© the copyright holder. Photo credit: Pembroke College Oxford JCR Art Collection
The collection would welcome suggestions about a possible sculptor and date for this unusual work.
When was it acquired? Any provenance information?
It could be an Eve figure.
The collection (JCR stands for Junior Common Room) was begun in 1947 and was directed at work by what would now be called emerging contemporary British artists. It also has a piece by Frink and one by Lynn Chadwick. This piece has some suggestion of Henry Moore, though I am not attributing it to him.
Attached is an article from the Sketch in March of 1954 which contains a fair amount of information with regards to the JCR Art Collection in Pembroke College.
It may be the angle of the photographs, but I feel the figure looks like it’s depiction of a pregnant woman.
Attachment - The Community as Patron
Oxford - The Nursery of a Movement to Encourage Modern Painters
Is it what may be described as a "Surrealist" sculpture??
I could not exclude the possibility of an early pregnancy, but that seems somewhat tenuous and is most likely due to the angle of view in the available photographs. Certainly, she need not be pregnant.
I don't think it's supposed to be surreal, Louis. I suspect EJ is on the right track when she points out the woman's possible pregnancy.
There is an ancient tradition, paleolithic in origin, of faceless (and even headless) female figurines with exaggerated female bodily characteristics. They are usually interpreted as symbols of fertility - of all the fruits of the earth, that is, not just human reproductive ones...earth mothers, goddesses, and perhaps objects of worship or prayer. Their facelessness, and possible reasons for it, are discussed on this blog (and on other pages of it): https://bit.ly/3dAAkog. The author also theorizes on why such god-figures became more naturalistic as the millennia passed, and eventually acquired faces.
Could our much more modern sculpture have been inspired by these early faceless ones? Is the figure intended, like them, to be symbolic of the earth's fertility, rather than relating to womanhood per se? Alternatively, of course, she could be read (especially on Art UK) as a cry of outrage at the negation of women's personalities: they are mere functionaries whose sole job is to bear and nurture children, their individual characters an irrelevance.
It is ironic that those two interpretations seem to be (at least to modern eyes) diametrically opposed: the all-powerful mother goddess, source of all life, versus the servile, powerless reproductive machine. What a journey mankind...sorry, humankind has travelled in 100 years, and especially the last 50. But I am unqualified to pontificate on this, being both male and old. Could we perhaps tempt Lydia Figes on here to give us a real modern feminist perspective (and a younger one)...and indeed to offer her view of the sculpture and what it might represent, which may well be nothing to do with either of my suggestions?
Re the date, I would guess (and it's no more than that) 1950s. I suppose someone has checked the underside for any marks left by the sculptor? And surely there must be records of what the Pembroke JCR Art Committee bought over the years?
This may well be by a European , not a British sculptor - very portable Could it have been brought back from Central Europe - Hungary or Czechoslovakia?
A real puzzler. Has anyone considered John Harvey who has a link with the college through his 1948 war memorial? Incidentally I wonder how far the oddities of the piece are best accounted for by an odd shaped bit of stone.
See this on the history of Pembroke's collection which dates from 1947 onward. https://www.pembrokejcrart.org/history
Kenneth Clark acted for purchases between 1947 and 1950.
It's hard to believe there is no record attached to this work, when so much thought and planning went into the formation of the collection. Perhaps the college produced an annual report of some kind which might shed light.
Over its 73 three years of existence, the JCR Art Collection has, according to its website, amassed a collection of over 200 paintings, drawings, photographs and prints (and presumably sculptures are included in that tally). Having been on the board of a university art gallery for many years myself, it would greatly surprise me it the JCR committee's minutes of their meetings did not list the purchase of this piece (from what must have only been an acquisition rate of three or four pieces per annum), or have it listed in their annual insurance inventories. Perhaps a post-COVID trawl of their records could be undertaken with a view to identifying a likely attribution.
A very personal opinion, but In practical terms, It just feels like a woman whose body is evolving. Possibly 5/6 months. Small frame whose breasts are getting heavier, the smooth roundness of the stomach area, with the waist being pushed outwards and upwards with extra weight around the hips and thighs. She’s also in a posture and sitting position that tends to be more comfortable when coping with the spinal curvature and having the extra weight at front. If you’ve ever been to an anti-natal class you’ll see many attendees sitting exactly like this.
Given the stated purpose of the Pembroke JCR collection, which was (and presumably remains) to support British artists, the sculptor is bound to be British, and this work should be late 1940s to 1950s, though I suppose early 1960s is not out of the question.
As already noted above, the college's or collection's records are a critical factor whose investigation is required when feasible. It is quite likely that such records contain all the information desired.
It is not impossible that Pembroke acquired works made before the foundation of its collection at a later date. Could this be a case in point and the artist have been an exile from his/her own country fr political reasons?
The Pembroke College Record of 1977 and 1978 carried specific references to the JCR art collection:
1977 - "James Abbott, a member of the Arts and Entertainment Committee, with the help of Dr. Mann, has rediscovered the J.C.R. art collection, which has been suffering from years of neglect. The collection has now been catalogued, photographed, cleaned and the damaged paintings have been restored and reframed and the collection has now been rehoused in a spare room in the Tower. The J.C.R. is hoping that the Librarian and Assistant Librarian will approve of us hanging some of the more valuable paintings in the Library."
