Research Projects & Networks

Sculpting Lives: Series Two
Podcast Episodes

Episode 1 – Dora Gordine (1895–1991)

Dora Gordine and April Brummer at Dorich House, 1956 'Sculpture has a vital, important message,' Dora Gordine

When Dora Gordine died in 1991, leaving her studio house to the nation, many people, including museum curators, assumed she had been dead for many years. How did an artist described by art critic Jan Gordon in The Observer in 1938 as ‘very possibly becoming the finest woman sculptor in the world’ disappear from view?

Critically lauded and successful in her early years, Gordine was the first woman sculptor to enter the Tate collection when her Mongolian Head, 1928 was acquired. Born in Latvia, trained in Estonia and Paris, worked and lived in East Asia. During her career, she produced a significant body of sculpture, often focusing on portraiture and sculpted heads. Gordine’s work prompts contemporary observers to ask questions about her portrayals of people from other cultures and individual identities and we talk to artists and art historians who are grappling with Gordine’s legacy.

In this episode we investigate how Gordine deliberately built a mystique around her identity, frequently changing her age and birthplace to create an enigmatic artistic persona (even Tate still lists her date and place of birth incorrectly). Taking a modern, professional approach to sculptural production, she established studio homes in Paris and Singapore before settling in Kingston, South London, designing (without an architect) the purpose-built Dorich House to make and display her art. The monumental Dorich House is now a museum and one of the very few created by and dedicated to a woman sculptor.

Episode 2 – Veronica Ryan (b. 1956)

Veronica Ryan 'I have been preoccupied all my life with a "sense of belonging." Growing up with an awareness of "being apart" has certainly defined who I am now. However, that alienation was in part to do with constantly moving – my parents never stayed in one place when we were younger for very long, so there was little chance of continued friendships, or a feeling of being settled. Being “out of place” characterized my growing up.” Veronica Ryan

In October 2021 Veronica Ryan unveiled her first permanent public sculpture, the Hackney Windrush Art Commission, which will be the first public artwork in the UK to honour the Windrush generation.

In this episode we interview the artist as we walk with her through her exhibition Along a Spectrum at Spike Island, Bristol, recipient of the annual Freelands Award. The award enables an arts organisation outside London to present an exhibition by a mid-career female artist who may not yet have received the acclaim or public recognition that her work deserves and serves to highlight the continued under-representation of women artists in arts organisations in Britain. This is Ryan’s largest and most significant exhibition to date, and we discuss her approach to materials, myriad influences and how visibility and critical acclaim came to her later in life. Along with the artist, museum curators and art historians we talk about issues of invisibility, belonging and identity.

Episode 3 – Gertrude Hermes (1901–1983)

Gertrude Hermes carving Diver at St Peter’s Square, 1937. Digital image courtesy of Leeds Museums and Galleries  © Archive of Sculptors Papers, Leeds Museums _ Galleries  Bridgeman Images 'She did cause a bit of a revolution in the Royal Academy, which has been only to the good,' Anne Desmet, R.A.

Gertrude Hermes was one of the most experimental sculptors of the twentieth century. She also changed the way women artists were treated at the Royal Academy forever – a story which had been overlooked until recently. Representing Britain at the Paris World Fair of 1937, selected for the British Pavilion at the 1939 Venice Biennale and the subject of a solo retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1967, Hermes’ reputation fell into obscurity and her reforming activism forgotten.

In the 1920s she was part of a group of artists including Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Eileen Agar who were invigorating traditional techniques with a modernist approach. Working not only across sculpture and printmaking, but a variety of decorative and architectural forms such as door knockers and fountains, Hermes imbued her work with a vital energy that often focused on the elemental forces of nature.

This episode takes listeners to where she lived and worked along the Thames tracing her friendships and patrons, her art school networks and studios; and the work that remains around us. We speak to people who knew Hermes, worked with her, as well as contemporary artists who explain the allure of an artist they describe as a 'goddess'.

Episode 4 – Alison Wilding (b. 1948)

Alison Wilding 'There were only three women in the whole school when I went there (RCA, 1970–73). It was very male-dominated, I loved it, I just felt like one of the boys. I wasn’t a feminist in those days; I don’t think I knew the meaning of the word, I’m sorry to say. It was a very misogynistic place and amazingly undermining. I went from doing my degree at Ravensbourne, where it was half men, half women to the Royal College of Art, which was so slanted against women, it was quite a shock.' Alison Wilding, R.A.

Alison Wilding emerged into the art world in the 1980s making powerful sculptural statements out of a myriad of materials. Taking sculpture out of the museum and off the plinth, Wilding’s work is some of the most enigmatic and beguiling sculpture being produced, and in a candid interview in her studio we ask her about influences, materials and her experiences of art school. We also speak to art historians and commercial galleries to get different perspectives on the Turner Prize nominated sculptor. Taking to the art historian Jo Applin about where Wilding 'fits' within the histories of sculpture, she observed: 'You can always search for peer group comparisons or historical, where she might fit in a longer historical trajectory but there's something utterly idiosyncratic to the way in which she thinks in abstract terms that is, for me, one of the most rewarding things about her work.'

Episode 5 – Cathie Pilkington, RA (b. 1968)

Portrait of Cathie Pilkington in the RA Keeper’s Studio 'The thing about my work is that there is a tension between a passionate love and engagement with the traditions of the past and a complete impatience with their irrelevance and it’s trying to hold those things in tension and trying to engage people in the complexities of that.' Cathie Pilkington, R.A.

Cathie Pilkington creates surreal, uncanny and ambivalent forms which are designed to unsettle and provoke. She employs a deliberate lack of hierarchy in her materials, using textiles and found objects alongside more traditional sculptural practices. Her work is often presented as an immersive installation, bringing themes of the domestic and everyday life into the language of sculpture.

During our interviews with Cathie Pilkington in the Royal Academy, her studio and a sculpture foundry, we discuss the barriers to women pursuing careers as sculptors, how sculpture can remain relevant and how an artist can make figurative sculpture that speaks to contemporary audiences. We met her at a pivotal point in her career, taking increasing control and asking questions about the future of sculpture. Pilkington (who was the first female Professor of Sculpture at the Royal Academy Schools) is Keeper at the Royal Academy and uses her role to ask questions about the history of sculpture and women at an institutional level.

Episode 6 – Making Sculpture Public

Over the last year public sculpture has become a hugely controversial issue. No longer passive objects that we simply walk past on our streets, public sculpture is part of a vigorous debate about contemporary society – who is commemorated and represented, and why. In this episode we delve further into this subject, interviewing people associated with our most recent controversial sculptures (such as the Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft by Maggi Hambling), critics and researchers, and we also speak to contemporary women sculptors about representation and the problems they encounter. Jo and Sarah also visit the Breaking the Mould Exhibition: Sculpture by Women Since 1945, organised by the Arts Council Collection, to talk to the curator and some of the artists involved in this landmark display.