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Aumbry door
  • Aumbry door
    Geoffrey Clarke RA, born 1924 - died 2014
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Aumbry door

  • Place of origin:

    Suffolk (designed and made)

  • Date:

    1956 (designed and made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Geoffrey Clarke RA, born 1924 - died 2014 (designer and maker)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Cast aluminium and glass

  • Credit Line:

    Purchased with the support of the Decorative Arts Society and its members.

  • Museum number:

    M.18-2017

  • Gallery location:

    Sacred Silver & Stained Glass, Room 83, The Whiteley Galleries, case 8B

Ecclesiastical metalwork of the 20th century and contemporary is relatively rarely available as it is generally still in use. This proposed acquisition is a case in point since it is a prototype for an aumbry door still in place in St. James’s Church, Shere. This prototype is evidently a trial run in aluminium, a relatively cheap material for the door installed, in bronze, a much more expensive material.

Geoffrey Clarke RA enjoyed a swiftly ascending reputation which began to flourish while he was still a student at the Royal College of Art in the early 1950s. In 1951 he was commissioned to produce, Icarus, a glass and iron screen for the Transport Pavilion at the Festival of Britain. Again while still a student, he was commissioned by Basil Spence in 1952 to design and make three stained glass windows and metalwork objects, including a crown of thorns, a cross of nails and an altar cross for Coventry Cathedral, one of the largest British post war commissioning projects which was eventually completed in 1962. Apart from his work at Shere for Louis Osman, Clarke also collaborated with Osman on the Lincoln Cathedral Treasury in 1960. As a designer and maker of ecclesiastical work, Clarke was the dominant figure in post war Britain until the mid-1960s.

Clarke’s use and skill with aluminium became legendary and was much admired by his fellow sculptor, Reg Butler, who also rose to artistic prominence in the 1950s. Clarke who learnt his welding techniques at British Oxygen and experimented with carved polystyrene to use as formers for his cast aluminium pieces was formally and technically in the British sculptural avant-garde. What the V&A 20th century ecclesiastical metalwork collection lacks is any representation of what was avant-garde at the time it was conceived and produced and this aumbry door significantly corrects this. The introduction of modern art and craft into an ecclesiastical setting did not always meet with either critical or public approval. Coventry Cathedral was roundly condemned by the architectural critic, Reyner Banham when it was completed in 1962. The painting, Noli me Tangere commissioned by Chichester Cathedral from Graham Sutherland in 1960 was defaced by a woman using a ball point pen in 1963. Another collaboration of Graham Sutherland’s, this time with Louis Osman for an altar cross for Ely Cathedral in 1961 was rejected by the Dean and Chapter when it was delivered in 1964 and is now in the Dallas Museum of Art. Although there is no record of any controversy around the work directed by Louis Osman for St James’s Church, Shere, the commission nonetheless represents a brave and committed decision on the part of the governing clergy at the time.

Physical description

Prototype in cast aluminium for a bronze aumbry door installed in St James's Church, Shere, Surrey. The panel, approximately square with relief decoration; in the centre, a glass shard representing an amethyst in the final version, from which emanate sunburst rays and framed by an outline representation of a chalice, the shaft of which is embellished with a Greek cross.

Place of Origin

Suffolk (designed and made)

Date

1956 (designed and made)

Artist/maker

Geoffrey Clarke RA, born 1924 - died 2014 (designer and maker)

Materials and Techniques

Cast aluminium and glass

Dimensions

Height: 38 cm maximum, Width: 40.5 cm maximum, Depth: 4 cm maximum

Historical context note

In 1952, the critic Herbert Read coined a name for the art of the group of eight sculptors showing in the British Pavilion at that year’s Venice Biennale. Writing in New Aspects of British Sculpture about the works – spiky, organic forms that often seemed mutant or angry – Read came up with the phrase “the geometry of fear”. Among the artists to whom it was applied were several whose names would dominate British sculpture for the decade to follow and, in some cases, beyond: Lynn Chadwick, William Turnbull, Reg Butler, and Kenneth Armitage. Others of the group were to have a less enduring fame; one of these was Geoffrey Clarke, (1924-2004).

What makes Clarke’s later eclipse the more surprising is that he was, in 1952, both one of the stars of the group and one of its youngest members. Born in Darley Dale, Derbyshire, he enjoyed precocious success. The son of an architect, John, who was a keen amateur etcher, and his wife, Janet (nee Petts), and grandson of a church outfitter, Clarke arrived at the Royal College of Art, London, in 1948 after studying at three northern art schools and serving in the RAF.

Quickly deserting the RCA’s graphic design course for stained glass, he made a window panel that caught the eye of the college’s principal, Robin Darwin. The piece was awarded a silver medal, an honour unheard of for a first-year student. In 1950, Darwin put Clarke’s name forward for inclusion in Basil Spence’s project to rebuild Coventry Cathedral. By the time of the 1952 Biennale, the 27-year-old sculptor was at work on a decade-long series of commissions that would eventually include the cross and candlesticks for Coventry’s high altar, a vast metal crown of thorns and three of the cathedral’s 10 nave windows – the last forming part of one of the largest stained glass programmes of the 20th century.

