Signed John Skeaping and dated 1927
Height: 7½" (19.5 cm)
John Skeaping was a British sculptor and painter. He first began to study sculpture in 1914, at Blackheath School of Art in London. Skeaping then attended the School of Art at Goldsmiths College and the Central School of Arts and Crafts. Finally, he secured a place at the prestigious Royal Academy School from 1919 to 1920. In 1924 he was awarded the prestigious Prix de Rome from the Royal Academy. While in Rome, Skeaping met a young Barbara Hepworth, who was the runner-up of the scholarship. The two sculptors began a relationship and went on to marry each other in Florence the following year.
In the 1920s and early 1930s John Skeaping and Barbara Hepworth’s creative activities profoundly influenced one another. Both artists began to move away from the tenets of academic sculpture prevalent at the time, adopting a more ‘modern’, as the critics categorized it, approach instead. They exhibited together at recognised galleries and joined influential exhibiting societies such as the London Group (1928 to 1934) and the 7&5 Society (1932). Increasingly they became the leading figures of the British Modernist movement who were associated with direct carving, together with Richard Perry Bedford and Henry Moore. During these intensely creative years, John Skeaping was ranked alongside Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore as one of the most promising young sculptors of the day. It was Moore himself who commented that ‘no sculptor of his generation was born with greater natural facility than John Skeaping’ (John Skeaping, 1991, p.13)
Throughout this period Skeaping’s work centred around animals, whose forms and dynamics fascinated him. Among the animal figures he carved there were antelopes, buffalos, deer, monkeys, tigers, and polar bears. Works of this period are characterised by the great variety of exotic and local stones - Roman and soap stones, polyphant, Cornish serpentine, Cumbrian alabaster, Irish fossil marble, Sicilian jaune lamantine -, that he carved with great care and ability. In the words of Jonathan Blackwood: ‘At this stage, the sculptor was intent on mastering as many materials as he could, in the manner of a mountaineer conquering unknown peaks.’ (Blackwood, 2011, p. 32)
Gazelle is one of the best examples of this creative period. The quality of the stone, as much as the abstraction of the animal’s form, is what attracts the viewer’s attention. Gazelle’s alabaster is characterized by its inherent translucency. The passage of light through the stone adds an appropriate lightness, while the carving seems almost to glow from the inside. The softness of the stone helped to facilitate the carving of the intimate details of the Gazelle’s anatomy and the accompanying palm tree. The work can be summarised in the three elements noted by John Grienson to be defining for this younger generation of sculptors: ‘new respect of form’, ‘affection for material’, and ‘a dash of gaiety'. (Grienson, 1930, p. 56)
After his divorce from Hepworth in 1932, Skeaping slowly moved away from the debate about aesthetics and modernism, de facto detaching himself from the core of the British Modernist movement. He went on to focus purely on animalier sculpture, particularly equine sculpture. He became the professor of sculpture for the Royal College of Art from 1951-1959 and was elected to the Royal Academy in 1960.
John Skeaping’s work is represented in many leading institutions such as the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Royal Academy, and the Tate Collection. Holders outside the London include the Ashmolean Museum, Fitzwilliam Museum and public collections in Bradford, Leeds, Liverpool, and Manchester. International collections include those in Australia, USA, and Japan. The majority of his sculptures are held in private collections.
The present Gazelle sculpture was likely shown at Skeaping and Hepworth’s first home and the site of their first joint exhibition at 24 St Ann’s Terrace St John’s in 1927. The building is now documented with a Blue Plaque by English Heritage. For the past decades, the work is documented to have been part of the Bobby and Nathalie Bevan Collection. It has been suggested by Nick Skeaping, John’s son, that the first owner of the work might have been Bobby Bevan’s father the painter Robert Bevan. While in the Bevan collection, it was part of the exhibition From Sickert to Gertler: Modern British Art from Boxted House at the Scottish National Gallery in 2008 and was on loan to TATE Britain.
Chris Stephens, ‘Modernism and Tradition in British Sculpture 1929-1939’ in Twentieth Century Architecture, Nr. 8 British Modern: Architecture and Design in the 1930s (2007), pp. 40-50.
Nicholas Skeaping, John Skeaping 1901-80: A Retrospective, exh. cat. (London: 1991), p. 7.
John Grierson, 'The New Generation in Sculpture' in Apollo XII, July-December 1930
Jonathan Blackwood, The Sculpture of John Skeaping (London: 2010), p. 78, no. 66.