Elizabeth Frink: maquette for the Dorchester Martyrs

The work of Elizabeth Frink (1930-1993), sculptor and printmaker, is instantly recognizable. Its principal themes, in the words of her Timesobituary, are ‘the nature of Man; the ‘horseness’ of horses; and the divine in human form’. While she has suffered the fate of many artists in that her reputation has undergone an eclipse since her death, the major exhibition of her work which was held in Nottingham in 2016 suggests that she is in the process of being rediscovered, and the strength of her work will once more be recognised. 

Frink was brought up as a Catholic, and much of her oeuvre is religious. Her final work was a colossal ‘Risen Christ’ for Liverpool Anglican Cathedral.  In 1983, funding was made available from the Arts Council’s ‘Art for Public Places Scheme’ to the Council of Dorset Natural History and Architectural Society, which commissioned her to create a group of figures, ‘the Dorset Martyrs’, to be placed in Dorchester on Gallows Hill, the site of the gallows where Catholics were hanged in the 16th and 17th centuries. The most notorious execution was that of  John Cornelius SJ, John Carey, Patrick Salmon and Thomas Bosgrave who were captured at Chideock Castle and executed on Gallows Hill on 4 July 1694.

Frink went to live in Dorset in the 1970s and spent the rest of her life there, so she was connected with the area. As a convent-educated Catholic, she was familiar with English Catholics’ history of persecution in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. Additionally, she was highly aware of contemporary Catholic work against poverty and social injustice in Central America; such as the life and death of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was murdered in 1980; her work thus reflected both historic and contemporary Catholic witnessing for the faith. In the 1960s, she submitted work to a competition to create a ‘Monument to an Unknown Political Prisoner’, and she was a long-term supporter of Amnesty International. Prisoners of conscience and martyrs were a theme of her work through the Seventies, such as the ‘Protomartyr’ she created for Bury St Edmund Cathedral.  

The installation for Dorchester consists of three bronze figures, over life size, each on an irregular base, and facing inwards. At the centre is a bronze plaque, which says ‘For Life and Conscience Sake’. One figure is cowled and gowned, his face set in stern lines of judgment, and in motion towards the other two figures, one hand is coming up to condemn, or perhaps to strike; he evidently represents persecuting authority. The other pair stand quietly; one with his hands tied behind his back, the other with hands loosely clasped, still, and balanced, their faces full of resignation. 

In the course of thinking through and finalising the images, eight maquettes were made and exhibited at the Dorset County Museum in 1983, and the full-sized figures were installed on Gallows Hill in the same year. One of these maquettes is now at Campion Hall, by courtesy of a grant from the Simpson Foundation, which furthers general charitable purposes, with a particular concern for Catholic matters