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Out to lunch with Bryan Kneale RA

Published 31 October 2011

Over a seafood lunch, Sarah Greenberg admires the Academician’s steely resolve.

  • From the Spring 2011 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    The December blizzard prevented Bryan Kneale from leaving his house for a week, and meant we had to keep cancelling our lunch. But the energetic 80-year-old does not give up easily. When at last the weather cleared just before Christmas and he came down to meet me at Green’s, I had the pleasure of meeting an artist who has stuck to his guns for over 50 years.

    At the time of our lunch, he was due to undergo an operation for colon cancer. “The operation should be nothing,” insisted Kneale, who happily has been proved correct. It certainly didn’t impair his enthusiasm for a lunch of traditional British classics at Green’s, down the road from the RA. He chose the St James’s haunt both because it is one of the few quiet restaurants in central London – it has the padded feel of a gentleman’s club – and because it brings back happy memories. “We came here for lunch when I was on the committee to appoint a sculptor to create the Animals in War Memorial in Park Lane because Andrew Parker Bowles, who owns the restaurant, was also on the committee.”

    Kneale also feels at home in the neighbourhood because one of his first commissions, for a jewellers’ shop, was around the corner in Jermyn Street. “I built the shop as a piece of sculpture, out of steel and slate, so that it became more of a sculptural fortress than a shop.” While he was working in Jermyn Street he would occasionally pop up to the RA.

    “I was man and boy at the RA. I went to the RA Schools to study painting when I was 17 because I was desperate to get away from the Isle of Man, where I came from.” We break off the conversation to order lunch. Torn between tempting dishes, Kneale orders potted shrimps followed by a wonderful roast monkfish with fresh butternut squash ravioli. I choose the dressed crab to start and the monkfish as well. To drink, he selects a white Sancerre, with flinty, minerally tastes that complement our meal and somehow remind me of his metal sculpture.

    A year after Kneale entered the RA Schools, he won the prestigious Rome Prize, age 18. “The greatest joy of Rome for me was discovering the Etruscan sculptures at the Villa Giulia, it’s where everything clicked for me. They were magnificent – so human but also abstract.” When he returned to London, aged 20, Kneale continued painting. It was only when he was watching his brother-in-law welding that he decided to try working with metal himself, and he has never looked back. By 1966, he had a solo show at the Whitechapel, and in 1970 he was the first abstract sculptor to be elected RA. However, he refused to join unless the Academy allowed him to stage a show of contemporary sculpture. They agreed and the result was a groundbreaking survey of the huge flowering of sculpture in Britain that was taking place at that time. It was also the first show of contemporary art at the RA outside the Summer Exhibition.

    “The RA at that time was in a parlous state. It had ceased to have a point. My friends said joining it was the kiss of death. But I thought I could convince my sculptor friends to realize the potential of the place. These are some of the finest galleries in Europe, and particularly suitable for sculpture.” Kneale showed 24 contemporary sculptors. “The only one who wouldn’t take part was Tony Caro. He had also been to the RA Schools, and he thought the RA was so entrenched in bad old ways that it would never change. He said, ‘You can’t make a bucket of dirty water clean by putting clean water in it.’ He’s an RA now, of course, and it has changed.” Part of that change can be traced to Kneale’s show, which brought a new generation of sculptors into the RA.

    Over coffee, we talk about the RA’s Modern British Sculpture exhibition: “It’s a great opportunity lost, because it doesn’t reflect the enormous events that have occurred in sculpture over the past 30 years,” he says. We move on to discuss his forthcoming show, which surveys the past 15 years of his work. “It’s a good chance to show different sides of my personality as a sculptor, with pieces on the walls and on the floor, using the whole gallery space. The sculptures are in different kinds of metal, stainless-steel, bronze, copper, tin. And they are all worked by hand in some way.”

    The writer Hilary Spurling has described Kneale’s poised, free-form metal sculptures as “line drawings in space” and the handmade aspect of his work is crucial to him; he still designs on sheets of metal and finishes all his work by hand. “I’ve always been hands-on. Now I have to reconcile myself that I’m physically unable to do everything I used to do – I can’t lift my sculpture anymore – and it makes me cross. Nowadays most sculptors make work in factories, with others fabricating it at their direction. But I need to stay physically involved. So I make smaller pieces that are enlarged by other people. And I’m drawing a lot more.” His haunting drawings of skeletons inspired by Stubbs’s anatomical drawings will be on show in the Friends Room this spring.

    I take away from my lunch with Bryan Kneale the sense of an artist whose tenacity, combined with a generosity of spirit towards other artists, has enabled him to make an impact in the British art world well beyond the body of his work. At 80, he may complain that he can no longer lift his heavy sculptures but he is still going strong.

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