Looking back at my blog posts, it occurs to me that until now, my writing has largely been confined to the realm of the two-dimensional. My latest subject, an Australian who made her home in Cornwall, was a sculptor who, like many women artists of her generation, never received the acclaim she truly deserved.
Barbara Tribe was born in Sydney in 1913 to parents who were recent British immigrants. Life for the family was financially insecure, but Barbara and her two elder siblings were always encouraged to develop their potential. Swimming was her first love and such was her proficiency in this sport that she competed at state level, also becoming skilled at body surfing. A photograph from 1932 shows Barbara as a young woman, balancing on the rocks at Bondi Beach, exemplifying the healthy outdoor life.
From an early age, Barbara’s fascination for the natural world found expression through drawing. Her father, a journalist, became acquainted with local artists, one of whom recommended that Barbara should enrol at East Sydney Technical College. She was only fifteen, and found the prospect of becoming an art student quite daunting. However, her tutors were impressed by her level of commitment and after completing a two-year intermediate course, in 1930 she was chosen by the head of the Sculpture Department, Rayner Hoff, to embark on his three-year diploma course. Modelling, casting, architectural design and human anatomy were integral to the learning process. A gifted student, she became part of a select group which developed into a ‘school’ of sculptors with Hoff at its head. Working under his direction, Barbara’s contribution to a major public commission was considerable. The Art-Deco style Anzac War Memorial in Sydney’s Hyde Park was subsequently regarded as Hoff’s most famous and controversial work.
In 1933 Barbara graduated, and was employed at the College as a part-time teacher. Her works, mainly in the classical tradition, attracted the attention of the Sydney Morning Herald, which in an exhibition review praised her as a sculptor ‘of mature powers’. Two years later she was awarded the New South Wales Travelling Art Scholarship for a full-size plaster figure known as ‘Caprice’, remarkable for its warmth and exuberance. This provided £250 per annum for two years’ travel, plus the return fare. Not since its inception in 1900 had this scholarship been awarded to a sculptor, or to a woman – an exceptional achievement.
Setting sail for Southampton in 1935, aged only twenty-two, Barbara could never have imagined that over thirty years would pass before she would re-visit Australia. She was met by her father’s brother on her arrival and accompanied by him, enrolled at London’s Royal Academy School. On the recommendation of Rayner Hoff she also began studying at the City & Guilds School of Art in Kennington. Her command of the human form as expressed in a pair of bronzes, ‘Lovers I’ and ‘Lovers II’, was admired by the Bloomsbury painter and teacher Duncan Grant. Her free time was spent visiting London’s galleries and museums, where she came across original works by sculptors such as Rodin, Gaudier-Brzeska, Brancusi, and Jacob Epstein. The ancient and primitive art on display at the British Museum made a deep impression on her and was to inform her work in years to come.
In 1937 Barbara’s travelling scholarship came to an end. Despite receiving a letter from the ageing Rayner Hoff suggesting that she should apply for his position as head of the Sculpture Department at East Sydney Technical College, she felt that she still had much to learn, and made the decision to remain in the UK. Earning a living now became essential, so she spent three months modelling portrait heads for customers at Selfridges department store. During her time there she made some useful contacts, one of which led to her involvement in a commission for the Australian Wool Pavilion at the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow.
The outbreak of war in 1939 prompted many of her compatriots to return to Australia but, aside from a sojourn with friends in Essex, Barbara spent most of the war years in Kensington, where she had a studio. In 1940 ‘Lovers II’ was exhibited at the Royal Academy and was purchased by a wealthy Danish collector, who subsequently commissioned her to produce a portrait bust of his late brother, a victim of the conflict.
The intense bombardment of London took its toll on Barbara. In 1941 she developed a perforated eardrum. From then on she suffered from increasing deafness in one ear, though she never allowed this disability to thwart her ambition. Determined to make a contribution to the war effort, Barbara had taken on a clerical job at the Ministry of Supply which she found ‘repetitive and soul-destroying’. However, while there she struck up a friendship with a colleague who was a Roman Catholic. This led to commissions for the sculpting of religious subjects, and the restoration of bomb-damaged statuary. Another source of work was Australia House. A number of Australian airmen had arrived in England to support the war effort and seven of them posed for her. The portrait busts which she modelled in plaster for the Australian government, while patriotic, also reveal the lively individualism of the sitters. Several were subsequently cast in bronze, and entered the Australian War Memorial collection.
