Dorothy Dick: a Battle between Science and Art

Walking down the old main street of the village of Scourie, Sutherland in the north-west corner of Scotland, you may be surprised to see, looking out from the windows of what appear to be ordinary crofters’ cottages, sculpture of a primitive force – a crouching figure with a highly protuberant bottom or a head with exaggerated lips and eyeballs. They are the work of the sculptor, Dorothy Dick, who was born in Glasgow in 1932, but spent much of her childhood with her maternal Gaelic-speaking family in this remote part of Scotland.

From an early age the rocky coastal outcrops of the local terrain fascinated Dick, and they still inspire her. She feels that the proximity of these fragments of the mountainous landscape all around her, and their presence in her work, qualifies her to be seen as a sculptor inspired by rocks in the same way as Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth; both sculptors she admires.

At the age of 82, Dick admits her life has been a battle between her career and ability as a scientist, and her natural inclination towards practising art and particularly sculpture. She is a retired member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (now known as the Institution of Engineering and Technology), and a bachelor of Mathematics and Physics at the University of Glasgow. ‘Maths does have a beauty of its own – in finding the correct solution to a problem’ says Dorothy Dick, but in a hard-fought battle for her allegiance, the beauty of sculpture won out in the end. 

Even before Dick embarked on her degree at Glasgow University, where she was one of only four women (made to sit together on the front row in lectures) amongst 200 men in her year on the course, she had considered enrolling in Glasgow School of Art. As the only child of a clerical employee of the Clyde Valley Power Company, she was under pressure to make a career, and art school, she felt, would lead only to teaching art, which she did not want to do. Recognised as a high achiever in mathematics and science, after much deliberation, she decided to follow the paternal path into the electrical industry. On graduation, Dick found ‘Glasgow was all shipbuilders interested only in mechanical engineers’, so soon had to go ‘abroad’ to English Electric at Luton. She was happy that the ground-to-air missiles on which she worked there were indeed defensive and in the mid-1950s, while modelling the trajectories of rockets on computers, in which she was a pioneer, she began to cultivate her leaning towards sculpture, studying in the evenings at St Albans School of Art, and working especially with ceramics.

From Luton she made frequent visits to the British Museum, where she was fascinated by African sculpture in particular, and also to Whipsnade Zoo where she would draw the animals – a short journey by moped or by Mini – she had bought one of the very first. She travelled with a friend to Florence where she was inspired by the sculpture of Donatello and Michelangelo and was especially fascinated by the latter’s unfinished Slaves and their tool marks. Ghiberti too became a source of inspiration and still provides themes for her work. She also travelled to Greece ‘before the days of mass tourism’, and was intrigued by the archaic Kouroi, with stiff arms down their sides – of which an echo can arguably still be seen in her work.

Dick was ribbed by colleagues, when she decided after some years to return to Scotland and take a less glamorous-sounding job with the South of Scotland Electricity Generating Board in Glasgow, in order to be nearer her ageing parents and ‘to see some mountains’ once again. Her new position enabled her to start more serious study of sculpture – which ‘immediately felt right’ – under Paul Zunterstein at Glasgow School of Art in the evenings. Living again with her parents while she was working for the SSEGB, Dick sought a studio outside their home. After considering one just vacated by Joan Eardley, an artist she admired and whose work she had bought, she moved into a studio above the office of an architect, Jack Holmes, with whom she seems to have enjoyed creative dialogue. Latterly she acquired a cottage in Stirlingshire near a saw mill, from which large but surplus pieces of wood were sometimes made available to her.

In due course, dividing her time between science and art led to a crisis which laid Dick low for several months, unable to work or move due to agonizing pains in her side, symptoms she now thinks were psychosomatic – the product of inner tension between her desire to work on art and her demanding job. By this time her parents were no longer living and able to exert pressure on her to ‘do a proper job’, so Dick decided, when fit again, to work part-time. She worked initially for boiler manufacturers, Babcock and Wilcox, and then the British National Oil Corporation, later Britoil. Dick continued her artistic studies under her principal teacher, Paul Zunterstein, who had come as a Jewish refugee to Glasgow from Vienna in 1938, aged 17. He worked as assistant to the successful sculptor, Benno Schotz RSA, who was of Estonian Jewish background and had worked in the Glasgow engineering industry, before becoming head of sculpture at Glasgow School of Art 1938-1961. Zunterstein died young at the end of the 1960s and in an obituary note, Schotz wrote that with his death, Scottish sculpture had ‘suffered a grievous loss…Of a gentle and serious nature, he endeared himself to his friends and students. Zunterstein’s work was imbued with tenderness and a love for a flowing line…’

Zunterstein taught Dick among other things the technique of ciment fondu, cast concrete, which he had used on his own best-known work, a Mother and Child of 1953 for Chirnsyde Primary school in Glasgow, and which she was to use a great deal, not seeing it as a cheap substitute for bronze, but as a material with a raw quality which suited her work. His ‘flowing line’ and ‘tenderness’, however, does not seem to have influenced her, for her work has an elemental force and unevenness of rhythm which are quite distinctive. This may be partially attributable to the character of the landscape around her, the harsh rocky landscape of Assynt and Reay. 

