In memoriam: Phillip King PRA

Published 7 January 2022

Painter Paul Huxley RA and sculptor William Tucker RA pay tribute to the former President of the RA who expanded the language of 20th century sculpture.

  • From the Winter 2021 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    During his period as President of the RA, the late sculptor aimed to nurture the institution as a place of culture and creativity, writes his right-hand man at the time, former Royal Academy Treasurer Paul Huxley RA.

    With the very sad news of Phillip King’s death our country has lost one of its most important sculptors, something I believe all of us at the Royal Academy are feeling most keenly. And I have lost an old friend. Phillip was a lovely, kind and thoughtful man, as well as a hugely distinguished artist.

    I first got to know Phillip in 1963, after we were both invited to join the Rowan Gallery. The gallery was then building a stable of artists, especially sculptors, who were to prove to be amongst the leaders of an important new generation. Later that decade Phillip and I had studios in the same building, above a plasterer’s workshop near Primrose Hill. We also shared the same circle of artist friends who lived and worked nearby, such as William Tucker and John Hoyland. Later, Phillip and I each found ourselves heading up separate schools at the Royal College of Art, respectively as Professor of Sculpture and Professor of Painting, and later still we were both elected to the Royal Academy. Phillip was voted in as President of the RA in 1999 and the following year he asked me to stand as Treasurer and I was duly elected.

  • Phillip King RA in his studio

    Phillip King RA in his studio

    Photo: David Vintiner

  • There is no denying that Phillip became President at a time of internal tension at the Royal Academy – a kind of warfare between different interests was rife. Phillip, however, had not a political bone in his body. When he was elected he was seen as a ‘safe pair of hands’. He approached his presidency with the idea of nurturing the RA as a place of culture and creativity.

    Despite the conflicts of the time, Phillip oversaw a period of some major milestones for the RA. In 2001, the Academy completed the purchase of its Burlington Gardens building and began to stage exhibitions. There was the renewal of Burlington House, which included the refurbishment of the Annenberg Courtyard and the opening of the John Madejski Fine Rooms. There was a wonderfully rich menu of exhibitions. I particularly remember ‘Aztecs’, ‘The Art of Philip Guston’ and the Japanese prints in ‘The Dawn of the Floating World’. But it was at the French exhibitions such as ‘Paris: Capital of the Arts’, ‘Ingres to Matisse’ and ‘Vuillard: From Post-Impressionist to Modern Master’ that Phillip was at his most presidential, cutting a very distinguished figure delivering his address in fluent French to the visiting dignitaries.

    Phillip had studied modern languages at Cambridge and as President, he had the foresight to initiate a partnership with his former university, placing major sculptures from the RA Collection within its grounds. This not only gave public exposure to large works in our collection that would otherwise languish unseen but relieved the Royal Academy of the financial cost of storage. At St Martin’s School of Art in the mid-1950s, the sculptor Anthony Caro became Phillip’s mentor; there was some lovely circularity in the fact that once Phillip was President, decades later, the elder artist finally accepted election to the Royal Academy. Under Phillip’s watch, other world-class sculptors such as Antony Gormley and Richard Long also joined.

    It was a real privilege for the RA to have at its helm such a significant artist as Phillip. We shall all miss him dearly, as a sculptor and as a man.

    Paul Huxley RA is a painter

  • William Tucker RA pays tribute to the mind of a man who expanded the language of 20th-century sculpture.

    Phillip King had the most original mind of anyone I have ever met. He also – and in consequence – made some of the most original sculpture of the 20th century. At the time we first met he had not made that sculpture, but he was thinking about it: perhaps that is the wrong expression; he was opening the windows of his mind to allow it, or rather them – the visions of future sculpture – to enter. We met, I think, in about 1960 at St Martin’s School of Art. Phillip was working for Henry Moore by day and teaching a weekly evening class in the sculpture department.

    I was working in the welding and stone carving basement studio alongside Maurice Agis and the Israelis Buky Schwarz and Menashe Kadishman. David Annesley and Mike Bolus were soon to join us there. I was also sharing a garage studio near Swiss Cottage with Isaac Witkin. Phillip had seen an informal show of welded steel pieces I had put together in a small exhibition space on the third floor and was intrigued.

    We started a conversation that was to go on intensely at first, and then at increasing intervals over the next 50 or 60 years. The immediate question was, what were these things I had made? Not figures obviously, yet not constructions in the sense of an assembly of metal parts. I thought of them as ‘objects’ somewhere on the borderline between things of the everyday world – tools, furniture, signs, doors, windows etc – and things, or images of things, like Brancusi’s carved ‘Cups’ or Duchamp’s Bottle Rack, that embodied the memory of use in the everyday world but were no longer or could never have been useful. Phillip came up with a marvellous phrase to describe what I was after – an object with ‘a familiarity that resists recognition’, which has echoed in my mind ever since. Phillip in 1960 was contemplating something more ambitious that would be neither ‘object’ nor familiar or even recognisable as sculpture.

    It might have been a year after our first meeting that I, and separately Tim Scott, Tony Caro and a few others, were invited to see what Phillip had been up to. In his attic studio were, as I remember, Window Piece, Declaration, Drift and Rosebud (1962/1965). The strangeness of these names alone may give a sense of the shock I experienced at the sight of what had emerged from Phillip’s head; each complete, whole and distinct from each other, and unlike anything known as sculpture before.

  • Phillip King PRA, Rosebud

    Phillip King PRA, Rosebud, 1962/1965.

  • If these were not sculpture they were not ethereal visions either. To the contrary, they were solidly realised in available, everyday materials: wood planks, a steel pipe, unfinished and polished concrete, coloured polyester resin. Not sculpture materials, but useful materials, inventively used to produce each idea so that our impression of each form cannot be separated from its physical identity at its scale, the actual scale of a human standing there, occupying a human space; not that of a model, something on a pedestal.

    This scale came naturally to Phillip, confident in his engagement with the physical world, and in his Mediterranean origins (he was born in Tunisia and spent his early childhood there).

    Phillip once told me of his discovery of fibreglass, which became for a while his signature material; of how he was looking for a material to build a boat, and first tried resin reinforced with steel mesh; the boat let in water and sank when launched in a local reservoir, so he turned to fibreglass reinforcement, which bonded perfectly with the resin. And what better material to make a cast from linoleum in the form of a cone, five-feet high with a diameter at the base of six feet, if that was needed to realise Rosebud, a thing which had never existed before?

    After the initial shock had worn off I began to notice hints of a connection to modern works not well known in Britain, to Georges Vantongerloo and Max Bill, and to the Gestalt psychology Phillip used to speak of. Brancusi was an influence we shared, and Matisse, whose late cut-outs remained in our minds. But for most of our contemporaries, like my friends Basil Beattie and John Hoyland, the single major influence was that of the ‘new’ American painting. In my case, and at that time, it was certain works by de Kooning and Motherwell.

    For Phillip I think it was Rothko, whose majestic, unified rectangles of sombre colour seem to hover free of gravity just as Rosebud seems to float just above the ground. But Drift and Declaration have each a different, tense relation to the ground on which they stand, or is it rest? Each one of these works has a character you could describe in terms of geometry and measure, and at the same time the ambiguous presence of a dream image; yet these aspects are not in contradiction.

    Matisse said, in a 1941 interview: “In painting – in any oeuvre – the goal is to reconcile the irreconcilable. There are all kinds of qualities in us, contradictory qualities. You have to construct something viable with that, something stable. That’s why you work your whole life long and want to keep working until the last moment…”

    I don’t know if Phillip knew this passage, but his life is a testament to it.

    William Tucker RA is a sculptor.