Eric Kennington 1888-1960


David Gill Gallery, London
Private Collection, UK


C. Geoffrey Holme and Shirley B. Wainwright, Deocrative Art 1926, 'The Studio' Year-Book, (London: The Studio, 1926) p. 176
Jonathan Black, The Sculpture of Eric Kennington, (Aldershot: Henry Moore Institute in association with Lund Humphries, 2002) fig.16 cat.7 p.31 (brass version)
Eric Henri Kennington was born in Chelsea, the son of genre painter and founder of the New English Art Club, Thomas Benjamin Kennington. After leaving St Paul’s School prematurely, he travelled to Russia in 1905 where he witnesses the first Russian Revolution and upon returning to England the following year resolved to become an artist, enrolling at Lambeth School of Art. There, he studied alongside and became close friends with Glyn Philpot. Kennington dabbled in illustration, but his virtuosic adaptation of the Pre-Raphaelite style soon directed him towards a career as an exceptionally talented portraitist and muralist in the pattern of Ford Madox Brown. Yet, with war in Europe arriving in August 1914, Kennington enlisted and faced extended frontline action for a period of three months. He was wounded and honourably discharged in 1915, thereafter directing his efforts towards paying tribute to the soldiers still serving in France. Showing clear ability as a colourist and with unabashed representation of dire conditions faced in France, Kennington quickly caught the attention of prominent figures including William Rothenstein. Rothenstein encouraged Kennington to begin sculptural works in the early 1920s. Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill and Frank Dobson influenced Kennington’s decision to carve directly from a solid block of stone or wood rather than modelling in clay and casting to bronze, and by the 1930s he was considered their equal. As Jonathan Black writes, ‘[Henry] Moore was more formally innovative, but Kennington was as inventive as Epstein and as technically proficient as Gill and Dobson.’ (The Sculpture of Eric Kennington, p.8) Kennington also became known for his portraiture in pastels. He maximised the delicate medium to render his sitters with a sensitivity few of his contemporaries could surpass.

The present work, a jovial figure of Bacchus – the Greek god of wine, is a remarkably early three-dimensional work by Kennington. His first sculptural work, PBI (Poor Bloody Infantry) (1920, plaster, now at the Miami Museum of Modern Art and Design), was a bas relief and had been completed just two years before Bacchus was conceived. His first free-standing sculpture of significant scale was the 24th Infantry Division Memorial in Battersea Park (c.1922-4, Portland stone) – an astonishingly ambitious and accomplished work at such an early stage in Kennington’s career. These works show the artist’s immediate mastery of his medium: using the firm foundation of excellent draughtsmanship and modelled contours in shaded pastel or chalk studies, his translation of the motif into the block of stone was a direct, immediate and haptic realisation his artistic vision unmediated by the involvement of other craftsmen in a casting process.

Bacchus is significant as it sees Kennington begin to experiment with materials beyond the stone and plaster he previously favoured. The robust blocky forms of the figure anticipate The Male Child (1928-9) which was direct carved in Roman Stone. Bacchus’s clear aesthetic debt to the processes of direct carving – its solid construction of tactile contours and smooth, flat planes – imply it was likely cast from a full-scale plaster or stone model. Though a laborious process, this allowed the artist to create multiple casts. Two are known to exist: the present work in bronze and another version in brass. Kennington rarely used brass later in his career but regularly returned to bronze, favouring a low, dark finish rather than the high, brass-like polish it is possible to achieve with the metal and which Frank Dobson exploited with such success with his portrait of Osbert Sitwell (1923, National Portrait Gallery). Bacchus, therefore, forms an important experimental turning point in Kennington’s career as he began to establish his relationship not only with his sculptural materials but also with his fellow sculptors and contemporary competitors.

Unlike Dobson and Gill, who he nonetheless admired, Kennington resisted the movement toward an austere form of classicism after the war and instead favoured a joyful and humorous engagement of the human form. Bacchus, with his mischievous smile, pert buttocks and half-hidden bottle, is the apotheosis of this tendency which signals the need for refreshment and revelry after wartime hardship. War commissions would continue to sustain and expand Kennington’s reputation through the interwar years and, come 1939, a return to memorial subjects would confirm his place amongst some the most capable direct carvers in the country. However, it is the diversity of Kennington’s output and the versatility it represents that makes him an exceptional and individualistic proponent of modernism in Britain. From this playful Bacchus to the recognised masterpiece of Kennington’s career, his Recumbent Effigy of T.E. Lawrence (1939, Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums), to his caustic lampooning of Mussolini in War God (c.1932-3, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds), the present revival of interest in Kennington’s work and the gradual raising of his status to match that of his more famous contemporaries is justified by the range, quality and technical finesse found in his oeuvre.