Life with sculptor Arthur Fleischmann

Joy married Hungarian born sculptor, Arthur Fleischmann (1896-1990) in London in 1955. Arthur was born into a Jewish family in Bratislava, formerly Pressburg, which is now the capital of Slovakia. Initially he trained as a medical doctor in Budapest and Prague, while at the same time studying sculpture at the Prague Academy under Jan Šturza. After qualifying as a dermatologist, Arthur worked in the clinics in Vienna, but also continued to pursue sculpture training under the sculptor, Josef Müllner. He then specialised in glazed ceramics, and renouncing a career in medicine, taught in the newly established Vienna Women’s Art Academy .

In 1937 he travelled to South Africa where he exhibited in Johnannesburg and Pretoria. These highly successful exhibitions enabled him to continue travelling onwards to Zanzibar, Mauritius, the Seychelles and finally Bali. In the late 1930s Bali was an artist’s paradise; Arthur worked vigorously and enjoyed his hobby of photography taking hundreds of beautiful pictures of the island and its inhabitants. On Bali he also converted to Catholicism, which was to greatly influence his later career. He intended to remain on the island, after two years, however, the Japanese invaded and he fled to Australia, where he lived and worked for ten years. Based in Sydney, he became a member of the Society of Artists and a founder member of the Merioola Group, an artistic commune. He gained many public commissions in Australia and his sculptures were acquired by State galleries. In 1948 he travelled to London, where he spent the rest of his life and first began his pioneering work in Perspex carving, showing works in this medium at the World Exhibitions in Brussels (1958), USA (1962) and Osaka, Japan (1970).

When did you first come to the St. John’s Wood studio?

We moved into this studio towards the end of 1958. Before that we rented a flat-studio in Green Street. Actually it was two houses which had been joined together, but there was very little living accommodation. Each house had a billiard room and these had been combined to make one large room which was Arthur’s studio. It had top light, but otherwise there was very little illumination, hardly any sidelight in fact, so it wasn’t ideal as a studio.

A Viennese architect, Frederick Lam, had been responsible for converting the house in Green Street into flats and had told Arthur about the billiard room studio. Then about eight years later Lam alerted us to this studio in St. John’s Wood which was for sale and which he thought we ought to see. We weren’t looking for a studio, because all his life Arthur had rented one. He immediately protested that he had no intention of buying a studio, but I persuaded him that we should see it.

We arrived at the sparsely furnished St. John’s Wood studio early one evening in the autumn. The owner, an Irish painter, took us upstairs first, then showed us the rooms downstairs and finally brought us into the studio. Immediately I saw it, I thought it was amazing, and Arthur loved the space and the even north light. It had been the studio of Sir George Frampton, in which he had created the Peter Pan memorial and the Edith Cavell statue. The space was totally designed as a sculptor’s working studio. Dr. Philip Ward-Jackson has recently written a fascinating article in the Sculpture Journal about Frampton’s role in designing both this studio and the adjoining house.

There was a problem though, because Arthur wasn’t at all sure how we would get the money together to purchase the studio. Fortunately the owner needed to sell very quickly. We got a mortgage of £2k and scraped together the rest, but there was nothing left to pay for transporting the sculptures and furniture so it was done piecemeal by Arthur and his Polish assistant, Tad. I remember we bought a fridge, but that was our only new purchase and it probably had more to do with keeping Arthur’s sculpture chilled than our food, because he used to stock it with his little wax models that mustn’t be allowed to melt. 

How did Arthur’s work affect family life?

I was married to sculpture and Dominique, our son, was born into it.

Dominique had about half a dozen sculptures in his nursery, including the large plaster model of Miranda, the ‘mermaid with legs’, which Arthur had created in Green Street for the Lockheed Hydraulic Brake Company’s Mermaid Fountain in the Pleasure Gardens of the Festival of Britain in 1951. Dominique used to wake up and see these sculptures surrounding his bed; he probably thought everybody sleeps with a mermaid! 

