Thu, 8th Jul 2021 15:00

Modern & Post-War British Art Part II: The Studio of Alan Thornhill

  Lot 201

ALAN THORNHILL (1921-2020)

ALAN THORNHILL (1921-2020)
Self-portrait in the studio
oil on board
76 x 50.3 cm (30 x 19 3/4 in)

Artist's estate

For further details on the artist, please check:

The sale of the contents of the Putney studio of Alan Thornhill celebrates the depth and breadth of a sculptor who worked in Putney from 1960 until his death last year.

The auction features some forty-three lots, including thirty works in terracotta – his favoured medium – three bronzes, nine paintings in oil and a charismatic self-portrait in charcoal.

Among the highlights are six of his large scale works for the Putney Sculpture Trail, and eleven of his signature portrait heads. The idea for the Sculpture Trail developed from the series of monumental life-sized figurative compositions that evolved from his imagination during the 1970s and 1980s. His choice of sitter for his portrait heads was determined by his wide-ranging interests in politics and the arts. Heads of some of the leading and most outspoken figures of the time to be offered in the sale include politician Enoch Powell, poets Hugh MacDiarmid and Basil Bunting, educationalist A.S. Neill, designer Gordon Russell, and trades unionist Frank Cousins.

Thornhill first trained as a potter, but during the 1950s was attracted increasingly to sculpture. Over the following sixty years he developed a range of innovative sculptural approaches and techniques to explore his abiding interest in clay and his fascination with the articulation of mass in a wide range of subject matter, large and small.

Explaining his methodology he wrote: ‘Deliberately devoid of "initial idea" my work is propelled by the process of improvisation. It evolves as an act of faith from an abstract into a figurative or at least an organic statement in accord with my general aspiration: to arrive by an uncharted route at images which strike home.’

Of Thornhill's working process, his daughter Anna Thornhill wrote: [he] ‘pioneered a radical and improvisatory approach to clay work that involved dispensing with an internal armature and allowing content to emerge from his unconscious. Abstract pieces of the 1960s developed into large groups of figures. Pacifism, Jungian psychology and world conflicts were themes that emerged organically in his work.' (The Guardian, 1 May 2020).

Thornhill grew up in Fittleworth, West Sussex and was educated at Radley College and New College, Oxford where he read History. During the War he served as an officer in the Gloucestershire Regiment, and took part in the D-Day Landings, but after the bombing of Dresden by the Allies he became a conscientious objector.

After the War, following Reichian therapy in Norway, Thornhill enrolled at Camberwell School of Art where he specialised in ceramics, and then spent a year at Farnham School of Art, further honing his skills in the medium. In 1951 he set up Hawkley Pottery near Stroud and taught at Stroud School of Art. He sold his pots in Heal’s, and was selected for the Council of Industrial Design’s Index of Good Design.

But, as he tired of the repetitive nature of potting, so he explored the purely sculptural possibilities that clay offered, encouraged by friends Lynn Chadwick and Jack Greaves. Then, on being offered a teaching post at Kingston School of Art in 1959 he moved to London, where he set up a new studio in Putney. He later went on to teach sculpture at Morley College and the Frink School of sculpture.

Thornhill had several one-man shows, including at the Drian Gallery, Marble Arch; The National Theatre, South Bank; the Orangery, Holland Park; Putney Exchange; St Catherine’s College, Oxford; Kingscote Park, Gloucestershire and Galerie Jean Camion, Paris. In 2012 there was a major retrospective of his work at the Museum in the Park, Stroud.

For more information on the works of Alan Thornhill visit

'My aspiration has been to achieve in the round objects inviting scrutiny from many angles and removes, challenging and hopefully affecting the viewer. With practice over time the displacement of attention away from the subject adds the complexities sensed as ‘content’ to creep or flow into the work from which the viewer, including the sculptor himself, can obtain an unfathomable degree of mystified satisfaction.' Alan Thornhill

Estimated at £300 - £500


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