It was not, however, until she could draw her SSEGB pension at age 55 that Dick felt able to devote herself full-time (barring some continuing free-lance mathematical consulting) to her passion for art. She is in a sense an amateur artist, but her dedication to her art has been as intense as that of any career professional. It might have been expected that a mathematical and engineering background would lead to sculptural work of an abstract or geometrical character, as it did with Caro, made from steel. But Dorothy Dick thinks of steel sections as too rigid, predetermined in form and inflexible; her work is organic in character, not constructed. It is all about the human figure – recumbent, standing, crouching, sitting, prone, singly or in pairs, sometimes the head or torso alone, or just the mask. It is generally fully free-standing but sometimes in relief, and either modelled in clay and cast in ciment fondu, or carved in wood and occasionally stone, especially the local Serpentine. The predominant local Lewisian gneiss, most ancient of rocks, however, she finds too hard for carving. The scale of her figures very occasionally rises to near life-size, but is generally nearer a quarter or an eighth of that. They are very generalized or abstracted and have little detail, and on the whole the block is not heavily hollowed out or subdivided or undercut, but retains a feeling of being a single mass. She admits the influence of Henry Moore, which is indeed evident, but so also is that of African tribal sculpture, and it is arguable that it is the more instinctive elemental force of the latter that wins over the more self-conscious rhythms of the former. Moore’s insistence on the importance of the ‘hole through’, although not unknown in her work, she sees as ‘almost a gimmick’ being herself inspired by the mass of mountains ‘that do not have holes through them’.

The evidence does not point to any very clear progression or development over time in her work, and it is easier to consider it grouped under the different subject headings. Take for example her recumbent figures – a classic Henry Moore subject, but one that Dick generally treats in quite a different way. The elm wood Reclining Figure of 1993 for example – one of her most ambitious – is, at 29”, about half the length of Moore’s wood reclining figures of the 1950s which at first it recalls, but the thickness of the legs bent double at the knees, the protuberance of the chest, the retracted head, the rigid Kouros-like arm, suggest a powerful condensed energy, a readiness to spring up at any time to flex its muscles. The legs are parallel with no echo of the classical contrapposto evident in Moore’s first Reclining Figure of the 1920s, and it is arguably closer to the Mayan Chacmool that inspired him.

Nevertheless there does here remain a sense of contrast between the sides in that one arm is straight out and the other bent at the elbow, supporting the torso in a raised position, whereas many other of her reclining figures are lying on their backs, both elbows on the ground, or prone or on their sides but with all limbs parallel – for example in the drawing below.

Powerful drawings in brush and pencil of the figure and of landscape and rock formations play in important role in Dick’s work. She says they often form an intermediary stage in the creation of a sculpture. She first makes a maquette, usually in clay, then tends to draw it out as a sculpture seen from different angles, before she begins to make the work itself.

Her drawings may resemble the sheets of drawings by Moore exploring many possible interpretations of a theme, but in Dick’s case they may well be illustrating or experimenting with the same composition but seen from different angles.

The standing figure is more often to be seen in her work than in Moore’s,reflecting the greater ‘erectness’ or compactness of her sensibility, and it is quite often presented as one of a pair, who may be embracing in a way reminiscent of Brancusi’s Kiss .‘Two figures fill a block better than one,’ remarks Dick, who herself has remained single. There is also a wealth of seated Mother and Child groups, exploiting the potential in the subject for blocky solid compositions. Another frequently explored subject is the mask, which reflects her interest in tribal art.

The human head, both as a mask and fully realized in three-dimensions, is pushed and pulled, exploiting to the full its natural asymmetry to achieve maximum sculptural expression – in a perhaps surprising contrast to the tendency of her full figures to be symmetrical. Whilst most of her work is fully in the round there is also a large group of shallow reliefs, with figures – often seated around tables – gouged into the clay or cut into timber, their arms and shoulders, as in much of her work, treated as a single continuous unit quite distinct from the torso, with as much strength and identity as those of the Kouroi. The reliefs carved in timber retain the sharp edges resulting from the process by which they are made, whereas the free-standing figures are frequently sanded down to form smoother forms, as is most of the modelled work, which is usually cast inciment fondufrom a clay original. Dick’s is predominantly an art of forms rather than planes. To stand in her studio-gallery in Scourie surrounded by her sculpture on the walls is a rather like standing in the portal of a romanesque cathedral feeling yourself watched by the saints – and devils – that people it. There is a kindred strength of expression in her work.

In a text written in 1996, Dorothy Dick wrote ‘… my main influence has been Henry Moore. Certainly Moore showed me the possibilities of using landscape and invented forms as metaphors for the human form and we were both influenced by sculpture going back over 20,000 years… Qualities which preoccupy me in sculpture have to do with form, harmony, how one form meets another, presence, poise, intensity, simplification… I don’t think art remains as important as it ever was because at present, what science makes possible seems to most people of more interest and importance; but I think art does matter, both science and art matter’.

Dorothy Dick’s work shows the tradition of twentieth-century sculpture rooted in landscape and the human form continuing powerfully through the years of constructed steel and ‘conceptual’ installations. I believe her great achievement in that tradition deserves to be more widely recognised, especially now that she has passed her 80th year, and her work, drawn as well as modelled and carved, more widely enjoyed.

Main image: 4. Paul Zunterstein, Mother and Child, 1953, ciment fondu,Chirnsyde Primary School, Glasgow (photo: © Martha Burns Findlay)

Aurora Corio