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An artist’s response to Elisabeth Frink

Fiona Robinson


Elizabeth Frink lived and worked in Dorset for many years. In the Spring of 2008 Sherborne House exhibited sculpture, prints and drawings from the archive of work by Frink which was intended to be permanently housed in this Grade 1 listed building. In fact Dorset County Council had just announced that they were going to sell the building, which caused a public outcry and added a poignancy to the exhibition. Sherborne House has now (Autumn 2008) been sold to Redcliffe Homes, but there are still hopes that a deal can be negotiated to convert the ground floor into gallery space, including housing for the Frink Archive. 

In the meantime Sherborne House Arts, with the help of a new major Arts Council England award, is evolving into a peripatetic arts organisation which is putting on its signature Artwork and Discourse exhibitions and seminars at other West Country venues.  It is also developing a pilot scheme for its Inland Sealand Project, which will link Sherborne and Weymouth via a cross-country route marked out by contemporary art and visually stunning interventions.

Fiona Robinson here gives a response to Frink and her work in the context of the 2008 exhibition.



Like many students at art school I had heard the name: Elisabeth Frink. I knew of her obsession with the male nude and was aware of her remarkable early success, but I did not engage with her work because my own interests lay elsewhere. 

Coming fresh to her work now, I realise how much she has to offer to artists whatever their practice or their interests. The opportunity to see Frink’s work at close quarters, to examine it in detail is amazing.  To run your hand across the pitted surfaces of her bronzes makes you suddenly very aware of her, the maker as a presence, as if she is suddenly in the same room. The exhibition, Elisabeth Frink, Works from the Archive at Sherborne House in Dorset covered sculpture from her earliest days of making; two early drawings from life, an unusual practice in her oeuvre, through to a Green Man head made in the nineteen nineties just before she died.

The thing that impressed itself most on me, seeing these sculptures in the flesh for the first time, is the raw immediacy of the treatment.  The viciousness of Bird 1958 (right), its body pulled back like a taught archer’s bow ready to strike, is made more dangerous by the shiny patina of the bronze. The strutting aggression of Cock 1961 (below left) and the menace of Bird With A Wing, 1966, presage the Mirage series of bird sculptures in which body, head and beak become one form on skinny legs and are thus reduced to a killing machine. 

At Sherborne House, facing these evil but beautiful creatures across the space of the first gallery were the solemn and meditative Tribute Heads, 1975 (below right), resigned to their suffering, their eyes and lips closed in silent despair.  These heads are majestic. They epitomise Elisabeth Frink at her best, the visual realisation of profound emotion.  They are universal expressions of suffering. Adjacent to them stood Small Man With Goggles, 1968/69 which expresses, the polar opposite of these emotions, bullying, torture and repression.

In 1967 Frink went to live in the south of France where she not only encountered the beautiful white horses of the Camargue which reawakened her interest in horses, but she also began to express her feelings about the Algerian War. Press images of Oufkir, who was responsible for the death of the Algerian freedom fighter Ben Barka, always pictured him in dark sunglasses and these, appearing as goggles in her work, became a symbol of evil. The hidden eyes are masked by a shiny disk of bronze which reflects the viewers back at themselves repelling all attempt to enter their world.  They are in stark contrast to the closed eyes of the Tribute Heads which speak only of resignation and vulnerability.

Frink’s work is tactile, non-more so than the two maquettes of water buffalo for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank in Hong Kong 1979-1986, designed by Sir Norman Foster.   The surfaces are pockmarked, the clay roughly slabbed on with an urgency, quickly modelled with fingers or any other tool which might be to hand, so that they retain the passion and freshness of a first impression even after they have been cast in bronze. 

Apart from a few drawings, her poignant early study of a dead Pheasant, 1965, being one, Frink drew from memory and the preparatory ‘drawings’ for her sculptures are in the form of three-dimensional maquettes, rather than studies on paper.  This process imparts a passionate expressionism to her work.  Her drawings, whether in two dimensions using pencil and watercolour, or in three dimensions with clay, are akin to abstraction.  She was abstracting from an image inside her head, from a memory of something observed, which is what a great deal of abstract artists do. (They just come up with an image that is less figurative and which is therefore easier to label as abstract, but essentially the process is the same).

