Dame Elisabeth Frink (1930–1993), one of twentieth century Britain's foremost sculptors, is best known today for her naturalistic, powerful massive style exemplified by works featuring horses, dogs, and male figures. Her sculptures typically displayed strength and aggression, and are now found throughout the world. In addition to her work as a sculptor, Frink was a long-time art instructor at the college level and created lithographs and other works to illustrate books.
Early Life and Education
A child of an upper-middle-class British family, Frink was born November 14, 1930 in Thurlow, Suffolk, in the East Anglia region of the country. Her father was in the army, causing the family to move several times during Frink's childhood; she attended school in Aldershot, Hampshire and also in Scotland, but commented in Frink: A Portrait that "the house [in Suffolk] is what I remember best." After Frink's father returned from fighting in World War II, the family traveled to Dorset, on the southern coast of England, where Frink developed an interest in drawing. When Frink went with her mother to visit her father, then stationed at Trieste, Italy, she solidified her interest in art after visiting museums in Venice.
In 1947, Frink entered the Guildford School of Art. After a brief flirtation with painting, she became a student of sculpting, the format that would dominate her artistic output for the rest of her life. Frink completed eighteen months at Guildford before continuing her education in London at the Chelsea School of Art, where she had gotten a scholarship. Upon moving into Chelsea from suburban North London after her first year of study, Frink enthusiastically entered into the bohemian lifestyle traditionally associated with art school. In 1952, Frink held her first London exhibition as part of a show with three or four other contemporary sculptors. The show was a success, with London's prestigious Tate Museum buying one of Frink's pieces. Promptly, Frink became associated in minds of art critics with a number of "new school" sculptors, despite being several years older than she was.
Career began to Rise
In mid-century Great Britain, the possibilities for artists to make their livelihood exclusively from their artwork were limited. Most earned a steady income from teaching and Frink was no exception. After her graduation from Chelsea School of Art in 1953, she took a post as an instructor at the School, where she remained until 1961. From 1954 to 1962, she also taught at St. Martin's Art College in London. However, in the early 1960s the tide in sculpture was turning to the more purely abstract as influenced by contemporary American art, while Frink's work retained a measure of the figurative. Despite being pushed out by these art world changes, Frink enjoyed teaching and considered her years as an instructor to be useful for her development as an artist.
Her duties as a teacher did not stop her from producing sculpture. In 1955, she had her first solo exhibition at St. George's Gallery, London, and by 1957 was receiving major commissions. In 1958, she joined Waddington Galleries, a business relationship which would last nearly until the end of her life. Throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, Frink participated in numerous group exhibitions and occasional solo exhibitions, including three in the United States in 1961.
During this period of Frink's life, she met architect Michel Jammet, a Frenchman living with his family in Dublin, Ireland. The couple married in 1955, afterward living primarily in London but often visiting Ireland. Jammet and Frink had a son, Lin, in 1958; however, their marriage dissolved and they divorced in 1963. The following year, Frink remarried to native Britisher Edward Pool. In the early 1960s, commissions for massive sculptures and sculpture groups came in from public institutions and private businesses as Frink's popularity and notoriety increased. Her distinctive style, emphasizing the powerful and masculine, intrigued critics and solidified her position in the art world. From 1965 to 1967, Frink resumed teaching as a visiting lecturer at the Royal College of Art in addition to her regular work, which now including lithography and etchings.
To France and Back
In 1967, Frink and her husband, along with Lin, moved to a house they had purchased in France a few years previously; in the book Frink: A Portrait, Frink once commented that "it was really rather ironical that I should be living in France with my British rather than my French husband." The arrangement was comfortable, particularly since Frink's young son spoke fluent French and could attend local schools. Although she was now living on the Continent, Frink continued work apace and often exhibited in England, traveling back and forth over the English Channel as necessary and maintaining connections to her native land. This period also saw her illustrative work reach its height, with the publication of editions of Aesop's Fables in 1968 and of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in 1972 featuring Frink's drawings. Otherwise, the family lived in France quite happily until the summer of 1970, when Frink met Hungarian count Alexander Csàzy. Almost immediately, the two began having an affair. The relationship remained secret from even Frink's closest friends until 1973, when, deciding she was deeply in love with Csàzy, she informed her shocked husband that she was leaving him for the count. By April 1973, Frink had returned to London and was living with Csàzy. The couple married in June of the following year; however, Frink's professional triumphs held par with her personal pleasures.
