Ivor Abrahams who died on 6th January was an artist whose work was amazingly diverse – he sculpted, painted, printed and worked in ceramics in both traditional and more experimental ways.
Born in Wigan in 1935 he was taken on a childhood visit to the exotic roof-garden at Derry & Toms in Kensington [see Post July 4, 2014]. This sparked his interest in gardens and apparently convinced him he wanted to be an artist, to his mother’s pleasure and his father’s fury: “He had hoped for Perry Mason or Dr Spock, or at least an accountant in the family.”
His work developed and changed, sometimes dramatically, over the rest of his life, although he had several constant themes, returning time and again to urban landscapes, classical figures, the sea – and gardens.
Read on to see some of his garden-related works and find out more about the artist who was described as “our greatest interpreter of the suburban dream.”
All the images in this post, unless otherwise stated, are from his own website http://www.ivorabrahams.com
Ivor Abrahams is probably best known in garden-related circles for his work at Painshill where he was commissioned in 1998 to create a replacement for a lost copy of the Rape of the Sabines by Giambologna. This involved not just a trip to Florence to study the original in detail, but having scaffolding put up so that he and his wife could measure and photograph the piece properly. After building an armature, modelling in clay and making maquettes he felt that he still hadn’t got the whole thing right so he used two young dancers to try
and model the statue’s pose. They copied it but could not hold it leading Abrahams to deduce that Giambologna had really caught the motion ‘mid-flight’, and must have been a genius.
A plaster cast was made and taken out to Painshill to try it out on the original base, before the bronze was finally cast. It now stands in the amphitheatre.
But this prestigious piece of work was only the tip of his garden-related work.
It all seems to have begun when he was teaching in Birmingham in the early 1960s, Abrahams took a misshapen nude figure made by a student and placed it on a synthetic lawn and surrounding it with crazy paving. It proved the starting point for many garden themed pieces.
At one point, when a student himself, he had worked with Adel Rootstein, who made display mannequins and learned the sculptural potential of nylon flocking, pre-vulcanised latex and plastics and now he began to use them in his art. Flock became his signature material. He used it on and with anything and everything and then often painted or printed on it as well. It produced unusual and unexpected results but established his international reputation, with major shows in Germany and the USA, although they did not stop him working in more traditional ways as well.
Abrahams concentrated on garden imagery — planting and architectural details, shrubs and ivy, lawns, steps and pathways, walls, follies and romance. He enjoyed the garden as a ‘ready-made’ repertoire of forms and effects representing a ‘group desire’, something dear and cherished by the English.
The 1970s saw Abrahams engage with gardens much more fully. He became intrigued by hedges, shrubbery and small suburban spaces, producing prints, reliefs, small-scale sculptures and larger works using a range of non-traditional materials.
The Retreat was the first of Abrahams’ large garden sculptures, first shown in New York in 1970. It uses flock, which used repeatedly in his sculptures and prints to create surface texture and colour for foliage and other shrubbery.
More large scale pieces followed including the 2m x 2m latex and resin Wall in 1972.
There were smaller scale sculptures too, such as The Set Piece Garden the same year.
He experimented further with using flock in printing too. Open Gate is a relief print with cut out gate and shrubs made of flock superimposed on either side, whilst in For a Time and For a Season it is the arch which has been added.
His playfulness also extended to making flower beds from model garden kits and then using them as the basis for prints.
There were lithographs including a series based on garden paths….and another of a stone bench.
“The garden iconography was like an elaborate, endless chess-game that never stopped,” said Abrahams. “It seemed that this was an area common to everyone and this I liked.” As a result he often revisited ideas and images in different forms and using different materials or media.
The image of the sundial in winter required 50 separate printings to build up the texture, whist for the summer one Abrahams used felt on top of the screen print, and then he painted an acrylic version.
He was not particularly interested in portraying grand gardens but smaller suburban spaces and created a whole series of prints based on one such in Oxford.
The 1980s saw a return to sculpture, now often in bronze or steel and often all painted. There was a change of focus to the sea and beaches, although there were still landscape and garden related elements including fountains and grand gates, and many of the pieces could well have been designed as garden features.
In 1991 after years of working in Whitechapel he moved the the south of France where he and his wife remained for about 10 years. His work shifted in emphasis again, away from gardens but still around the natural world and urban landscapes. On returning to England Abrahams immersed himself in studying London’s streets and parks. They were photographed, manipulated and distorted digitally and then 3D maquettes made for possible later use as larger sculptures. One of these – based on the various park kiosks he had photographed -was exhibited at the Royal Academy in the Summer Exhibition in 2o14.
Another giant fibreglass and paper sculpture – ‘The Cockerel’ – was bought by the Duke of Devonshire Andrew Cavendish for his wife’s 80th birthday in 2000, and stood in the painted hall at Chatsworth. When she moved out of the house she gave it to Capel Manor, and its recent restoration was paid for by Tottenham Hotspur whose badge is also a cockerel.
Ivor Abrahams died on 6th January 2015. His obituaries proclaimed him ” our greatest interpreter of the suburban dream,whether it be the kempt lawns and borders of the gardens, the trophy window boxes [or] gables of the houses” [Telegraph Jan 19]
The President of the Royal Academy, and lifelong friend, Philip King, wrote that “Ivor was a traditionalist who ignored the current trends and found his inspiration mostly in the endless possibilities of the human figure, as well as the English garden, often combining the two happily in a manner that gave his work an unusual atmosphere.” [Royal Academy of Arts Magazine, Spring 2015]
If you want to know more about him there is a beautifully illustrated monograph,The Life and Work of Ivor Abrahams: Eden and Other Suburbs, by Andrew Lambirth (2012)