In 1942, the newly created Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments offered Barbara an escape route from the tedium of the Ministry of Supply. It also introduced her to an architect, John Singleman, whom she later married. As a member of his team Barbara was required to document the interiors of major landmarks of London, in the event that war damage might necessitate restoration work. She worked on a number of heritage sites including Somerset House and the Tower of London. On one occasion her group were required to inspect 10 Downing Street, and came across Winston Churchill, much to his annoyance. Despite such a brief encounter, she had the presence of mind to make a sketch of him from which she produced a small bust, later acquired by Lady Churchill.
As the relationship between Barbara and John developed, they took on a shared studio in Kensington. Weekends were spent together on his boat, moored on a canal not far from London, affording them some respite from the war-ravaged city. Once the conflict was over, Barbara was nominated as an associate of the Royal Society of British Sculptors. The arrival of John’s mother from Germany for an extended visit created a degree of tension within their household. Compounded by the stress of Barbara’s demanding job and hearing difficulties, the situation culminated in her admission to hospital suffering from mental illness. After undergoing shock treatment, she returned home, resigning from her job soon afterwards.
A recuperative visit to the home of friends in Cornwall heralded a major change in their lives. The hamlet of Sheffield, near Paul, in the far west of the county, was originally established to house the local quarry workers. Its proximity to the fishing port of Newlyn had attracted artists since the latter part of the nineteenth century. Barbara and John were able to buy a former Sunday school in the village for £350 and after marrying in London in 1947, they began renovating the property, subsequently re-naming it ‘The Studio’. The following year they moved in permanently.
During the course of my research, I was lucky enough to meet up with Theresa Gilder, fellow sculptor and friend of Barbara’s from the 1950s until the latter’s death. Bouverie Hoyton, director of Penzance School of Art, was instrumental in introducing both women to his establishment – Barbara in 1948 as a part-time lecturer in modelling and sculpture and Theresa, a few years later, as a mature student. Studying there under Barbara was a formative experience for Theresa, whose affinity for portraiture and, more broadly, the human form, was nurtured by her tutor. Thanks to Barbara’s example, Theresa came to realise that a woman was capable of making a career as a sculptor. This gave her the confidence to forge her own path to success. Theresa described to me the bohemian atmosphere of ‘The Studio’, where the entertaining was carried out in a living room crammed full of Barbara’s works in a multitude of shapes, sizes and materials, many of which had accompanied her from London. The couple’s sleeping quarters were situated upstairs in a loft, accessed by a ladder. They led a simple yet sociable life, developing strong friendships within the artistic community. John retrained as a potter under Bernard Leach, building an electric wheel and kiln inside ‘The Studio’. With very little assistance he created a garden from the adjoining land, which involved moving huge granite blocks and creating terraces.
While some of Barbara’s sculpture during the early 1950s showed the influence of the St Ives-based Barbara Hepworth (ten years her senior) this modernist phase was shortlived. The theme of organic growth - the core of her creativity - found expression at ‘The Studio’ in sketches and models of the farm animals and plant forms around her. She took up membership of the Newlyn Society of Artists, and also those of St Ives and Penwith. It was at this time that she experimented with modelling in clay. Moreover, she developed her expertise in wood carving, which she had studied in London.
Their married life was characterised by contentment and creative fulfilment. Such was John’s mastery of ceramics that he took charge of the pottery course at Penzance School of Art, lecturing in architecture and lettering as well. They had no car, relying on the somewhat infrequent bus service to Penzance. In 1951 ‘Figure’, carved from mountain ash, was shown at the Royal Academy. Two years later Barbara was elected as a member of the inaugural Society of Portrait Sculptors, and not long after, she became a Fellow of the Royal Society of British Sculptors. Towards the end of the decade she embarked on a series of vibrant flower paintings and bold abstracts in gouache and watercolour.
Courtesy of Hayle Gallery
One of Barbara’s students, Julie Arnold, formerly a ballerina, was the subject of some beautiful ink drawings, a nude study and six figures of dancers in plaster, wire and hessian. A portrait of John in 1958, captured on paper, shows him relaxed yet thoughtful, seemingly oblivious to his wife’s scrutiny. His sudden death three years later, after fourteen years of marriage, came as a tremendous shock to Barbara, then aged 47.
John in ‘The Studio’
Ballpoint pen on paper
Once she felt strong enough emotionally to resume her art practice, Barbara’s creativity found a new outlet. While she had appreciated the potential of clay, during the years of her partnership she focussed her energies on other media, so as to avoid competing with her husband. Now John’s abandoned wheel and kiln came back to life with the throwing, firing, glazing and decorating of nearly 100 of her own ceramic pieces, which used many of the techniques perfected by him.