Arthur made Perspex toys for Dominique; we still have one. He thought making toys was an important part of his work and found it rewarding because toys educate and give pleasure. He also produced toys commercially, selling models to be made from vacuum moulded plastic to a Viennese manufacturer. The most popular was a cat, which was also a money-box, and that sold like hot cakes.

I remember, when Dominique was a baby, finding it difficult to juggle entertaining and looking after him. I have vivid recollections of a visit from Cardinal Bea, a close friend of Pope Paul VI, who came to lunch with his assistant, Father Schmidt. I was serving the Cardinal his lunch in the house and trying to maintain a conversation and keeping an eye on Dominique in his playpen in the garden. The playpen featured regularly in our lives because I often needed to put Dominique in it to help Arthur and deal with clients. In fact Arthur made a statue of Dominique as a baby leaning on top of the frame. 

Life with Arthur was a balancing act, I assisted in his work and helped entertain his friends and clients, while at the same time running the house. I often acted as his assistant and made the preparatory clay sausages for his modelling. I would be covered in clay, while he was spotless. He took great care over his appearance and always wore a jacket and a bow tie when he was working.

Arthur didn’t drive, so my life was spent chauffering him from workshop to Perspex fabricator and back again. I was very involved with his work and he never went out anywhere without me, apart from once a year when he attended the Annual Dinner at the Chelsea Arts Club, which in those days was only for men. So I have first-hand knowledge of nearly forty years of his life and work.

Can you describe a typical working day for Arthur?

He never got up early. Every morning I’d give him breakfast in bed and a massage because he had a very bad back, which is an occupational hazard. He would gradually start work about 10.30, but then he would work all through the day. I always had great difficulty in persuading him to stop for lunch or a snack. Then in the evening, he would dictate endless letters to me and make hundreds of drawings designing sculpture, often on scraps of paper or the back of envelopes. We were never in bed before midnight.

Could you tell us a little more about Arthur’s working practice?

He would have all sorts of ideas from things he had seen or heard and he would make endless drawings. Then once he decided that there was a drawing he liked, he created a small model in clay. He made many pieces just for himself which weren’t commissions. Having made the small clay model, he would decide whether he wanted to model it life-size and if so he would employ a life model. In between this work, he would the take on portrait bust commissions – these were our ‘bread and butter.’

Did Arthur ever take time off from his work?

Arthur was a born traveller, he took great delight in showing me the art treasures of Italy, France, Spain and later Japan. On his ninetieth birthday he announced, ‘I like to think I am a travelling sculptor absorbing every new idea…’

On a more mundane level, Arthur relaxed by watching football, which he enjoyed, and doing the football coupons, which he did very mathematically and systematically. One day he discovered that the philosopher, Father Martin D’Arcy SJ, a highly intelligent Roman Catholic priest of whom he had made a wonderful portrait bust, was also a football enthusiast and they really bonded over that. 

Did he have any other interests which informed his work?

Arthur loved music and it was his great sorrow was that we didn’t have organ music in the studio. Although he didn’t play himself, he was very knowledgeable about classical music. With his background of Bratislava, Budapest, Prague and Vienna, it was second nature.

All his life he sculpted notable musicians and conductors. One of Arthur’s early ceramic sculptures is the portrait bust of Herbert Nagy, a cellist which is now in the Arthur Fleischmann Museum in Bratislava. Arthur was a great friend of the Australian conductor Sir Charles Mackerras. They first met in Sydney when Charles used to play the piano accompaniment for Viennese dance classes. They had a lot in common and both loved the music of Dvořák, and Janáček. A few years after Charles was knighted in 1979, Arthur made a portrait sculpture of his head which was cast in bronze and mounted on a mosaic background.

Arthur also made portrait busts of several other conductors, including Raphael Kubelík and Eugene Ormandy, and also the Jewish pianist, Volterra Gualtiero.

Did Arthur talk much about Australia?

