one of the leaders of the British sculptural revolution of the 1950s and 60s. In 1970, against the advice of his friends and fellow-artists, he was the first abstract sculptor to join the Royal Academy. Many others followed, and the RA was saved for a while from its institutional fear of innovators. During the 1980s, Kneale was both head of sculpture at the Royal College of Art and professor of sculpture at the RA. But although this heavy load of teaching and administration left him little time for making sculpture, he did make a great many large coloured drawings of animal, bird and fish skeletons (from the collections of the Natural History Museum), which threw a bridge of naturalism between his earlier abstract sculpture and the work he has been creating full-time again since he retired from the Royal College in 1995. These drawings also, of course, enormously increased his knowledge of the natural world and his repertoire of forms. He is still doing drawings of this kind, on a smaller scale, and there are three, as well as some pencil sketches for sculpture, in this exhibition.

His sculpture is all metalwork and the first impression you get of it is the pleasure he takes in the material itself — brass, copper, steel, aluminium — its colour and consistency, its thickness or thinness, its seeming malleability. However, as he pointed out in an interview in the catalogue for his first major exhibition in 1966 at the Whitechapel Gallery, ‘The stuff itself is cold, heavy and quite vicious to handle; the necessary tools are unbearably noisy and your hair and lungs are full of iron filings.

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