George Kennethson at The Redfern Gallery

George Kennethson was one of the finest British carver-sculptors of the last century. George WHO, you may ask? Even the enthusiast for this art form could be forgiven for not recognising the name. A visit to the excellent, revelatory show of Kennethson’s sculpture at The Redfern Gallery in London’s Cork Street immediately reveals his quality and range and should make him from now on unforgettable.

Unforgettable, too, for me was a visit a few years ago to what had been the Old Anchor Brewery on the outskirts of Oundle, Northamptonshire, acquired by Kennethson in 1959. It was a huge site, enough to house his growing family – wife Eileen and five children – the ‘chipping shed’ where he worked, a painting studio for Eileen and a home for his sculptures. By the time of my visit, nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to see. After the doors were opened of an outbuilding some 100 feet long, I was faced by several hundred sculptures, each on a plinth fashioned from dismantled maltings timbers. It was rather like a smaller version of what confronted those Chinese farmers who in 1974 accidentally found the terracotta army created for the country’s the first Emperor Qin Shi Huang di.

By the time that he acquired the Old Anchor Brewery, Kennethson had been sculpting for over 20 years. Born in Richmond, Surrey, in 1910, he had studied painting at the Royal Academy Schools from 1928-34, in 1938 marrying Eileen Guthrie, whom he had met as a fellow-student. Theirs was a traditional training, focused on life-class drawing and a study of the Old Masters. Kennethson continued as a painter, significantly influenced by the work of Cézanne and elemental form, but in 1937 decided to concentrate on sculpture, saying that ‘only geniuses can do both’. It was soon after marriage that he began visiting the Isle of Purbeck, in Dorset. Despite his Academy Schools training, Kennethson became increasingly excited by Modernism and the impact of carvers such as Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. At the same time he explored the work of Jacob Epstein, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Eric Gill. Early carvings in the British Museum and the spare carvings of Brancusi were also influential. Committed to carving in stone, Kennethson wrote that ‘tactile quality is essential’, emphasizing that ‘you must either feel the surface, the angularities and the subtleties, or imagine you are feeling them, as in any moment of empathy.’ 

After periods with studios in London, near Winchester and Uffington in Oxfordshire, in 1954 Kennethson moved with Eileen to Oundle, where he became art master at the public school. He insisted that Wednesdays were free for sculpting, initially conducted in a former chicken shed. Unlike many notable sculptors, he did not employ maquettes, but worked directly on the stone, using only simple sculptural drawings. Neither did he employ assistants, being ‘only interested in a form of sculpture which results entirely from the work of one individual from the beginning to the final minutest subtlety of form or texture’.

By the time of the move to Oundle, Kennethson had in 1946 shown a few works in Bristol, organised by Godfrey Pilkington who later ran the Piccadilly Gallery, and had been featured in the Arts Council tour Sculpture in the Home in 1947. Over the years there would be solo shows at Fermoy Art Gallery in King’s Lynn in 1968; at Somerville College, Cambridge, in 1969; with another there at Kettle’s Yard in 1972, that included his drawings. There were retrospectives at the University of Birmingham in 1974; at the New Art Centre, Roche Court, 1993; and one at the Yarrow Gallery, Oundle, in 2000; and a little further exposure since that time. 

Inevitably, in the Redfern’s fairly constricted space to show, sculpture works have to be crowded together, in a way replicating my Oundle experience. An initial reaction is that each one of these beautiful, tactile works, sympathetic to the Hoptonwood stone, Clipsham stone, Purbeck marble, Brown Hornton stone, Cumbrian limestone or Ketton stone, would be enhanced if sited in a perfect setting, with individually sympathetic lighting, but one feels that their creator would not have minded this necessary crowding after his own method of display in the barn-like Oundle space. Kennethson’s inspirations were, as a contrast, expansive — inspired such subjects as birds in flight, clouds and the sky and landscape or waves, all reformed as geometric shapes. However, he chose to work on a small scale. Nearly all of his pieces were for the home. He hated to see weathering of his stone.

Now, 20 years after his death, with a Redfern exhibition that excited enormous buyer-interest even before it opened and was basically sold out within a few days, Kennethson gets an overdue major show in the capital. The admirable and beautifully illustrated publication, that accompanies the exhibition, notes that Kennethson has work in two public collections: The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh and Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge. It is time for other distinguished public collections to repair their omissions.

Main image: George Kennethson, Reclining Figure, 1955, alabaster, 30.5 × 50.8 × 12.7cms.
(photo: © Estate of George Kennethson courtesy of The Redfern Gallery)

Aurora Corio