Yes, Arthur enjoyed his time in Australia. He received plenty of commissions because there were very few sculptors, apart from Lyndon Dadswell, with whom he put on exhibitions. Working in Australia encouraged Arthur to experiment with new materials. There was very little seasoned wood available for carving and no access to bronze foundries, so he modelled in terracotta and experimented with electroplating. He also tried out different synthetic materials and made several very successful works with phenolic resin. He attempted to work with glass too, but that never turned out well.

Australia in those days, in the early forties didn’t have the culture of Europe.

Is that why London was attractive to him?

Well, actually Arthur had no intention of settling in London, he was just planning to visit. But when he arrived in England, Arthur discovered that Czechoslovakia, which was his actual destination, had been seized by the Communists so he couldn’t return to Bratislava to reclaim the family home as he had wished. So he came to London, but he kept his studio in Sydney, leaving some of his possessions there and continuing to pay the rent, because he intended to return.

While on the boat travelling to England, he had met Dr. Walter Warboys, who was Chairman of the Plastics Division of ICI. This was a most providential encounter, because Warboys invited him to visit Welwyn Garden City, where he introduced him to Perspex. In many ways this was the material which Arthur had been looking for, a glass-like medium which he could carve.

Arthur had never thought of staying permanently in London, but he was soon moving in the right social circles to obtain commissions. He met Sir John Rothenstein in Oxford , for example, and became acquainted with Sir Malcolm Sargent. One of his first commissions was to model the then Lord Mayor of London, Sir George Aylwen. I don’t know how he came to receive this commission, but he had a circle of admiring ladies who took this unmarried Hungarian sculptor under their wing and helped him to find work.

Sometimes unwittingly, Arthur upset people because he wasn’t familiar with English social conventions. For example, he made a faux pas with a millionaire, called Strauss, who sat in the House of Lords. Arthur used to make beautiful Easter eggs by attaching cardboard sculptures to real eggshells, I still have some of them. So when he was invited to a dinner party by Strauss, he thought he would take a present and made an ostrich with its head in a matchbox, because ‘Strauss’ means ‘ostrich’ in German. Arthur thought this was an amusing joke being a play on an ostrich with its head in the sand, but being a politician Strauss didn’t take kindly to the idea of having his head in the sand and was terribly offended. Arthur told me that he sometimes ruined opportunities by misjudging English humour and etiquette.

So Arthur had a sense of humour. Were there ever any elements of humour in his sculpture?

Yes, he had a great sense of humour, which I really appreciated. It is a very relevant point because he always said there was no humour in sculpture, only very occasionally, and that’s why he sometimes enjoyed creating amusing pieces such as The Judgement of Paris with an overly fat Juno and the whimsical figure of Cyrano de Bergerac.

Were there other traits in Arthur’s character which influenced his work?

Yes, Arthur was out-going and interested in people, he had no snobbery or prejudice. He saw no difference between the Lord Mayor and the man who came to fix the drainpipe. He was very gregarious, which, of course, was extremely important in gaining connections and commissions.

We had a constant stream of visitors. He had many contacts in Australia, who were always coming over, including Donald Friend, Lloyd Rees and as well as Australian artists and clients from America and South Africa. Then there were other Americans he had known in Vienna and with whom he kept in touch through his endless correspondence and a string of artists he had come into contact with in Vienna – Friedrich Herkner, Siegfried Charoux, Fritz Kormis, Willi Soukop and Franta Belsky.

We were also very friendly with Sir Charles and Lady Wheeler and I remember with particular gratitude the help shown towards us by Sir Charles, who put forward Arthur for Associate Membership of the RBS.

What was the first major commission Arthur undertook from this studio?

