Not many English villages can boast association with a world-renowned artist; Little Thurlow can, in Dame Elisabeth Frink.
The Frinks, of Dutch extraction with American and Canadian associations, were long-established and well-respected in the village, with army officers and artistic talent on both sides of the family. Captain Frederick Frink, a former Cambridge rugby blue who served at Gallipoli, and his wife, Mabel, lived first at 115a/115/116 The Street, when it was one house, The Limes, and later moved next door to The Grange, where Captain Frink ran a private school. He was chairman of the parish council from 1895 to 1950. In Little Thurlow church, the stained-glass window, ‘Feed my Lambs’, over the altar in the right aisle, bears an inscription to Elisabeth Frink’s grandparents: ‘In memory of Mabel Elenor Frink, Sept. 8 1931, and of Frederick Cuyler Frink, March 31 1956’. Elisabeth’s parents, Ralph and Jean Frink, who met and married in India, were also active in village life. Ralph was educated at Sherborne and Sandhurst and served in the Yorkshire Dragoons, the Skinner’s Horse and the Dragoon Guards. There is, again in Little Thurlow church, a small model inscribed ‘St Edmund by Dame Elisabeth Frink RA, in memory of her Father, Brigadier Herbert Ralph Cuyler Frink DSO, 26 Aug. 18992 March 1974’. This was the maquette for the larger crusading figure of St Edmund by Frink, outside Bury St Edmunds Cathedral, commissioned by West Suffolk County Council and unveiled in 1976.
Brigadier Ralph Frink with Mrs Jean Frink and their son Timothy, at Brigadier
Brigadier Ralph Frink with Mrs Jean Frink and their son Timothy, at Brigadier Frink’s investiture with the DSO (won in Burma) at Buckingham Palace, May 1947
(photo: Universal Pictorial & Press Agency Ltd)
The artist was born in Little Thurlow on 14 November 1930; her parents also lived at The Grange between various army postings around the country. They moved to the modern house called ‘Cuylers’ ( their family’s middle name) down The Drift, in about 1960, and villagers may remember the cast of an eagle perched on one of the side walls until the widowed Mrs Frink moved down to Dorset, in 1984, to join her daughter.
Elisabeth said that she loved the countryside and had a happy secure childhood. She learned to ride a horse by the age of four, to handle a rifle by five, and accompanied her father on local shoots, where she had ample opportunity to observe the shapes of dead animals and broken birds. She was only nine and her brother, Tim, four when the Second World War started and her father left home (he was at Dunkirk and for some time was presumed dead). She would have become accustomed to seeing men in uniform, German fighters firing, English bombers circling to land at Stradishall and Wratting Common airfields and the planes of both forces being shot down, burning, disintegrating, perhaps with men falling and spinning to earth. The artist said that some of her continuing nightmares were about war, blood, and herself falling, and it seems reasonable to link all these experiences to her early series of drawings and sculptures of predatory birds, men at one with horses, and falling, spinning figures.
An all-rounder at Catholic and Church of England schools in Exmouth, Devon, Elisabeth left at sixteen to attend Guildford Art School and Chelsea School of Art. She taught at Chelsea for eight years, as well as at St Martin’s School of Art, and became a Visiting Instructor at the Royal College of Art.
Her first exhibition was at the Beaux Arts Gallery, London, in 1952, and the Tate bought one of her bird series that year, when Elisabeth was only twenty-two. Other purchases and commissions followed, as did showings at national and international exhibitions (Frink was associated with Waddington Galleries from 1958 until 1985); though some critics in the sixties persisted in accusations that she was copying Rodin, or else misunderstood or ignored her work. Preferring to work alone and uninþuenced, approaching her art instinctively not intellectually, Frink said, ‘Make up your mind and stick to what you want to work . . . to hell with everybody.’ Art was her vocation; she followed it with complete commitment and no thought of material success.
