True and Pure: Frank Dobson and Eric Gill Drawing From Life

The complicity between sculpture and drawing is inescapable in True and Pure, an exhibition in which the sleek shapes of pieces by Eric Gill and Frank Dobson are arranged amid the elegant domesticity of the Daniel Katz Gallery’s Edwardian town house in Mayfair.

The curation maximises on the echoes between drawing and sculpture, space and displaced space, destabilising the autonomy of the sculptures and enhancing the autonomy of the drawings while maintaining the dignity of each and allowing Dobson’s underappreciated drawings to emerge as the true stars of the show.

Gill and Dobson were contemporaries between 1910 and 1940 and are in many ways natural exhibition-fellows as Judith Collins explores in her introduction to the exhibition’s beautifully illustrated catalogue. There is an aesthetic affinity between their linear pencil-work, and their sculptural oeuvres; each won approval from formalist advocates, Roger Fry and Clive Bell, albeit with reservations particular to each artist. They also shared an admiring acquaintance with the French sculptor Aristide Malliol (1861-1944), traces of whose bas-reliefs and terracottas run strongly through the work of Gill and Dobson, respectively.

Yet despite being relatively in step in terms of company and critics, they rarely converged at the same point at the same time. Dobson was, in fact, disparaging of Gill’s lack of sculpting in the round, dismissing him as a ‘relief’ carver. Gill left no trace of his opinion on Dobson except for his diary record of a visit in August 1921, ‘Frank Dobson came at noon. Excellent man’, as well as including Dobson’s Cornucopia in the list of works from prehistory to present which delighted his mind (‘The Right Mindedness of Modern Art,’ Order, 1928).

Gill and Dobson also share a complicated historical legacy, with reputations accompanied by unease. Gill is the better known of the two artists, yet as Fiona MacCarthy revealed in her 1989 biography, he represents a troubling moral quandary: the power of his art is threatened by his personal actions, namely the paedophilic and incestuous expressions of his erotic mysticism. Dobson’s renown has fared worse, despite lacking anything approaching Gill’s moral controversy. Dobson was hailed as a giant of his time, noted by many in the 1930s as equalled only by Jacob Epstein as the pre-eminent British sculptor. But Dobson’s uncontroversial content, and its affinity with the ‘return to order’ conservatism, has contributed to unjust neglect since his death. 

Gill’s controversy and Dobson’s neglect are negotiated with tact in the exhibition. Gill is presented flatly, his actions neither apologised for nor allowed to eclipse the work. The transcendental beauty of the delicate nude drawings, such as Standing Nude of 1927, complement the relic-like presence of Headdress of 1928, suggesting a convergence of our mundane physicality with something symbolically charged with mental experience.

The aloof, cool beauty of Gill’s pieces in turn emphasises the tactile humanness of Dobson’s febrile chalk marks and inviting terracottas, which throw a new and empathic light on his better-known, machine-like pieces such as Bust of a Lady and Reclining Figure

Dobson’s drawings comprise the key pieces of the exhibition. The very name ‘True and Pure’ quotes Dobson’s most recent retrospective of 1981, True and Pure Sculpture, which was held at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge and was subsequently toured by the Arts Council. Both iterations quote Roger Fry, who hailed Dobson’s pre-eminence in 1925, calling his work ‘true sculpture and pure sculpture’, as well as adding, at Gill’s expense, that ‘this is almost the first time that this has even been attempted in England’ (‘Mr Dobson’s Sculpture’, Burlington Magazine14:265, Oct 1925).

A representative mixture of Dobson’s pieces is included in the exhibition, the majority of which date from between 1921 and 1946, with ‘finished’ sculpture predominantly from the 1920s. A wide range of his drawing styles are present, from the William Roberts-like tubular figures accented by machine-like highlights in hard colour of the 1918–1921 period to the more delicate Matisse-like interiors rent in pencil and touched by subtle oranges, greys and blacks of the 1930s, to the gritty effervescence of the red chalk nudes from his years teaching at the Royal Academy Schools, 1946 to 1953. The sculpture, too, demonstrates an unravelling of taught forms into the energetic touches of the later terracottas.

The only aspects of Dobson’s oeuvre that are under-represented are his early paintings – an understandable omission given the space – and his early and iconic Vorticist sculptures, such as Pigeon Boy and The Man Child. This sculptural early period’s sole emissary is Reclining Nude, which presides magisterially, proving Dobson’s ability to dominate a room just as much as Gill’s Headdress, while, in the words of Richard Shone, ‘pacifying his forms to the quietness of a sleeping cat’ (Shone, review of True and Pure SculptureBurlington Magazine, 1981). 