In 1958 when we first moved in Arthur was working on the important commission, Resurrection, for the World Exhibition in Brussels which he had received from the Commissioner General of the Vatican Pavilion while he was still at Green Street. I remember very well because there was a debate about who should do this large figure in the main hall. Ossip Zadkine had been approached and various French sculptors, then the Commissioner General and his assistant came to Green Street to look at The Triptych of the Holy Rosary, which they had been told they should exhibit in the Vatican Pavilion. They loved it and asked Arthur if he would be interested in submitting a design for the Grand Hall of the Pavilion. Arthur told me after they had left that he was very uncertain about it because of the size and the lack of time, but he decided he would create a design. When it was ready he made a three dimensional model and we went to Brussels and after a long meeting Arthur was asked to do the commission. The Commissioner took me aside and said, ‘Of course, Mrs Fleischmann we rely on your support for this commission.’ This was because he knew it was a huge undertaking for Arthur, who was already in his sixties.

The actual sculpture was the Risen Christ, a figure made from sheets of aluminium, which was 20’ high and it proved quite controversial, appealing to the Germanic aesthetic more than the Latin. Because it was so huge, Arthur made it in a disused ballroom in north London. We also rented a shop that had been a delicatessen, for some of the work and nearby was a Perspex workshop in King Henry’s Walk, Islington, which Arthur also needed because part of the commission, a frieze of The Resurrection of the People, was in Perspex . We still have two of the huge panels from the frieze.

Arthur had worked on quite a lot of religious sculpture in the 1920s and 30s. One of the most notable was the retable for the main altar of the Church of St. Elisabeth at Hagen, Westphalia, which was a commission that came about through his friendship with the Expressionist architect, Dominikus Böhm. Later in Australia he created a whole suite of sculpture for the Church of the Holy Family in Parkes, New South Wales, but it was after the commission for the Vatican Pavilion that his religious sculpture really took off.

Could you tell us about some of Arthur’s other religious work which followed the Resurrection?

After the World Expo’58, he received many commissions for religious sculptures, mosaics, Perspex carvings, panels and stained glass. There are at least a dozen churches within the London area where his work is installed. In the early sixties he was involved with a group of other established artists such as Roy de Maistre, Adam Kossowski and Graham Sutherland in the art work for St. Aidan’s, East Acton. Sutherland painted The Crucifixion, for the main altarpiece and Arthur created The Fourteen Stations of the Cross in ciment-fondu combined with a continuous mosaic background. Near the entrance he engraved The Four Evangelists in Perspex, which are edge lit.

During the 1960s he engraved The Fourteen Stations of the Cross in large Perspex panels for The Immaculate heart of Mary Church in Hayes, Middlesex. This was a very different depiction of the subject and again the work was edge lit.

Arthur was also involved with ‘Artes in Vita’, a low key group of about eight rather impoverished artists which started in Green Street and continued to meet in the studio here. They were very interested in ecumenism and had ideas of creating an ecumenical chapel.

How did Arthur’s secular commissions tend to come about?

Mainly through contacts, often as a result of his portrait work. For example, through Harry Collins, a Director of the National Coal Board, a mutual friend, we met Lord Robens. Arthur had seen him on the television and thought he had a very good head to sculpt and so he modelled the head of Lord Robens and later Lady Robens. During this time we all met quite frequently and as it happened the National Headquarters for the Coal Board was being built near Manchester and Lord Robens commissioned Arthur to make a fountain, but he left it to him to decide what form it should take. Through the Robens we were introduced to Professor Bronowski and Charles Forte and his family, who all visited the studio.

The fountain for the National Coal Board was quite a novel piece. How did Arthur come up with the inspiration for it?

Arthur never did anything without the proper research. We visited a coal mine to observe what went on down there. They had great problems getting a pair of clog boots to fit me. Protected by overalls and helmets, we saw the machinery working and Arthur was able to speak to the miners most of whom were either Hungarian, Italian or Polish . Then he asked whether any of the miners were English and the Manager, who was English came forward, he was fearfully good looking and so the head of the miner for the fountain was modelled on him.

What do you regard as Arthur’s most important secular commissions during his years at St. John’s Wood?