She was never interested in delicate things, feeling women were too soft, didn’t fit into her pattern. She was always obsessed with shapes ‘It’s . . . the shape of an animal that interests me and the way it moves . . . I want to catch a moment of something before it goes’, and she liked the ‘subtle combination of sensuality and strength with vulnerability’ of the male. Edwin Mullins has said, in the introduction to his book, The Art of Elisabeth Frink (1972): ‘The main artery of Elisabeth Frink’s work is the theme of the dominant male. The male is not always a man. He is frequently a beast, or a bird, or something between the two . . . He is aggressive, mindless, physical and predatory.’ He goes on to assert that her work is a female view of maleness. But Frink herself believed that in art there were no sexes: ‘There’s no such word as sculptress. If you’re a woman, you must be prepared to do everything.’
Dame Elisabeth Frink in her studio
(by permission of the Executors of the Elisabeth Frink Estate; photo Peter Kinnear)
Elisabeth was married three times. First, in 1955, to Michel Jammet, son of the Dublin restaurateur and himself an architect, by whom she had her artist son, Lin, in 1958. She later divorced Jammet (who died in 1972) and married Ted Pool in 1964, living with him in Clarendon Drive, Putney, and later in France, until their marriage broke down in 1972. By 1965 he was detectable in her helmeted series Soldiers. The artist thought the soldiers’ heads and their later development, Goggle Heads, were the only political statement in her work.
From 1967 to 73 Frink lived in a collection of farm buildings, ‘Le Village’, in the commune of Corbès, Gard, near the foothills of the Cévennes where, by coincidence, a fifteenth-century château at Montuzorgues had belonged to a Huguenot ancestor of her mother, Léonard Rebotier. (Ralph and Jean Frink bought a house near Uzès, about thirty miles from ‘Le Village’, in 1971 and lived there and at Cuylers till Ralph died, in 1974.) The area was full of refugees seeking asylum from the Algerian war. Frink had been much aVected, as always, by the cruelty of the war, the slaying or ‘disappearing’ of the innocent including Ben Barka, the Algerian Liberation leader. The turmoil, the sorrow, the blood, the deaths, were attributable to the greed of politicians and generals for power. In particular, Frink saw a photograph in a newspaper of General Oufkir, the Moroccan Minister of the Interior, in dark glasses. Frink’s warriors, who had heroic aspects, now became monstrous heads blinded by goggles: ‘I always find it rather sinister when you can’t see people’s eyes’, she said. She developed this image in the seventies into Tribute Heads, dedicated to people being tortured or dying for their beliefs.
Another development in her work may be traced to this period in France. The artist could drive to the Camargue in about an hour. Here, her predatory wingless bird of the early sixties became the Mirage Bird (flamingo, egret). Frink described how, in observing waders on the marshlands at a distance, the body, the wings, of the bird seemed to disappear in the heat haze and only beak and immense thin legs remained but then the maleness of the bird was in its beak and legs.
From 1978 Elisabeth Frink made her home in Woolland, Dorset. She had married for the third time, Count Alexander Csáky, an insurance broker and businessman, who took an interest in the exhibiting and sales areas of her work, until his death in 1993.
In addition to her sculpture, Frink worked on tapestries, and lithographs, and loved illustrating books, notably Aesop’s Fables (1968), The Canterbury Tales (1972) and The Odyssey and The Iliad (19745) for The Folio Society.
She never stopped taking risks in her work: indeed, her experiments in applying colour to bronzes are thought to have caused the oesophageal cancer from which she died, on 18 April 1993. She never stopped developing her art: during her illness she was given a book written by William Anderson, which inspired her to start work on The Green Man, a symbol of regeneration; and she also planned to complete another piece on humans’ relationship with animals, from whom she felt we had a lot to learn.
* I am indebted to Iris Eley and Stephen and Margaret Ryder for information in this article; and to Dora Rowlinson for loaning the investiture photograph as well as for recalling her memories of the Frinks.