After successful years in the 1960s, with exhibitions at the Whitechapel Art Gallery and at the Redfern Gallery, the early 1970s were important and transitional years for Bryan Kneale and ones experienced in close connection to the Royal Academy and its exhibition programmes.
Having been made an Associate of the Academy in 1970, at the age of forty, Kneale exhibited his first sculpture in the 1971 Academy Summer Exhibition. He recalls the invitation to be an Associate vividly:
Around about 1970 I was elected an Associate of the Academy, because in those days you became an Associate before you became an Academician. In the nineteenth century you could be an Associate all your life without ever becoming an Academician. Associates were rather an inferior lot in the nineteenth century. When I was elected I was very heavily engaged in quite a few things to do with the arts—the reconstruction of the art schools I had been involved with quite a bit. I was teaching at the Royal College of Art and I ended up on the Arts Council and I was elected to the RA, which caused a certain amount of consternation because a lot of my friends expected me to turn it down. I was actually with Bryan Robertson, Paul Huxley and Bridget Riley when they rang through to say I’d been elected and they all immediately said “you must reject it, say no”, but I decided I would go ahead with it because I has a feeling the Academy was ripe for change.1
Kneale had been raised on the Isle of Man, originally trained as a painter, first at the Douglas School of Art in 1947, and subsequently at the Royal Academy Schools between 1948 and 1952, and where he won the prestigious Rome Prize. Kneale has vividly described these early years at the Royal Academy schools:
I began at the RA schools when I was about seventeen actually. Of course, we all started young in those days. I remember there was one chap who was twelve. The Academy was a very different place in those days—we’re talking about the late forties. It was a wonderfully eccentric place. The other students loved exploring, as I did later, the Natural History Museum and I explored the Academy in the same way. You would find amazing things in the library, or in the basements or so on. It was amazing the treasures that were there.2
During the 1950s, following a period spent in Italy, Kneale’s relationship with the Academy developed as he exhibited his paintings frequently in the annual Summer Exhibitions. At the end of that decade, however, his work took a new direction, turning from painting to sculpture.3
There were also personal circumstances in play that enabled this shift, with Kneale’s new brother-in-law, who was an engineer, teaching him how to weld. This quickly helped him acquire the tools, confidence, and ability to begin working in sculpture. As early as 1967, in Studio International, Bryan Robertson was able to write:
What Kneale is doing now is to delineate an abstract narrative thread, which encompasses a set of events, like a melodic line in music. And melody, as Marshall McLuhan reminds us, is the melos modus, “the road round” and in this sense is a continuous, connected and repetitive structure.4
No doubt encouraged by such recent critical appreciation, Kneale submitted some of his abstract works to the Summer Exhibition in 1971 and, much to his surprise, four drawings and one sculpture, called Nikessen, were accepted (Fig. 1). It is fascinating today to imagine Kneale’s abstract-orientated work in this Academy Summer Exhibition setting. His neighbours in the Central Hall included sculptors Robert Clatworthy, Elisabeth Frink, Ivor Roberts-Jones, Uli Nimptsch, Eric Schilsky, and Willi Soukop—all of whom were RAs or ARAs, apart from Elisabeth Frink. The Central Hall also included a bronze Bozzetto per Carrozzo by Giacomo Manzù (an Honorary RA) and works by Michael Hole and Deidre Hubbard, who exhibited a fibreglass sculpture called Hybrid Bird. The steel Nikessen was surrounded by figurative sculptures and stood out among work by these artists. Its unusual title also set it apart from more descriptively titled works, suggesting both a Scandinavian association and a play on the word “kinesis”. The sculptors who exhibited elsewhere in the galleries in 1971, which included Ralph Brown, James Butler, Alan Thornhill, Gertrude Hermes, and Karin Jonzen, were also figurative artists.
Exhibiting in the Summer Exhibition of 1971 encouraged Kneale to further build his relationship with the Academy, and in that same year he approached the President, Thomas Monnington, with a radical proposal intended to reinvigorate the Academy’s exhibition programme. This also coincided with his involvement in the ambitious City Sculpture Project, funded by the Peter Stuyvesant Foundation, which would orchestrate the installation of large sculptures across major cities in Britain in May the following year, including one of his own—a steel sculpture called Astonia, on the City Art Gallery forecourt in Southampton.5 Kneale’s proposal to the Academy proved to be hugely important both for the Academy and for the appreciation of contemporary sculpture in Britain more widely. The impact of the subsequent exhibition, titled British Sculptors ’72, which might be compared with the later Sensation exhibition of 1997, was considerable. The artists Kneale included—twenty-four in total, including himself—were some of the most talented working in Britain at the time, including William Tucker, Eduardo Paolozzi, Michael Sandle, Kenneth Draper, William Pye, Roland Piché, Robert Clatworthy, Garth Evans, Nigel Hall, Carl Plackman, Martin Naylor, Brian Wall, and Phillip King. As critical responses changed and reputations became established, many of these sculptors went on to become Academicians themselves, and in the case of Phillip King, President.
In 1974, Kneale was the first “abstract” sculptor to be elected a Royal Academician and his relationship with the Academy has only strengthened over time. In 1997, he edited the Summer Exhibition catalogue and he continues to exhibit at the Royal Academy annually. In 2014, Kneale exhibited a work with the same name as that of 1971, Nikessen, this time made of stainless steel and intended to sit directly in the gallery floor (Fig. 2). Made at Pangolin Foundry, and measuring 135 x 45 cm, when situated inside the Academy its reflective curvilinear surface reflected the surrounding art works. The appearance (and reappearance) of this enigmatic subject, a literal and metaphorical reflective marker, between 1971 and 2014, at both ends of an incredibly productive and creative career, is a striking visualisation of the recent history of sculpture at the Academy.
Bryan Kneale, interviewed by Anna Dyke, Artists’ Lives: National Life Stories, British Library, reference C466/247, sound recording.↩︎
Bryan Kneale, Royal Academy website, https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/art-artists/name/bryan-kneale-ra (accessed 2 February 2018).↩︎
In his own words and with a characteristically compelling image, Kneale pinpointed exactly the moment of this change:
One day … in a life-class, I suddenly realised that when the model opened her mouth I became aware of an internal world which whilst invisible was more real than the outer one. This need to explore and express the whole led me to sculpture.
Hilary Spurling, Bryan Kneale: Small Sculpture and Maquettes (London: Taranman, 1977).↩︎
Bryan Robertson, Studio International, October 1967.↩︎
See City Sculpture Projects 1972, Essays on Sculpture 76 (Leeds: Henry Moore Institute, 2016)↩︎