1978 - See attached
The above-mentioned 1977 catalogue and photographs might have been deposited in the Pembroke College Library collection.
I have been in touch with Professor Nicholas Mann whose name occurred in Kieran's post about the origins of the collection of the JCR at Pembroke College. It seemed that he was best placed to offer information about this sculpture. We are fortunate that Professor Mann has kindly agreed to fill in the background to the revival of the collection at Pembroke and his part in that enterprise. I have offered to post his comments, which are as follows, within quotation marks:
"I wrote the notice in the Pembroke College Record for 1977-78 which briefly described how James Abbott and I had rescued the Junior Common Room art collection, which had been badly neglected for a number of years. The rescue process consisted of tracking down and gathering all the works that we could, on the basis of an earlier card index and, if I recall correctly, a typescript inventory of the collection. We managed to find something like 90% of the items listed, which were scattered around the College and elsewhere; we then set about cataloguing them; a valuation was commissioned and a programme of reframing and restoration where needed was set up. I remained at the College until 1990, and was for the whole of that period the ‘senior member’ responsible for the collection; each year a new ‘junior member’, i.e. undergraduate, was nominated to administer it for the Junior Common Room, to which of course the collection belonged.
When I left the College the collection was decently housed and in good shape, and most of the works were available on termly loan to members of the JCR, as its founders had intended. I handed all the archives (the card index and inventory mentioned above, plus the valuation and all the documentation of restoration etc. and of new purchases) to my successor (now unfortunately deceased) as the senior member with responsibility for it. It appears that all that material was subsequently lost, and that the collection again fell into neglect, since some years later it was suddenly ‘rediscovered’ in a sorry state. In 2001, the wife of the incoming Master of the College, Lynne Henderson, took the matter in hand, with the result that the collection is now splendidly exhibited and properly looked after (see the catalogue of the 70th anniversary Exhibition: PMB|ART. Meaningful Vision, Oxford 2017).
On the basis of this brief account I can perhaps shed some light on the sculpture, though not on its creator. I am as sure as I can be that I have never seen it, and that it was not in the collection at the time that James Abbott and I reassembled it. Nor to the best of my recollection was it listed in the original inventory, since we would have gone to considerable efforts to find it if it had been. I can only therefore assume that it was added to the collection after 1990. I too would like to think that there would be some record of its accession in the JCR minutes, but the present curators are best placed to investigate that!"
If it was acquired after 1990, it should have been contemporary work at the time, assuming the original guiding principle was still being followed. This piece, of course, could conceivably have been made after 1990, but the style seems older. Again, the current collection staff will need to be consulted for what it knows of the matter.
It's not necessarily the case that an object acquired after 1990 would have to be made then. Some of the collection has also been acquired as gifts. This came in in 2010 but was made in 1977:
And the artist was 62 when it was made, we shouldn't assume that because the collecting is done for (and maybe by) students, it will only be made by the young and up-and-coming. Here's another when the artist was 77:
which gives another reason why acquisitions may not look up-to-the minute.
There are actually quite a few works in the Pembroke JCR collection that have no year of acquisition and others where it has just been assumed to be the year of production (even among the minority on ArtUK). Presumably due to the pattern of periods of flourishing under knowledgeable and enthusiastic leaders like Professor Mann and then falling into periods of neglect. There seems to be another time of acquisitions in the early 60s for instance. It's amazing that they could still find 90% of the collection in 1977.
As it's the collection who have asked for help, they're unlikely to know, though the information may be elsewhere in College archives. Pinning the acquisition down to post-1990 will help and there may simply be someone who remembers it being given or bought.
Is there a way for Pembroke to post about this (with an image of it) in some sort of online venue aimed at Pembroke alumni, in case someone recognizes this sculpture?
If it is decided this is a pregnant woman, the title should reflect that, since "Nude Woman" is too general and implies a different sort of female nude. "Nude Pregnant Woman" would be one option, or, if something more "artistic" is wanted, one could call it "Gravid Nude."
At this stage Pembroke College may need to look to its institutional memory. If the sculpture arrived as a gift (rather than a purchase), someone who was involved with the JCR Art Collection from the 1990s onward might recall.
As Jacinto suggested a week ago, circulation of the image may well be the best way forward. If the sculpture was published in the magazine The Pembrokian which appears to be sent to alumni and perhaps on the college's Facebook page as a mystery needing to be solved, it might attract useful attention. Otherwise there is not much to go on.
Thank you to everyone who has contributed to this discussion so far. Really interesting to hear peoples ideas about this sculpture. The records we have for the JCR Art Collection (which is separate from the College collection) are a little patchy having been managed since the beginning by an ever changing committee of students.
We do have an uncatalogued paper archive and I hope when we can re-access these we might be able to find some further information about this sculpture. I will let you know what we find out.
From the JCR Art Collection Committee and Curator
Thanks, Pembroke JCR! Keep us posted on this interesting question of attribution.