In 1968 the art historian JP Hodin was in discussion with Barbara Hepworth at the St Ives Penwith Society exhibition, after being introduced to John Milne, Hepworth said to Hodin:
“He is the only one of his age group of whom I believe the he will be going far. That is also why I persuaded him to stay here in Cornwall to grow roots, after he had finished work as my assistant. Ask him to show you his bronze ‘Gnathos’. It is masterly and accomplished. No artist could ever wish for more.”
The most significant step taken in John Milne's career was his decision to learn direct carving in stone and wood from Barbara Hepworth. He was her pupil and assistant during the years from 1952-1954. Milne remained friends and purchased Trewyn House next to Barbara Hepworth's studio in 1956 - her studio had once been an outbuilding of Trewyn House. And indeed Milne later sold another part of his garden to Hepworth to raise funds for further castings and a studio he was to make in the 1965. Although his work was recognisably reliant on Hepworth’s modernist approach to transforming an idea of landscape and figure through sculpture, his approach was distinctive in the context of St Ives for its embrace of Mediterranean and African references – the fruit of frequent travel to Greece, Persia and Morocco.
In 1959 Milne exhibited in the 'Eleven British Artists' exhibition at the Jefferson Place Gallery, Washington D.C. Fellow exhibitors were Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton, Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, Bryan Wynter, Karl Weschke and Sandra Blow. Whilst others of the Middle Generation faltered or changed the style of their work dramatically after Lanyon's death in 1964, Milne went from strength to strength. The catalyst for this was perhaps that, whilst a permanent resident in St Ives until his death, Milne was a frequent traveler - visiting Greece every year from 1962. His trust fund set up by friend Cosmo Rodewald in the early 1950s allowed Milne this privilege that definitely facilitated his learning from other cultures and indeed not being so tied too or suffocated by the artistic milieu that surrounded St Ives.
Milne's early determination to learn from Barbara Hepworth was a personal one, deeply connected with what was then perhaps an unconscious stylistic preference. This fact set his work apart from that of Chadwick, Armitage or later of Caro and others.
The carvings and few casts Milne made in the late Fifties were particularly strong, yet his production did not falter, for by 1966 Milne had created the bronze 'Ganthos', a masterpiece seen both from a technical and formative view. With works like the bronzes 'Ganthos' and 'Credo', Milne firmly placed himself in the first rank of the middle generation St Ives Artists but also as one of the few from that Generation whose output was going from strength to strength as the 1970s approached.
Born in Eccles, Lancashire, in 1931 Milne studied electrical engineering at Salford Royal Technical College in 1945, then transferred to the art school at the College, specialising in sculpture, until 1951. In the following year he attended the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, in Paris. For two years he was then a pupil of the sculptor Barbara Hepworth and her assistant, along with amongst others, the sculptor Denis Mitchell. Although some of Hepworth’s assistants later moved away from her style, Milne’s work continued to bear some relation to it. In 1956, he purchased Trewyn House, a large property in St Ives, next to Barbara Hepworth's studio (her studio had once been an outbuilding of his house), which provided him with studio space and a view to the sea below.
Milne from the early 1960s visited Greece regularly, an influence which showed itself in works such as Gnathos, owned by the Tate Gallery. The artist wrote: ‘I often cast works with more than one type of finish in order to be absolutely sure that the final result is the most perfect that I can obtain. I consider the polished bronze of Gnathos as the ultimate fulfilment of my original idea. The Greek word “Gnathos” means “jaw” or “jawbone” which describes my feeling of “biting” or “getting ones teeth into” something, be that something my life or my work—this was the emotion of the sculpture. Gnathos was a complete change of direction in my work at that point (1960). I have since carried out many other sculptures and reliefs which continue this pincer-like feeling amongst which are Totemic II and the relief Icarus.’
One-man exhibitions included several at Marjorie Parr Gallery (1969,1972 & 1974), Lad Lane Gallery, Dublin, and a retrospective at the Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, in 1971. His reputation grew and his work was collected and exhibited extensively in the UK and abroad; exhibitions were held in Vancouver in 1974 and, jointly with Denis Mitchell and Enzo Plazzotta, in Saudi Arabia in 1976; several Milne exhibitions were also mounted in the USA.
He continued to live and work in St Ives until his untimely death in 1978 at the age of 47. The Belgrave Gallery exhibition in 2000 marked the publication of Peter Davies’s The Sculpture of John Milne.
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John Milne photographed by Ida Kar in 1961
John Milne photographed by Ida Kar in 1961
36.5cm x 41cm
John Milne Retrospective Exhibition at Plymouth City Art Gallery 1971
signed JEM, titled, dated 1969 and numbered 2/9
(on the underside of the base)
height: 37cm.; 14½in.
width: 10cm.; 4in.
Conceived in 1969, the present work is number 2 from the edition of 9.
cold cast aluminium
Signed JEM, dated /1969 and numbered 7/9 (on the underside of the base)
Height: 53 cm
Depth: 15 cm
J.P. Hodin, John Milne, exh. cat. Marjorie Parr Gallery 1974
J.P. Hodin, John Milne: Sculptor, London 1977
Lynette Fosdyke-Crofts, Reflections of a Sculptor, The Art and Life of John Milne, St Ives 1998
Peter Davies, The Sculpture of John Milne, London 2000 ISBN: 0906647045