In 1974, Frink devoted some of her time to nontraditional sculpture projects: a racing trophy studded with diamonds as well as the Frink Medal for British zoologists. While the former project produced only one piece, the latter has continued through the years, with the award still given annually. An edition of Homer's Odyssey containing Frink's illustrations appeared. She also became an Associate of the Royal Academy, a group considered antiquated by most contemporary artists; however, Frink believed that her role in the Academy would allow her to promote younger artists by selecting them to show at national exhibitions. The mid and late 1970s brought several commissions, including ones for large horse sculptures, animals for the Zoological Gardens, and portrait busts. Frink's works were also exhibited both throughout Great Britain and internationally at major cities including Johannesburg, South Africa, New York City, New York, and Toronto, Canada. The late 1970s also saw Frink relocating from the London area to Dorset, in the south of England, where she would live for the rest of her life.
Active Until the Last
The 1980s held capstones for Frink's career. In 1982, a new publishing firm proposed to produce a Catalogue Raisonné of all of her works to date; and the Royal Academy planned a retrospective of her life's work, a great honor. The date of the retrospective, originally to be held in 1986, was moved forward a year due to space demands at the gallery, causing Frink some headaches due to her busy commissioned work schedule. In 1985 alone, she was committed to two major projects: a set of three figures for a corporate headquarters, one of which was a nearly seven-foot tall male nude; and the other, a grouping entitled Dorset Martyrs to be placed in Dorchester, England. However, despite the potential for conflict, the retrospective was a success and spurred the art world to hold more exhibitions of Frink's worth, with four solo exhibitions and several group ones coming in the following year. Tirelessly, Frink continued to accept commissions and sculpt, as well as serve on advisory committees, meet with art students who had expressed an interest in her work, and pursue other public commitments.
Frink kept up this hectic pace of sculpting and exhibiting until early 1991, when an operation for cancer of the esophagus caused an enforced break. However, short weeks later Frink was again creating sculptures and preparing for solo exhibitions. In September, she underwent a second surgery. Again, Frink did not let this hold her back, proceeding with a planned trip for exhibitions to New Orleans, Louisiana, and New York City. The exhibitions were a success, but Frink's health was clearly deteriorating. Despite this, she was working on a colossal statue, Risen Christ, for the Liverpool cathedral. This sculpture would prove to be her last; just one week after its installation, Frink died as a result of her cancer on April 18, 1993, at the age of 62. Her husband had predeceased her by only a few months. In Frink, Stephen Gardiner, Frink's official biographer, argued that this final sculpture was appropriate: "This awesome work, beautiful, clear and commanding, a vivid mirror-image of the artist's mind and spirit, created against fearful odds, was a perfect memorial for a remarkable great individual."
Gardiner, Stephen, Frink: The Official Biography of Elisabeth Frink, HarperCollins, 1998.
Humphries, Lund, The Art of Elisabeth Frink, Noyes Press, 1972.
Lucie-Smith, Edward, and Elisabeth Frink, Frink: A Portrait, Bloomsbury, 1994.
New York Times, April 20, 1993.
"Dame Elisabet h Frink," http://www.sculpture,org.uk/biography/ElisabethFrink (January 1, 2006).
"Dame Elisabeth Frink," Grove Art Online, http://www.groveart.com (January 1, 2006).
"History of the Frink School of Figurative Art and Sculpture," http://www.frinkschool.org (January 2, 2006).