Bird of Prey (Parrot)
1963 saw the inception of ‘Personalities’, a series of ceramic sculptures produced over the next 25 years, taking inspiration from the primitive art she had earlier encountered in London. In 1965 her works entered a public collection for the first time when three sculptures were purchased by the City Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent. The following year, on vacation from her lecturing job, Barbara returned to Australia for a family reunion. She visited a number of prominent galleries there, making contacts which would be important to her career. The resulting exhibitions in Sydney were instrumental in promoting her reputation in the country of her birth.
Seized by the spirit of adventure, Barbara now sought to extend her travels. Her friendly, outgoing nature attracted people to her, and many of her encounters en route developed into lasting friendships. A visit in 1967 to an exhibition of Thai carvings in London, followed by an invitation from a Thai friend in Cornwall, drew her to Bangkok. This was the first of several excursions to Thailand, where she made many friends, and discovered a foundry where for the first time she could afford to have her work cast in bronze. While there, she was invited to create a portrait head of a monk. Back in Cornwall, she produced a number of sculptures in traditional Buddhist style. Future destinations included India, Japan and Indonesia, whose artistic heritage enriched her work. She also returned many times to Australia, studying the art and culture of the aboriginal peoples, in all its complexity.
(female and male)
Plaster, fencing wire, ochres
In 1979 Barbara’s first retrospective took place at the City Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent. In additional to sculptures in a variety of media, the works on show included drawings and paintings. In some respects it seems extraordinary that it took so long for an artist of such power and originality to gain recognition in her adopted country. Yet the trajectory of art in the twentieth century was such that the representational was increasingly considered unworthy of critical attention.
The theme of growth in all its manifestations remained her closest preoccupation. In the same year she produced the magnificent ‘Fertility Goddess’ inspired by neolithic pottery of the Middle East. The commissioning of portrait heads continued to provide a source of income during the 1970s. Two prominent local subjects were the naive painter Bryan Pearce and Rowena Cade, founder of the Minack Theatre in Porthcurno.
In 1981 the Stoke-on-Trent retrospective was transferred to a gallery in Guildford, where her work was praised for its ‘exuberance and vitality’. The critic also remarked that ‘whatever influences can be identified, there is always a strong core of Barbara Tribe.’ During the 1980s she continued to travel widely, on one occasion exploring Arizona and California by Greyhound bus. On a trip to Australia in 1986 she managed to track down her scholarship piece, ‘Caprice’, one of many early works which had been lost for decades. This was cast in bronze and subsequently acquired by the Art Gallery of South Australia.
In July 1988, a farewell gathering was held in honour of Barbara’s forty years’ service at Penzance School of Art. She was 75. Her post as lecturer was taken up by her protégée Theresa Gilder. Barbara had no intention of giving up her career as an artist, and relished the fact that her retirement would allow her more time to travel. The following year she compiled a memoir, ‘A Passion for Life’, which was not published.
Despite her advancing years, Barbara continued to exhibit throughout the 1990s, both in the UK and Australia. The catalogue of a 1991 retrospective show at the Mall Galleries in London described her as ‘Australia’s most important living sculptress’. In 1998 she was awarded the prestigious Jean Masson Davidson Medal, an international award from the Society of Portrait Sculptors, ‘for distinguished services and outstanding achievement in portrait sculpture.’ This was a very proud moment – particularly since the award had not been presented for twenty years.
A collector she had met on a trip to Sydney, John Schaeffer, engaged the Australian art historian Patricia McDonald to produce a monograph entitled ‘Barbara Tribe – Sculptor’. This was published in 2000, just a few months before Barbara died in Cornwall, aged 87. In an obituary, the St Ives Times & Echo correspondent recalled meeting her at her studio a year earlier ‘full of rapid fire conversation, as vivacious as ever’, going on to describe her as ‘probably the finest woman portrait sculptor working in Britain’. The Times paid tribute to her as ‘one of the most naturally gifted sculptors to have emerged in Australia’.
Mindful of her own early difficulties, it was Barbara’s wish that, after her death, the proceeds of her estate should be used to set up a foundation to assist disadvantaged young Australian sculptors. To this end, the Barbara Tribe Foundation was established in 2004, to be administered by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The Foundation does not have a website, and to date I have not been able to make contact with the Art Gallery of NSW.
© 2013 Helen Hoyle
Grateful thanks to Theresa Gilder for sharing her reminiscences, and for additional material.
December 2013: A newly discovered collection of drawings by Barbara Tribe has come to light. See my blog post "Barbara Tribe Revisited".
Further reading: Barbara Tribe – Sculptor by Patricia R McDonald (2000).