Issue Number: 120
The work of sculptor Ralph Brown was a homage to the human figure. Ann Christopher RA remembers her tutor, friend and colleague
I first met Ralph Brown (b.1928) in the late 1960s while I was studying sculpture at the West of England College of Art in Bristol, and was unaware at the time how great a friend he would become. It was with Ralph’s encouragement that I first submitted work to the RA Summer Exhibition in 1971. Ralph became a Royal Academician in 1972 and I was later elected in 1980.
As a tutor Ralph was constantly challenging. He made us question ourselves and, in retrospect, he was teaching us what it was like to spend one’s life making sculpture. Although Ralph’s work was figure- based he never imposed his ideas on students who made abstract work. He was the consummate professional artist and always forward-looking, having previously helped many art schools move from the technical-based structure of the National Diploma in Design to the more creative Diploma in Art and Design.
Ralph Brown RA in his studio in Digswell in 1963, with Head. 'Queen' (1963) to his right and other works in progess. Photo: Jorge Lewinski.
Ralph had been linked to the postwar group of artists known as the ‘geometry of fear’ school (an allusion to its artists use of spiky forms), which included other Academicians such as Kenneth Armitage, Lynn Chadwick and Eduardo Paolozzi. But Ralph’s work appeared much more organic than those sculptors. His work connected more with that of Auguste Rodin, or Germain Richier, whose sculpture he saw in the early 1950s when he spent time in Paris as a young artist.
Ralph’s work kept evolving throughout his career. He moved from the tough Meat Porters – a much acclaimed commission for Harlow new town in 1959 – to an organic semi-abstract phase (as near as Ralph would get to abstraction) in the 1960s, which included his enamelled cast-aluminium work Confluence, shown in the Greater London Council’s sculpture exhibition in 1966 in Battersea Park. From around 1974-75, his work became more figurative and sensual, taking the human body and especially the female form as his inspiration.
Ralph’s path and mine crossed many times over the years: my partner cast his work for over 30 years, and when Ralph and his family moved to France we visited often. We always took bacon, Marmite and sculpture materials to France for him, and we lived off gathered snails, wild strawberries and wine. Later, on his return to England, Ralph and I had studios in the same complex, and we also had many meetings at the RA. One of my last memories of Ralph was asking him to write a piece recollecting me as a student: ‘You were very determined,’ he said. He was determined too.
I will always be indebted to Ralph for his friendship and guidance, and although our work was very different there was a mutual respect for the attempt to survive as a sculptor.