Probably the most important commission was his water sculpture, Harmony and Progress, for the World Exhibition in Osaka, Japan in 1970. We still have the maquette for the commission in the studio. Arthur’s was the main sculpture because the architects, Powell and Moya, didn’t want any embellishment to their building, but thought it would blend in perfectly. It was so popular, because the Japanese love water. It was made in ten sections and was very large. We hired the same north London workshop which had all the machines for finishing, bevelling and polishing, then Arthur would laminate each piece. There wasn’t time to put them together so they were shipped out to Japan in ten crates and assembled there. Arthur worked with a Japanese engineer to erect and stabilise the sculpture and adjust the self circulating water pumps, all critical and not helped by and language difficulties and the freezing cold December weather. I worked with Arthur the whole time on the site. There was a wonderful Japanese foreman in morning dress, they were very ceremonial and the workmen made a great deal of effort to get the water flowing perfectly. One day it froze, icicles formed and it was very beautiful. That was the first acrylic water sculpture that Arthur made and I think the impetus for it came from having the garden here. Using Perspex, water and colour the garden was an inspiration for him.

Another important Perspex commission was the Crystal Crown. Was that the largest piece of Perspex which Arthur ever worked on?

Yes, it was for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1977. The commission came about because we knew a Director of Taylor Woodrow, Peter Drew, who was developing St Katharine Docks. The Queen’s first visit of the celebrations was going to be to the Docks and Peter Drew, who had seen Arthur’s 1972 Westminster Festival Exhibition of Perspex water sculptures at the Victoria Embankment Gardens remembered them and asked him to create a sculpture for the Jubilee. He also knew Arthur had a huge block of Perspex , the largest block of Perspex in the world in 1977. Arthur had read an article in the Daily Mail reporting that costumes and scenery in MGM studios were going to be auctioned including a ‘white elephant’ the Perspex block which Stanley Kubrick had commissioned for the film 2001 Space Odyssey. This block had been made by a small company called Stanley Plastics. Kubrick had a paid a lot for the block because he wanted it to be clear and absolutely pristine, but when he placed it on a mountain in Africa for the film, he decided it didn’t work, so there it lay in MGM studios and nobody knew what to do with it. Arthur was able to obtain the block because he knew one of the directors of MGM.

Peter Drew remembered the block and asked if Arthur still had it and would be able to carve the Queen’s Crown from the block in three months. The commission went ahead with Her Majesty herself unveiling it in June 1977. It was an amazing achievement to have carved it in such a short time, but we had never had such a jinked commission. Arthur was in his eighties and it had to be carved in situ and even the transport from the GLC warehouse where the block was in storage went wrong. Anyway, it eventually arrived and a sort of makeshift studio was built on the spit-head underneath the Thistle Tower Hotel. We were sheltered under polythene sheet with Calor gas and a rotisserie to cook on and we were literally camping out there from February onwards. Arthur had Tad help carve and also a marble carver who did all the rays and then it had to be moved a short distance on a structure on wheels rather like one of Leonardo da Vinci inventions so that it could be mounted. 

One Saturday we were working there in a terrible thunderstorm. Tad was doing the heavy work and suddenly a crack appeared in the block. There was no way the crack could go unnoticed. Arthur sent Dominique and me home to fetch an ultraviolet lamp and some Perspex glue so it could be injected into the crack. I told Arthur that he would have to tell Peter Drew. We couldn’t sleep on Saturday night thinking about all the work that had been done, that we couldn’t finish the commission and that we wouldn’t be paid. When we went back on the Sunday I went to see Peter, who lived in the Dock Master’s house and told him the bad news that I didn’t think we could continue with the commission, but he just said that this is the sort of thing that happens and there must be some way to overcome it. Fortunately, Arthur cleverly came up with a new design incorporating the English roses in a coronet in the back and this covered the crack.

Arthur seems to have had a very natural affinity with Perspex, which is not an easy material to carve.

Yes, he had carved marble as part of his training in Vienna, but didn’t continue with it. Arthur was an accomplished wood carver though. A limewood statuette, Motherhood (1937), which he carved when teaching in Vienna was one of his favourite pieces. He took it with him when he left Vienna and it accompanied him on his travels until he settled in London and now has pride of place in the studio.

