Geoffrey Clarke was a key figure in the renaissance of British sculpture in the post-war era. In 1951 his contribution to the Festival of Britain provided welcome public exposure, kick-starting his career. In 1952, the year this piece was made, he exhibited for the first time at Gimpel Fils, one of London’s leading dealers in avant- garde art in this period. Later that year he contributed to the Venice Biennale in the group of ‘Young British Sculptors’, alongside Robert Adams, Kenneth Armitage, Reg Butler, Lynn Chadwick, Bernard Meadows, Eduardo Paolozzi and William Turnbull. The importance of Clarke’s contribution to sculpture is marked by his inclusion in British Sculpture in the 1960s at the Tate Gallery, British Sculptors ’72 at the Royal Academy of Arts and British Sculpture in the Twentieth Century at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1981.
Moving away from the carving tradition advocated by the previous generation of sculptors, including Moore, Hepworth, Gill, Epstein and Skeaping, Clarke learnt to weld with his contemporaries Chadwick and Butler. His technique was conveniently low cost – utilising everyday industrial materials and scrap – but also had a powerful directness facilitating experimentation with a new visual language that balanced delicacy and strength, abstraction and figuration, the secular and the ecclesiastical. The symbolic figure of Man was a recurrent theme in both Clarke’s prints and sculpture. The imagery he used to explore the subject was acutely personal, derived from a mixture of sources such as his admiration for Klee, the magical tree imagery of Samuel Palmer and Sutherland, and his study of botanical diagrams of seed growth in the Natural History Museum.
Clarke was unusual amongst his contemporaries for the sheer number of public art commissions he received, contributing to more than 70 projects. The most notable of these was Coventry Cathedral, the largest British post-war commissioning projects, where he contributed more pieces than any other artist. Working on the project for a decade his stained glass windows and sculptures there are one of his greatest achievements.