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Elisabeth Frink exhibition at the Dorset Museum, Dorchester

Part of the Elisabeth Frink: A View From Within exhibition at Dorset Museum. Left, Gogglehead 1969 courtesy of The Ingram Collection of Modern Art, centre Seated Man courtesy of Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield. (Photo: Hattie Miles)
Part of the Elisabeth Frink: A View From Within exhibition at Dorset Museum. Left, Gogglehead 1969 courtesy of The Ingram Collection of Modern Art, centre Seated Man courtesy of Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield. (Photo: Hattie Miles)

A new exhibition at Dorset Museum showcases the Dorset life and work of one of the country’s most celebrated artists, Dame Elisabeth Frink, who gave her art archive to the county that had inspired her 

Dorset wasn’t just home to the late celebrated sculptor Dame Elisabeth Frink, it was a place of refuge and inspiration, providing the perfect environment for both work and play.

Frink spent the final 16 years of her life in the county creating powerful, groundbreaking art and entertaining visiting friends at her beautiful country estate, Woolland House near Blandford Forum.

After many years living in France and London, the increasingly famous and successful artist and her third husband Alex Csáky discovered Woolland in the mid-1970s and instantly knew that they had found a country base that offered all that they required.

Great British Life: Elisabeth Frink on Bulbarrow Hill, Dorset, c.1970 (Photo: Courtesy of Dorset History Centre)Elisabeth Frink on Bulbarrow Hill, Dorset, c.1970 (Photo: Courtesy of Dorset History Centre)

Nestling beneath Bulbarrow Hill, on the edge of the Blackmore Vale in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the house and its grounds were surrounded by spectacular views across the ancient Dorset landscape. It provided an inspirational location for Frink’s studio and it wasn’t too remote from the London art world or the foundries that cast her sometimes-giant bronze sculptures.

Frink had trained at Chelsea School of Art in the 1950s and found early fame with her massive male figures and naturalistic sculptures of horses and dogs. She would go on to become one of the towering figures of British art, known for an unwavering interest in the nature of man and the laws of the natural world. She was elected as a Royal Academician in 1977 and appointed a Dame of the British Empire in 1982.

Today Frink is best known for her public sculptures which can be seen in a diverse array of locations nationally and internationally including Salisbury, Coventry and Liverpool Cathedrals. Much closer to home, the Dorset Martyrs Memorial (1986) at South Walks, Dorchester, stands on the site of the gallows where Catholic, and sometimes Protestant, martyrs were executed in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Great British Life: Elisabeth Frink working on the Dorset Martyr group in her Woolland studio, 1985. (Photo: Anthony Marshall/Courtesy of Dorset History Centre/ Artist copyright in image kindly approved by Tully and Bree Jammet)Elisabeth Frink working on the Dorset Martyr group in her Woolland studio, 1985. (Photo: Anthony Marshall/Courtesy of Dorset History Centre/ Artist copyright in image kindly approved by Tully and Bree Jammet)

There were also many smaller works, including both sculptures and prints. By the time Frink moved to Dorset there were increasing demands on her time; she needed space and a creative environment to continue developing her art.

Woolland soon became the focus of not only Frink’s intense and disciplined work schedule but also a joyous place for her and Alex to invite their wide circle of friends for fun weekends and long happy meals. Above all it felt like home and in a way it always had been. For although Elisabeth Frink was born in Suffolk in 1930, she had first found Dorset during the Second World War when her Army officer father was posted to the county and her family temporarily moved to the Purbeck village of Kingston.

Though she was just 11 years old, memories of discovering the area and places like Kimmeridge, Dancing Ledge and Corfe Castle remained with her, helping to establish her singular artistic style. Moving to Woolland allowed her to find the place that she felt was her true spiritual home. Her life there with Alex was intensely happy and productive but sadly cut short when they were both stricken by illness. They died within weeks of each other in 2003.

Great British Life: Green Man (Blue) by Elisabeth Frink, 1992. Part of the Dorset Museum collection. (Artist copyright in image kindly approved by Tully and Bree Jammet)Green Man (Blue) by Elisabeth Frink, 1992. Part of the Dorset Museum collection. (Artist copyright in image kindly approved by Tully and Bree Jammet)

Frink was just 63 years old when she died but her artistic legacy lives on. She had long let it be known that she wanted the county to be the permanent home of her considerable archive.

Thanks to her estate many of her works are held by the Dorset Museum & Art Gallery in Dorchester. Now, 30 years after her death, it is staging the first-ever exhibition dedicated to Elisabeth Frink's time living and working at Woolland.

Elisabeth Frink: A View from Within runs until April and showcases more than 80 of her sculptures, drawings and prints including the working plasters that informed her final bronze sculptures that have never been on public display before.

Great British Life: Standing Horse by Elisabeth Frink, 1993, part of the Dorset Museum collection. (Artist copyright in image kindly approved by Tully and Bree Jammet)Standing Horse by Elisabeth Frink, 1993, part of the Dorset Museum collection. (Artist copyright in image kindly approved by Tully and Bree Jammet)

The show examines her working processes, recreating part of her Dorset studio with a collection of her tools and the plasters that formed the basis of some of her best-known bronze sculptures. It includes many quintessential Frink works like Seated Man, Goggle Heads, Walking Madonna, The Dorset Martyrs and there’s even her wonderful maquette for Risen Christ, the piece that turned out to be her final commission.

The inclusion of the work in the show underlines the fact that despite suffering from the cancer that would kill her, this determined and brilliant woman worked right up until the end of her life. The completed work which towers over the western doors of Liverpool Cathedral was unveiled just days before her death.

As well as revealing something of both Frink’s artistic practices and her joy of life, this fascinating exhibition gives visitors the chance to explore the importance of her years in Dorset, through both her art and a selection of personal possessions, including letters and photographs.

Great British Life: Elisabeth Frink's paint box, c. 1990. (Photo: Dorset Museum Collection)Elisabeth Frink's paint box, c. 1990. (Photo: Dorset Museum Collection)

Although relatively compact, this is an important show that has been beautifully designed by its co-curators Annette Ratuszniak and Lucy Johnston. With carefully selected lighting that particularly highlights the unique carving of Frink’s bronzes. It has a thematic layout that takes the visitor through sections dedicated to Family and Social Life, Printmaking, Spirituality and Humanism, Interdependence of Species, Human Rights and New Beginnings.

One intriguing addition to the exhibition is Small Warrior – the 12-inch-tall bronze sculpture bought for £90 at a car-boot sale in Essex. The piece was recently the subject of the BBC One television show Fake or Fortune? Was it the real deal or just a worthless hunk of metal? For a while the jury was out, but after exhaustive scientific tests and expert analysis it was declared to be a genuine rediscovery of a lost Frink original from the 1950s which could be worth £60,000.

Elisabeth Frink: A View From Within runs at the Dorset Museum & Art Gallery in High West Street, Dorchester DT1 1XA until April 21. Further information at dorsetmuseum.org

Great British Life: One of the displays at the Elisabeth Frink exhibition at Dorset Museum. (Photo: Hattie Miles) One of the displays at the Elisabeth Frink exhibition at Dorset Museum. (Photo: Hattie Miles)

Illustrated Talk: Elisabeth Frink at Woolland

Retired museum curator, art historian and co-curator of the exhibition, Annette Ratuszniak worked with the Elisabeth Frink Estate and Archive from 1995 to 2019. In this illustrated talk she examines how Dame Elisabeth Frink, while living at Woolland, was able to build upon her technical mastery and explore her mature ideas and concepts. Dorset Museum, February 15 at 7pm. Book at dorsetmuseum.org/whats-on/

 



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