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John MILNE

1931-1978

Carved Form

Nigerian Guarea

height: 36.5cm

width: 41cm

LITERATURE
Lynette Forsdyke-Crofts, Reflection of a Sculptor. The Art and Life of John Milne, St Ives 1998, illus., p.39 (catalogued as JM29 ‘Study for Gnathos’, 1955)

This rare and outstanding example of John Milne's direct carving is a revelation, linking his early 1954 and 1955 carved masterpieces ‘Vertical Form’ and ‘Gnathos’ - both made just after he left his post as assistant to Barbara Hepworth. All carved in Nigerian Guarea - undoubtedly from the famous 17 ton trunk given to Hepworth in 1954 - the clamping jaws of ‘Gnathos’ collide here with the curvaceous sculpted back form of ‘Vertical Form’.

A huge trunk of Nigerian Guarea arrived at St Ives Harbour in six pieces in 1954 for Hepworth as a gift from her friend Margaret Gardiner. It had to be manhandled up the cobbled streets to her studio where John Milne was working as her assistant and pupil. Between 1954-1956 Hepworth sculpted six pieces out of the guarea wood, many of which were inspired by her trip to Greece with Gardiner early in 1954. Both Milne and Denis Mitchell, also then working as Hepworth's assistant, during those years produced works in guarea - Milne carving his early masterpiece ‘Gnathos' 1955, ’Vertical Form’ 1954 - both of which were later realised in Bronze a decade later - and most probably the present work.

The present work was given to Milne’s great friends by the artist and this goes someway to explaining why the work is lacking a JM catalogue number. The way the Milne estate was handled directly after his death, has meant the archive is by no means comprehensive with sculptures with not only missing entries within the sequence of JM numbers but also JM numbers missing sculptures (1). So the exact dating of the present work is uncertain but as Lynette Forsdyke-Crofts eludes in her book it seems to fit very neatly between Milne’s two early mid Fifties Guarea carvings.  

Milne continued to work in Nigerian Guarea throughout his life carving another ‘Vertical Form’ in 1977 and in the late 1970s was producing some of the best work of his maturity - ‘Credo’ 1977,  ‘Osiris’ 1976 and ‘Resurgence’ 1976 being the stand out works. However all these works are certainly more upright and thrusting in their manner and have none of the horizontal solidity of the early works and indeed this sculpture. Yet it cannot be dismissed that the present work is indeed one from the missing sequence of JM numbers from JM168-182 late in his life when he was preparing for a major US exhibition before his untimely early death. Whatever the scenario, it is undoubtedly one of Milne’s most accomplished sculptures and a rare surviving tour de force of St Ives’s great middle generation artists.

(1) As noted by Irving Grose in Peter Davies’ book where photos exist of undocumented works, and for example, JM4-5, JM168-171, JM178-179, JM 182 are left blank. Whilst also, for example, the casting of 'Persepolis' 1974, edition 3, polished bronze, is missed out entirely. (Fortunately an original signed invoice still documents this.)

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Gnathos 1955  Nigerian Gaurea

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Vertical Form 1954  Nigerian Gaurea

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Further Reading 

  • 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

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BIOGRAPHY

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.’

Milne participated in many group exhibitions, including Penwith Society of Arts and Newlyn Society of Artists, in Cornwall, Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery and Genesis Galleries, New York.

One-man exhibitions included several at Marjorie Parr Gallery (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 when he was preparing for a major US exhibition. 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
 

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A NOTE ON THE PROVENANCE FROM THE PREVIOUS OWNERS

 

"I met John Milne in St Ives in 1961. He lived in a large house called Trewyn, (next door to Barbara Hepworth), and worked in his studio in the grounds with his assistant, Richard Dubienicz. The rear part of the house was an entirely independent property that was owned by Heather Jamieson. Both John and Heather were excellent hosts, and enjoyed entertaining. Many were the dinner parties and parties.

My first teaching position was at St Ives Primary School which was then in The Stennack. One of my pupils was the daughter of Doreen O'Casey (Breon's wife). Doreen and I became firm friends, which extended over many years. I was asked to be relief curator at the Penwith Art Gallery, which position I took up during school holidays. I lived a couple of doors away from Kath and Terry Frost, and another firm and long friendship was formed. These connections led to my association with many of the sculptors, painters, potters and writers who either lived in St Ives or nearby, or sometimes were in the area. 

I moved to Penzance in 1969, and opened a restaurant with my then husband. This restaurant was patronised by John and many of his friends. It was the first Bistro to open in Cornwall, and was a success. John's friends included John Schlesinger, Richard Wattis and other actors, as well as prominent members of the London art world.

John gave me a few pieces of his work for birthday presents etc. I remained friends with John after moving further West, and used to stay at Trewyn, usually because he was giving a party etc.

 

When John died on 24th June 1978, his family was not interested in his work at all, and his assistant, Richard Dubienicz, took over the entire stock, which I believe he intended to manage and market. Owing to circumstances, he was unable to cope with this, and asked me to help. I realised that if I did not, the collection would be lost. The larger works were deteriorating outside Richard's home, and he needed the space that the rest were taking up. I had a large house at that time, so all works were moved there. I sold a few, and gave Richard the proceeds. All I wanted was to keep and further John's memory and work. I did a few small exhibitions with some success, but my time was limited and I was researching to find a buyer that would take over from me and who was a professional. I eventually found a Dutch art professional, and I introduced him to Richard. The outcome was successful, but I do not know the details. His untimely death came at the time when his work was really taking off in America particularly."