A decade later, a Sunday Telegraph critic ticked off many other major commissions that Clarke had made since leaving the RCA: “Candles and altars for Chichester Cathedral; 30 relief panels for the Canberra liner; doors for two London banks; a light fitting for a bank in Liverpool (‘I believe the teller resigned the next day’); a mosaic for Liverpool University; a tapestry design for a sheikh’s palace in Kuwait; aluminium reliefs for two Cambridge colleges; screens for the Royal Military Chapel, Birdcage Walk; and most recently a relief sculpture for the new Nottingham theatre.” So busy was Clarke, by now in his late 30s, that he was rumoured to travel between projects by helicopter.

What happened next is neatly spelled out by the Tate’s holdings of his work. Of the 10 sculptures and prints by Clarke in the gallery’s collection, all but one date from the 1950s; the 10th, an aluminium table-sculpture called Block with Eight Pieces, was made in 1964 and acquired in 1965. None of the works is currently on show. In godless days, Clarke’s strong and early identification with what might broadly be called Christian spirituality did his subsequent career few favours. He was not the only artist to suffer in this way. Some of the other young contributors to Coventry Cathedral paid for their association with the project and with the older names linked to it: John Piper, Graham Sutherland, and Jacob Epstein.

What made this particularly unfair in Clarke’s case was that he had been one of the most experimental of the Geometry of Fear sculptors, and remained among the more materially innovative. The sheer number and scale of his early commissions had meant finding ways of making work quickly and cheaply. While many of his fellows followed the time-honoured and time-consuming path of modelling in clay and casting in bronze or iron, Clarke made his models in polystyrene – “It simply evaporates,” he remarked, awestruck – and cast the sculpture in aluminium.

At first, this was done in a sandbox in the small studio foundry Clarke built in a barn beside the house, Stowe Hill that he and his future wife, Ethelwynne Tyrer, known as Bill, had chanced on while driving through Suffolk in 1954. So successful were his early aluminium pieces that this quickly grew into a larger workshop, run with the help of assistants – the couple’s son, Jonathan, now himself a sculptor, would be one – and with a polystyrene cutting room attached. Works such as the Battersea Park series of the early 1960s show the imprint of their hands-on fabrication, a rough-hewn, bark-like quality that gives them the look of a medieval take on Anthony Caro’s contemporaneous Early One Morning.

This, too, did not serve Clarke well. Although his aluminium sculptures were highly innovative and impeccably modern in their making, they looked and felt hand-crafted. By the time the Battersea Park works were being cast, fashion had turned away from skill. Pop art, the dominant strand of its day, demanded slickness and appropriation: Clarke surpassed at neither. Although he was made a Royal Academician in 1975, his work was not included in the RA’s Modern British Sculpture show in 2011.

Icnographically, too, his work bucked the trend. Although his name had come to be linked with ecclesiastical art, Clarke had ceased to be a churchgoer in 1954. His leanings were roughly Jungian. His interest in the cross, for example, had less to do with its Christian symbolism than with its role as a universal archetype. For all that, Clarke remained good-natured about the religion that had been both his salvation and his downfall. Asked, in a 2011 interview, what kind of commissions had followed his work at Coventry, he replied with a sigh: “Many crosses.” Then he brightened and added: “Actually, I wouldn’t mind seeing all those crosses in a book together. I could have a whole exhibition of crosses.”

Descriptive line

Prototype for an aumbry door, cast aluminium and glass, England, 1956, designed and made by Geoffrey Clarke RA for St. James's Church, Shere, Surrey.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Jenny Moore, Louis Osman (1914-1996), The life and work of an architect and goldsmith, Tiverton, Haslgrove, 2006. pp. 79. 87. ill. ISBN: 1841144908
Eric Turner, `An Aumbry Door Designed and Made by Geoffrey Clarke, RA (1924-2014)', in the Decorative Arts Society Journal, No.41, 2017. ed. Megan Aldrich, pp.206-208. ill.
Judith LeGrove, Geoffrey Clarke Sculptor, Catalogue Raisonné, London, Pangolin in association with Lund Humpries, 2017, p.56. ill. ISBN: 9781848222540

Labels and date

Prototype for an Aumbry Door
Cast aluminium and glass
England, Suffolk, 1956.
Designed and made by Geoffrey Clark RA (1924-2014)
This prototype was made in preparation for a bronze version, installed in St James's Church, Shere, Surrey, in 1956.
Purchased with the support of the Decorative Arts Society and its members.

M.18-2017

[06/03/2017]

Materials

Aluminium; Glass

Techniques

Casting; Setting

Subjects depicted

Paten; Chalice

Categories

Architectural fittings; Christianity; Metalwork; Religion

Production Type

Prototype

Collection

Metalwork Collection

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