Cambridge University Library

Sculptor George Kennethson remembered in centenary donation to University Library

23 June, 2010

Modlmayr DonationSome revealing insights into the life and work of sculptor George Kennethson lie within a batch of more than 80 of his hand-written letters donated to Cambridge University Library this week to mark the centenary of his birth.

Born in Surrey on 22 June 1910, Kennethson has been described as a hidden genius by donors Hans-Jörg Modlmayr and Hildegard Modlmayr-Heimath - who corresponded with him until his death in 1994.

Also included in the gift to Cambridge University Library are letters to the couple from Jim Ede, founder of Kettle’s Yard, who was a long-time champion of Kennethson’s work, and letters from the artist’s wife, Eileen, to the Modlmayrs following her husband’s death. There are more than 150 letters in total.

Hans-Jörg said: “The letters reveal how he was struggling for financial survival at various points in his career, especially during the 1980s which were very hard for him. A German collector bought seven or so pieces and that basically kept him afloat. It was a lifeline.

“The letters also reveal how independent-minded he was. He wouldn’t join any of the clubs, if you know what I mean. He was absolutely committed to his work and its merits alone. He was very dedicated and hard-working.”

Kennethson began to study art aged 17 through drawing at St John’s Wood School of Art and he entered the Royal Academy Schools to study painting in 1929.

After college, he took a studio in St John’s Wood and continued to paint, but by 1936 he had begun to make terracotta models as three-dimensional sketches for future stone carvings.

However, a move in 1938, to live under the famous White Horse etched into the hills above Uffington in Oxfordshire, was undoubtedly an inspiration to carve in fine local stone: Purbeck, Hornton, Clipsham, Ancaster and also in alabaster. In 1959 he settled in a disused brewery outside Oundle, and for some time he taught art at Oundle School, where he was an inspirational teacher.

George Kennethson carved everyday subjects: birds, people, simple events, relationships, waves and the sea, and there are obvious resonances in terms of form and line with Moore and Hepworth, though his work is more grounded in the practicalities of life.

Yet unlike these two, Kennethson kept to his specialist medium of carving English stone. It is an exceptional body of work. Although still little-known, Kennethson is undoubtedly one of the most highly skilled and authentic English sculptors of the twentieth century but, as yet, with the exception of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh and Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, he is still unrecognised by any of the major national museums.

He exhibited with the New Art Centre in London and at Roche Court Sculpture Garden in Wiltshire. Merrell have published a monograph on Kennethson and his estate is managed by Wilson Stephens Fine Art in London (wilsonstephens.com).

Hans-Jörg added: “It is a great pity that to date the British public has not yet had a proper chance to discover the true genius of George Kennethson – and that such a great artist still remains hidden in his own country.”

In a review in the Independent newspaper of an exhibition of Kennethson’s work at the Roche Court SculptureGarden, Salisbury, Wiltshire in 1999, Lesley Jackson wrote: “his mastery of the medium kept him faithful, despite critical neglect” “Having failed to appreciate his work, and the patronage of Jim Ede, first time around, if the art world has any sense it will take notice now”.

Collector Hans-Jörg Modlmayr is a well-known author and broadcaster in Germany and frequent arts reviewer on national German radio. He studied history and English at Peterhouse College in Cambridge under Professor Herbert Butterfield. After his degree he taught German at Gonville & Caius College and in the German Department of Cambridge University. He has maintained close ties with his University.

The couple have also donated a piece of Kennethson’s work, (Untitled c.1983) which the University is now seeking a suitable home for.