There were two etchings in this exhibition, a traditional medium for sculptors, Goshawk and Lammergeier from The Birds of Prey series, 1974, but only one lithograph. The Three Riders, 1974, is of three riders or possibly one rider in motion, either interpretation is a possibility. Linear and sharp edged forms filled with the characteristically marbled quality of lithographic ink resisted by water, these horses; despite their fine-boned legs have a presence, a solidity of form, which is more consistent with stone relief on a frieze than a print on paper. This sculptural drawing technique is evident in the screen-print, Red Dog 1990 (left).  Turning back on itself revealing its powerful musculature, the treatment of the dog is comparable to the massive form of the Seated Baboon, 1989.  These two works are different to the more fine-boned creatures of her earlier drawings and sculpture and coincided with a radical change in her drawing technique.

As a woman, as an artist, Elisabeth Frink was breaking boundaries, exploring new territories. As a female sculptor in the 1950’s, initially celebrating the qualities of maleness, then unpicking the greed, aggression and unpleasantness of the male archetype, she was treading on dangerous ground. It is a moot point whether there is such a thing as a female art or a male art and many would say that Elisabeth Frink’s work was intensely masculine.  But looking at this work, it is a celebration of the male but it is also deeply critical of the less pleasant characteristics of the male psyche and refuses to indulge in the glorification of war. It could be argued that her portrayal of the victim in the Tribute Heads is a female take on the atrocities of war and imprisonment and, at that point in our history, it could only have been made by a woman.  It is interesting too, given that she worked from her photographic memory that they bear a marked resemblance to her own physiognomy.

Frink survived early success because of her deeply felt commitment to her art. She had something to say about mankind, about the condition of man, about man’s inhumanity to man or whatever other well-worn phrase with which you chose to label her work.  And that is the key, it is clear from looking at the small selection in this exhibition that she never descended into cliché, she was always moving forward experimenting with new approaches in response to what was happening in the world around her. This work is as relevant now as it was when it was influenced by images of the fighter pilots in the Second World War, the horrific television images of the Belsen concentration camp and the atrocities during the Algerian conflict. Such things are happening now in Iraq in Afghanistan in Kenya and the Sudan.  Not much has changed.  The power and immediacy of her work continues to be relevant because it is as much a comment on mankind as it an exploration of the male.

It is a testament to the universality of her images that one looks forward from them as well as back towards what might have influenced her. The stylised teeth on her drawings, Head, 1966 and Animal Head, 1962, are shocking and make connections with the deeply disturbing human teeth in Ana Maria Pacheco’s sculpture.  Frink's Judas Head, 1964, which was not part of this show, has an affinity with Chlorosis (Love Sick), the series of drawings made by Marlene Dumas in 1994.  The spindly legs of her bird and man sculptures reference the work of Giacometti and the cloaked hooded figure of Horse and Rider (Robed) 1985 (above right), suggests Rodin’s sculpture of the novelist Honoré de Balzac, 1898.

These images which have seeped unknowingly into the subconscious of a whole generation of artists, makes it imperative that the archive of her work finds a permanent, sympathetic home where the public and artists can come and immerse themselves in the experience of her work in an environment which has the qualities of quietness and repose which she so valued in her life. 

It seems to me that the Dorset location of Sherborne House is an entirely appropriate place.  The experiences offered by this exhibition will continue for me and for other people if a Frink Archive at Sherborne House becomes a reality.  There is so much here to be celebrated, so much to contemplate and so much research to be done into the life and work of this exceptional artist.  This work cannot be kept in store, imprisoned, forever; it deserves to be seen by the next generation and the next.  It is time that the documentation relating to her life was made available so that an assessment can be made of Frink and her position on the world stage. 




Edward Lucie-Smith:  Elisabeth Frink, Sculpture Since 1984 and Drawings.  Art Books International 1994.

Edwin Mullins:  The Art of Elisabeth Frink.  Lund Humphries,, 1972

Peter Shaffer and others:  Elisabeth Frink Sculpture.  Catalogue Raisonné.  Harpvale Book, 1984.

Caroline Wiseman:  Elisabeth Frink, Original Prints. Cataloque Raisonné.  Art Books International,  1998.



A version of this article originally appeared in Proof magazine. www.proof-magazine.com