What emerges from Dobson’s pieces is a sense of personal devotion to drawing that is reinforced by his biography. He was born in London in 1886, and he not only lacked formal training in sculpture, but also the tutoring of Henry Tonks at the Slade, which was all but universal among the artists who received comparable acclaim in the 1920s and 1930s. His love of drawing, and of drawing from the live model, thus did not develop from Tonks’s devotion to anatomical integrity as demonstrated by flowing pencil contours, but instead emerged from the precedent of art history, particularly his visits to Edinburgh and Glasgow exhibitions while studying at the art institute in Hospitalfield House, Arbroath from 1906 to 1910, where he first experimented with live models and was exposed to the linear pencil-work of Ingres and the red chalk drawings of Watteau, Fragonard and Alfred Stevens. Despite his subsequent study at the City and Guilds School of Art in Kennington, he later professed his Hospitalfield period as the most formative as well as the period during which he came to believe that drawing had greater importance than painting.

Dobson began his professional art practice as a painter and transitioned to sculpture in 1915, realising as he gazed at a figure drawing that sculpture, not painting, could sate his aesthetic ambition (Dobson, Autobiographical Notes, 1951, unpublished). In later life he chose to sculpt with tools rather than his fingers, calling the latter a painterly way of working, and his preoccupation with rendering figures with mass and form is pre-eminent in both his drawings and sculpture. The result, to quote Shone once more, is that these ‘calm curves sometimes belie an unusually nervous sensitivity to certain forms, a contained eroticism and a relationship to his chosen medium both closer and warmer than is suggested by a casual knowledge of his work’ (Shone, review of True and Pure SculptureBurlington Magazine, 1981). The angles of the joints, the convergence of soft flesh and mechanical limitations energise these superficially tranquil images and objects. 

Gill’s career was still more diversified, achieving renown as a sculptor, stonemason, draughtsman, engraver and author. Born in Brighton in 1882 he was four years older than Dobson, but like Dobson matured in the artisanal tradition before turning to self-consciously ‘fine’ art. He studied at Chichester School of Art before being articled to the architect Douglas Caroe from 1900 to 1903 when he began working as a letter cutter. He began to sculpt in 1910, at the same point in his life that Dobson did. Rather then being seduced by the modernist formalism of Fry, however, his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1914 became a turning point in his life, shaping the ethos of the informal artists’ colony he founded in Ditchling, which emphasised the morality of labour and emulating the rituals of medieval artisanship (later moving to Capel-y-Ffin in 1924 and then to High Wycombe in 1928). Gill turned to drawing from life far later than Dobson, at age forty-four, claiming that working from the imagination and gaining experience must come first, if a drawing is to capture ‘a deeper, a more sensual as well as a more spiritual meaning to material things’ (Gill, Twenty-Five Nudes, 1938). Also unlike Dobson, Gill treated his drawings as ends in themselves rather than preparatory work, compiling them in two publications: Twenty-Five Nudes in 1938 and First Nudes in 1954.

A contrast emerges between the reductive aesthetic of Gill and the additive modelling of Dobson, both in sculpture and drawing. Where Gill’s pieces appear as equals, drawings and sculptures merely subject to different materials, a conversation emerges between Dobson’s works that emphasises a complex way in which visual experience is metabolised into sculptural form and which intimately involves drawing. For an artist working with stone and bronze, drawing promises a space of freedom and experimentation. For Dobson, drawing is the verification of sculptural instinct. He described it in an interview in 1933: ‘I first make small maquettes in clay or wax, and then having found the pose, set a life model in the pose and make hundreds of drawings on which to base the final sculpture’ (Stanley Casson, Artists at Work, 1933). Drawing becomes the means through which observation is mapped onto imagination.

This interplay between conception and completion is eloquently revealed throughout the Daniel Katz show. The curation prods the viewer into respecting the dignity of each piece, while also delighting in the energy of the conversation that emerges between different states of creation. The result is a perceptive reconsideration of an oeuvre that has been unjustly neglected. Witnessing Dobson’s process enriches the pieces as objects in themselves as well as parts of a greater exchange.

Main image: Frank Dobson, Bust of a Lady, c.1928, bronze, unique cast, h.30cm. (photo: Robert Auton, Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd., courtesy of Daniel Katz Gallery)

Aurora Corio