The Sculptures of Hugo Powell

The sculptor Hugo Powell was born in Reading in 1924, and died in 2014.  A full collection of portfolios documenting his career are in the Henry Moore Institute Archive, and a variety of his work is held in major public collections.  Campion Hall holds three sculptures, ‘Memorial for a Chinese Acrobat’ (1977), in terracotta, ‘Phoenix’, in wood, and ‘The Source’, mixed media, which has come to the Hall only this week. They are the gift of the Powell family. We have also been given two powerful black chalk preparatory sketches of ‘Jacob Wrestling with the Angel’ for a war memorial which was realized only in plaster, and never cast.

Powell attended Leighton Park, a Quaker school, and though he did not become a Quaker, he was impressed by their ideas and beliefs about peace and war and joined the school’s Pacifist Society. He then went to Hornsey School of Arts and Crafts in the late 1930s, and joined the Peace Pledge Union as a student. 

His work forms a link with the English interwar modernists, since he visited Eric Gill, the great proponent of direct carving, in his teenage years, and also learned from Eric Kennington.  At Hornsey, somewhat against the grain of the teaching he was receiving from the sculptor Harold James Youngman (1886–1968), ‘a stickler for realism’, he was attracted to ‘revolutionary, under-the-counter sculpture’, and above all, to the work of Henri Gaudier-Brzeska.  

When he was called up for war service in June 1939, he made the difficult decision to become a conscientious objector.  He trained as a nurse and joined a Quaker ambulance unit, the Hadfield Spears Field Hospital, which served with the First Free French unit through the North African and Italian campaigns. This experience had a formative effect on his work; it was, he said, ‘a very mind opening period of my life’. The human side of it was remarkable: ‘it was perhaps one of the most extraordinary units that existed anywhere in the war. To have such marvellous cooperation between perhaps the most chauvinistic collection of Frenchmen imaginable and pacifists, many of them Quakers, was truly astonishing – let alone the bizarre mix of people making up the hospital.’[1]

After the war he established himself as a successful artist and craftsman, producing commissions for public buildings and churches and working as a monumental mason. In 1948, he was commissioned to produce a wall of architectural lettering for the London Olympics, which is now in Brent Museum. He moved to Oxford in 1969, and set up a studio where he worked for the rest of his life. By this time, he was able to give up commissioned work, and follow his own bent as an abstract sculptor. In a note he wrote in 2013, he says, ‘The influences behind this change of direction were too many and too various to explain here. However, one artist in particular I would mention -- Paul Klee. His ‘Pedagogic Notebooks’ (about two-dimensional work and colour) gave me the clue to what I was really looking for: an approach to three dimensions that was rigorous, analytical and at the same time genuinely liberating and poetic.’  He later defined effective sculpture as ‘interesting, truthful, and expressive’. Despite severe sight loss due to macular degeneration, he was able to continue working to the end of his life. 

Most of his sculpture is highly abstract, and in a wide variety of media, which includes terracotta, bronze, limestone, marble, alabaster, Bath stone, yew, beech, mulberry, and found objects. Much of his work is enriched both by personal symbolic associations, and by the universal symbolic languages of literature, religion and art, and explores themes of spirituality, symbolism, nature and form. Of ‘Memorial’, Powell says that it is ‘a variant of one of my first abstract sculptures, ‘The Juggler’, made in 1954 … This is playing with the idea of The Number Three. At the time of the carving of ‘The Juggler’ I was going through a period of intense interest in the application of schemes of number and proportion to sculpture. Nowadays I usually try to bury this idea of compositional approach like a skeleton in a work so that it is felt rather than visually obvious.’  The work is a triad, and the shape of the corner elements subtly suggests the sleeves of a traditional Chinese tunic on upraised arms.

The theme of much of his last work was the phoenix, symbol of resurrection, to which he attached a private meaning; as he said in a brief video interview, ‘the phoenix is for me a way of talking about one’s free will … to make the choice of what we are’. A bronze cast of his last piece, ‘The Dancing Phoenix’, was delivered to his studio only two weeks before his death.  The wooden Campion Hall phoenix is part of this series. Our most recent acquisition, ‘The Source’, dates to 1985, and is a high-relief panel made from found stones, slates, shells, a piece of polished jasper, lead and glass.  It arose out of a meditation on Psalm 84:6, ‘As they pass through the Valley of Baka, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools.’ Earlier in his career, Powell was commissioned to carve this on a tombstone, and the text stayed with him. When he returned to it in 1985, it had become associated in his mind with his war service in the Western Sahara, the main theatre of the North Africa Campaign, which gave him personal experience of desert conditions and thirst, and also of the dreams that they produce.




[1]           For further information on the context for this experience, see Gill Clarke, Conflicting Views: Pacifist Artists(London: Sansom & Co., 2018). I am grateful to Dr Clarke for help with this note.

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