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(1916 - 2002)

Kenneth Armitage was born in Leeds in 1916. He trained in the arts at the Leeds College of Art and then the Slade School of Fine Art in London, thanks to a scholarship. After graduating, he joined the British Army (Royal Artillery) in 1939. After fulfilling his military duties, the sculptor was elected head of the sculpture department at the Bath Academy of Art (1946–1956). This position allowed him to develop his eye and hand in regard to most contemporary trends and practices, sharing his own perspective on the medium with his first solo exhibition in London in 1952.

Following this first showing, he was swiftly selected to represent his country that same year at the 26th Venice Biennale alongside Reg Butler, Lynn Chadwick, William Turnbull and Eduardo Paolozzi. Together, they offered a sculptural alternative to the trend set by Henry Moore: a new anti-monumental, expressionist approach. This group marked the renaissance of post-war British sculpture, partly by re-embracing the art of bronze casting after the material’s rarity due to the Second World War. Armitage, for example, was instrumental in founding a foundry at Corsham for students and staff to use under their own supervision.

In 1953, Armitage made history by becoming Great Britain’s first university artist in residence through the Gregory Fellowship at the University of Leeds, in his hometown. His residency lasted until 1956. The accolades continued in 1958 when he won best international sculpture under the age of 45 at the Venice Biennale. By that time, his work had found a lasting identity. Firmly rooted in figurative anthropomorphism, his work reflects a freedom to venture outside its chosen motif, evoking animals, nature or design, always with a touch of humour. In the 1980s, his corpus lent more heavily on naturalistic tropes inspired by the biodiverse vegetation of London’s Richmond Park, but without rejecting the body: ‘Naturally my sculpture contains ideas or experiences other than those that derive directly from observation of the human image; nevertheless it is always dressed in some degree in human form.’

His influence and consistency provided him with a steady place in British Art History. He was featured in the 1964 documentary film ‘5 British Sculptors (Work and Talk)’ by American filmmaker Warren Forma; was appointed as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1969 and was elected to the Royal Academy in 1994, among other notable accolades.

Following his passing in 2002, a monumental retrospective of Armitage’s work was exhibited at Victoria Art Gallery in Bath, Kenneth Armitage 1916–2002: Centenary Sculpture Exhibition, from 10 September – 27 November 2016.

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