Arthur realised that carving Perspex required a different vision, but the same technical skill, although when carving Perspex the tools quickly become blunt. He found that Perspex is not so defined linearly so you have to emphasise this by allowing the light to come through. Carving Perspex he realised the way the light travels is important, because of the concaveness it reflects the light, and I think it harps back to the time he was in Prague and the glass crystal. It was a question of trial and error. He often forgot to sign his work and I had to remind him, but the first Perspex carving (1949) he made he signed beautifully in script because he was so proud of it. 

It wasn’t easy to get Perspex blocks in the beginning because ICI experimented with making them but there was no obvious commercial use. They had made windscreens for the aeroplanes in the war because they didn’t splinter like glass and Perspex was used for military purposes, but not it was until ICI realised that they were gaining publicity through Arthur that they began to provide him with blocks. For example, the block he carved for the first ever advertisement on ITVwhich promoted Gibbs S.R. toothpaste. The advertising company had wanted a large block of ice, but it melted under the heat of the strong photographic lamps so a block of Perspex was the ideal solution and Arthur made icicles to add to the effect.

When ICI introduced coloured Perspex, Arthur wasn’t keen, because the colours weren’t very fine. ICI wanted to promote the coloured Perspex, however, and commissioned him to design eight panels to depict their products. We thought the result looked rather like Chivers jellies. It was only in the late 70s that Arthur decided to use the coloured panels, not for carving, but in structures such as water constructions.

Did Arthur need protective clothing when carving Perspex?

When he carved Perspex Arthur was supposed to wear goggles, but he never did and often I had to take him to the Western Eye Hospital because he had got a piece of Perspex in his eye and of course it was very difficult to remove being transparent and they couldn’t see it. He also had a big shield for protection but he didn’t use that either. In the end they knew him well at the Hospital.

You were a great support to him, particularly as he grew older…

Yes, he would never have managed without me. He made me sweep up the Perspex chips some of which were quite large and sort them into boxes. In old age he decided to make armatures not from wire, but in Perspex rods and then he would apply the Perspex chips. These were unusual, but attractive sculptures, he was well over ninety when he was making them, but although he had someone to help him, it took a long time and was rather finicky so he only made a few.

Arthur worked on well into his nineties, right until the end in fact. He finished his last commission, Homage to the Discovery to DNA at the end of January and then we went to Tenerife in the March for a holiday, where he died.

It is fitting in a way that DNA was his last work because Arthur had never lost interest in the medical world and followed all the latest developments. He was ecstatic when the DNA was first discovered and set about creating his own sculptural version of DNA in the 1980s. Then when he was given a commission for the new wing of the New South Wales Library he immediately suggested Homage to the Discovery of DNA.

Arthur left a great many works in his studio at his death. Did he leave instructions as to what was to happen to them?

It is strange that he never wrote down what was to happen to all his work. We didn’t have the sort of relationship where I was consulted. He was always the one who made the decisions. I am quite perceptive so I would make suggestions in the background, but he was the dominant one. There were no instructions in his will about the sculpture.

He obviously trusted you and Dominique with his legacy and you have both achieved a great deal since his death. What are the plans for the future and the studio?

The Fleischmann Foundation, a registered charity, was formed in 2001. Its aim is to preserve and conserve Arthur’s sculptures and to make them known to the wider public across the world. To this end a great deal has been achieved, including various exhibitions of Arthur’s works and the setting up of the Arthur Fleischmann Museum in his former family home in Bratislavia, Slovakia, which is run by the City of Bratislava. Here in London my greatest hope is that the studio, which contains many of Arthur’s works, will survive and be an inspiration to the next generation of aspiring sculptors.

Main image: Joy Fleischmann in the St. John’s Wood studio where Arthur worked (photo: John Chase, © the Eyre Estate).

Aurora Corio