New Art Centre and The Kenneth Armitage Foundation present an exhibition of sculpture and works on paper by Kenneth Armitage which explore the sculptural potential of trees, specifically the ancient oaks he found in Richmond Park.
The focal point of the show is the monumental bronze ‘Richmond Oak’ (1985) which is sited in the sculpture park at Roche Court. ‘Richmond Oak’ was originally commissioned by the Government Art Collection to stand in the garden of the British Embassy in Brasilia, one of several important large-scale works Armitage made during a long, illustrious career.
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Richmond Park was one of the notable primeval sites in Britain which fascinated Armitage, and John McEwen describes it as one of the “holy English places” that Armitage returned to often as a ritual: “what a sanctuary it was for him from life’s helter-skelter”. (The Richmond Oaks, ‘Redefining: Jessie Flood-Paddock with Kenneth Armitage’, exhibition catalogue, Leeds, 2017). It was the park’s age which made it so fascinating to Armitage, the oak trees seeded in the Middle Ages were witness to the great span of history which enthralled him. For more than thirty years, Armitage visited the park at all times of the year and made studies of these trees, some becoming particular favourite subjects: “The strange peculiarities are well known – branches of massive girth… or jerky, right-angled twists and turns, as though convulsed by electric shock, and deeply fissured bark textures accentuating like intermittent traffic markings on a motorway… each black tree standing free in space isolated, awesome, still, with limbs in frozen gestures”. (Kenneth Armitage, Fuji Television Gallery, Tokyo, Gallery Nagoya and Gallery Kashara, Osaka, exhibition catalogue, 1978). These tree subjects made in sketchbooks later became finished drawings, etchings, collages and subsequently table-top bronze sculptures.
William Kenneth Armitage CBE (1916 – 2002) was born in Leeds. He studied at Leeds College of Art and the Slade School in London before joining the British Army in 1939. During World War II he was stationed at Salisbury Plain. After leaving the army, Armitage became head of the sculpture department at the Bath Academy of Art, Corsham in 1946. In 1952, he held his first solo exhibition in London and showed at the Venice Biennale. He went on to exhibit in major museums, galleries and sculpture parks around the world including Documenta I, Bienal de São Paulo, Tate, MoMA, the Guggenheim Museum and Hakone Open-Air Museum. His work is also in important international collections of art. In 1953, he was made Gregory Fellow in Sculpture at the University of Leeds (to 1956). In 1958, he won best international sculpture under age 45 at the Venice Biennale. Armitage was appointed a CBE in 1969 and was elected to the Royal Academy in 1994. In 2001, his sculpture ‘Both Arms’ was sited in Millennium Square, Leeds and was unveiled by Nelson Mandela. His ‘Richmond Oaks’ body of works were first shown at Gimpel Fils, London in 1980 and were the subject of an exhibition alongside works by Jessie Flood-Paddock (former recipient of the Kenneth Armitage Fellowship) at The Tetley, Leeds in 2017. His work has often been exhibited in the park at Roche Court and was the subject of an exhibition in the gallery in 1995. We are grateful to Robert Hiscox, Ann Elliott and Catherine Aspey for helping make the current show possible.Courtesy of New Art Centre, Salisbury