My friend Elisabeth Frink – up there with the greatest

By Sophie Ryder

Liz used to drop her son Lin at my house in Richmond on a Friday night to play loud music with my brother up in the attic. They were best friends and both went to Chelsea Art School.

I had a crush on Lin for years but was never allowed into their den as I was seven years younger than my brother. Lin was so good looking and a lot of Liz’s work was based on him. He was an incredibly talented comic strip illustrator as well as a musician.

When my brother died age 23, I was keen to keep in touch with his friends so I asked if I could go and see Lin in Dorset. It became a regular weekend trip and it was such a special time for me.

It was great to see Liz at work in her studio, an artist who was doing what she wanted to do and was so successful. Liz was very unassuming but at the same time had a special aura.

Apart from her obvious striking head of white curly hair, she was very well-spoken but was not a chatty person, she almost came across as shy. Liz chose her words carefully but I think it was just that she liked to observe people more than to talk, I also think that in later life it actually hurt her to speak because of her illness.

One Saturday morning when Liz went to the market to buy food, I stayed behind to clean the AGA which was caked in oil. Liz came back and was thrilled to see her ‘new’ cooker!

She unpacked a beautiful hand-painted, colourful ceramic bowl that she had bought from a local ceramicist – for £80! And then proceeded to pour the fruit from brown paper bags into it.

There was this beautiful handmade bowl, a work of art, which she immediately turned into something useful by filling it with fruit. I was so impressed and thought to myself that I would like to be able to afford to buy beautiful objects one day.

Like me, Liz worked around the clock but family time was precious. She was so close to her husband Alex and son from a previous marriage, Lin. Alex was also an inspiration for Liz, he was a big strong man. He once walked into the kitchen with his dressing gown, picked me up, threw me over his shoulder, took me outside and threw me in the swimming pool. I was never quite sure why!

Liz made very traditional country food, she was a good cook, lots of casseroles and dishes she could put in the AGA and go back to work.

Liz, Lin and I would go for country walks together with our dogs. One of her big dogs and my lurcher had a fight one day and Lin showed me how to separate big dogs from a fight without getting bitten.

Their dog got his ear bitten and I was so embarrassed and worried for years that the next sculpture of the dog would have a chunk missing out of its ear.

When I finished at the Royal Academy of Arts, age 20, (I was just 17 when I started) Liz told me not to bother going back into education for another three years.

She said: “What do you want to go back to school for? You know what you want to do, and you are already doing it. You don’t follow the trends and you don’t do what your tutors tell you to do anyway, so what’s the point?

“You can just find somewhere to work and start your life.”

Liz put me forward for a residency at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park where I worked for three months, I had such a lovely time and was so grateful to her for putting me forward, as I had no idea she was doing so.

One of my biggest regrets was that Liz had planned to take me with her for Sunday lunch with Henry Moore and then he died two weeks before we were due to go.

At the time I was working at the sculpture park residency on a one and a half times life-size horse and so I called it SON OF YORK after Henry Moore who was born in York.

Liz was actually a visiting tutor at the RA schools for the sculpture students but I was on a painting course so she didn’t tutor me.

She must have used the printmaking facilities at the school because one day I found a huge Goggle Head screen print in the skip with a black cross through it and I rolled it up and kept it for years.

After Liz died I had a ceremonial burning of the print as I didn’t want to show it to anyone since it was a reject of hers.

Picture of Elisabeth Frink and Sophie Ryder
Photo © Sophie Ryder : Harry Scott

After Liz’s untimely death I went to stay with Lin and his family. I walked into the studio and it was eerie, the doors were open and blowing in the wind. Otherwise, the studio was exactly as Liz had left it.

I told Lin he should turn it into a museum to celebrate her life. He said people had asked him but he didn’t feel ready. I felt so sorry for him, they were so close, I really felt his sadness.

Recently a mutual client ours asked my advice on the patination of a Frink horse, I was so pleased to be able to give my opinion and to help restore her War Horse back to its former glory.

I remember once hearing a Radio 4 Woman’s Hour interview with Liz and she seemed a bit disappointed that she was overlooked in the new world of sculpture residencies in sculpture parks.

My conclusion for this was that she was an older, commercially successful figurative artist who made traditional bronzes, they probably couldn’t see a way she could work in a more disposable material and also probably thought that she may not be interested given that she was so recognised.

She was often asked to choose people for competitions, shows and residencies and also judge things.

It’s wonderful that she is being recognised now more than ever for the amazing artist she was. Her work is here to stay, she is up there with the greatest.

She was a wonderful strong woman, mother and artist. Such an inspiration.

Sophie Ryder is an artist: www.sophieryder.com

See the exhibition Elisabeth Frink: Fragility and Power at Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal until 29 September 2018. More information at http://www.abbothall.org.uk/elisabethfrink

Image © Sophie Ryder : Harry Scott

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Author: Lakeland Arts

Lakeland Arts is a leading arts charity based in Cumbria, in the North West UK and manages Abbot Hall Art Gallery and Museum of Lakeland Life & Industry, both in Kendal, Blackwell, The Arts & Crafts House in Bowness-on-Windermere and Windermere Jetty, Museum of Boats, Steam and Stories on the shores of Windermere.

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