Artistic Merit, the Vagaries of Fashion and the Revenge of the Marketplace: a memory or two

Lynn Chadwick, Crouching Beast 1, 1990

Lynn Chadwick, Crouching Beast 1, 1990

Crouching Beast 1, 1990

Crouching Beast 1, 1990

There is a photograph of the British sculptor, Lynn Chadwick (1914-2003) by Lee Miller. It was taken in 1957 in East Sussex in the garden at Farley Farm (where she lived with her husband, Roland Penrose). Lynn is shown, seated on the ground, leaning against a sapling, cigarette in mouth, beside a tray of kitchen knives, which he is sharpening, He is totally nude, and in very good shape. Coming upon this photograph, in a brand-new monograph about Lynn by Michael Bird (Lund Humphries), is not the most surprising thing I’ve learned recently about Lynn, who, despite the difference in our ages (he was six years older than my mother and three years younger than my father) was a close friend for 30 years.
What really astonished me is what has happened to the prices for his work. There are currently several big shows of Lynn’s work – an unmissable one of some of his very best pieces at Osborne Samuel in London, and concurrent retrospectives at Blain Southern in London, Berlin and New York.
We met in 1970 in the village of La Garde-Freinet, in the Massif des Maures, 20km above St Tropez. I had rented a house there, to give my mother a breather from a complicated relationship she was having at home in the US. The night of our arrival I went, with our houseguest (now Professor Dame) Hermione Lee, to call on the Cambridge economist, Nicky Kaldor, who summered there. One of his dinner guests was introduced to us as Chadwick, and both Hermione and I assumed it was the Cambridge theologian. We couldn’t have been more wrong, as we discovered when we gave him a lift home, and he played us the record of the tune he’d been humming all evening. The lyric was: “Which way you going, Billy? /Can I come, too?” Any speculation as to which of us was Lynn’s Billy was soon clarified: Lynn’s heterosexuality was on a Picasso-rampant scale.
We learned that first evening that Lynn liked conspiracy theories, considered himself neglected by the art establishment, and had a feeling these were related aspects of the universe. His sense of irony was too developed, however, for him to take any of this seriously, and he was ever-ebullient company at the dinners cooked by his wife Eva at the little house, the long lunches at Le Club 55 on Pampelonne Beach and even whole weeks at Lypiatt Park, where Eva (our elder daughter’s attentive godmother) cooked for dozens, usually including Lynn’s (long-term) girlfriend of the moment.
I admired most of Lynn’s work, and so did my wife (we married in 1977), and Lynn was generous, especially with his drawings, which he didn’t seem to value highly. Except for one lovely watercolour of a rose in a vase, these were of his sculpted figures, angular, spiky even, including one pair of drawings of figures on the blue-and-white striped mattresses we had so often hired and lounged upon at St Tropez. Inscriptions show these were birthday gifts and the like. The drawings were never studies for sculptures, but made after the sculptures.
I can remember showing them to Gilbert and George, who appreciated them so much that we telephoned Eva, who urged us to bring G&G to stay the night at Lypiatt – which we did. Barry Flanagan also esteemed our little collection of Lynn’s work. But most of our art world friends who were our contemporaries – viz., younger than Lynn, shared the opinion Lynn himself so rued and was so inured to, and thought him out of touch and not of the first rank.
Lynn had started his career in the glare of glory, winning the gold medal for sculpture at the 1956 Venice Biennale, taking the top honour away from a rival called Giacometti. He looked to be the natural successor to Henry Moore, but the comparison was made too frequently to be helpful or agreeable to either party. The critic Herbert Read had given him pride of place among those sculptors whose work expressed The Geometry of Fear. Lynn had plenty of exhibitions in commercial galleries, and his work, in fact, sold very well abroad – well enough for him to live in the style his friends so relished at Lypiatt, eating at its sculpted terrazzo heated-table dining room with the raised platform containing the fireplace, overhung by one of his sensational metal mobiles. He’d converted the Gothic pile himself and, as Lord Snowden’s celebrated photographs show, it’s almost a work of three-dimensional art itself, from its sunken bath to the perfect height of its sculpture gallery and its 10 glorious acres of gardens.
But Lynn was sadly right about his reputation. Where were the public exhibitions? A touring show in Japan in 1991 only sharpens the question of why the Tate did not give him a retrospective until the year of his death, 2003.
Lynn’s reputation was a victim of the vagaries of fashion. Though it appeared, especially to the press, that his best work was done early on, we can now see that he was reinvigorating some of that work in his late period, as, for example, when he reworked, as late as the 1990s, his wonderfully menacing beasts – in sheets of stainless steel.
As always, I suppose, the market has the last word, and the saleroom record for his work now stands at £2m. So here was my second surprise. We had to have our Chadwicks valued the other day: the delightful drawings that Lynn considered trifles are each worth four figures. And his son, Daniel, is a talented artist himself, living at Lypiatt and working with similar materials.
Crouching Beast 1, 1990

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