The sculptor Hugo Powell’s working life began at Hornsey School of Art in the 1930s and continued until his death aged 94 in October 2014. As a conscientious objector during the second world war, Hugo trained as a nurse and worked with a Free French field hospital unit throughout the North African and Italian campaigns. After the war he established himself as an artist and craftsman, producing commissions for many public buildings and churches and working as a monumental mason. In 1948 he was commissioned to produce a wall of architectural lettering for the London Olympics. Following the demolition of Wembley Stadium, this has been housed in Brent Museum. In 1969 Powell moved to Oxford and set up a studio in which he worked for the next 45 years.
Although macular degeneration severely affected his eyesight in his last decades, his ingenuity allowed him to continue to sculpt. The theme of the phoenix was explored in his final series of works, completed when a bronze cast of his last piece, The Dancing Phoenix, was delivered to his studio two weeks before his death.
Powell had two solo exhibitions, at Reigate in 1958, and at Christchurch Picture Gallery, Oxford, in 1994. Sir John Rothenstein recommended that a work be in the Tate collection in an article for the magazine Modern Painters, although it was not published. Powell sold many works privately. His self portrait is in the Ruth Borchard Collection. The following text is taken from their website:
Hugo Powell was born in Reading. As a teenager, he visited the sculptor Eric Gill in his studio, and also Eric Kennington while he was working on a sculptural commission in Dorset. At Hornsey, despite his tutor’s insistent predilection for realism, he developed an interest in ‘revolutionary, under-the-counter sculpture’, including a passionate admiration for Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. Since the early 1970s, Powell’s work has been increasingly abstracted, in various media, including terracotta, bronze, limestone, yew, beech, mulberry and curious found objects, ‘things hijacked from their normal usage’, as he has described them. His later sculptures affirm an ecstatically direct, though at times obliquely, humorous perception of nature, often enriched by personal symbolic associations, and universal symbols from the artist’s extensive knowledge of literature, religion and art.
A Biographical Note by Hugo Powell
I am now 94 and have been making sculpture all my working life (though recently with increasing difficulty owing to macula degeneration). Unusually for someone of my generation, after student days at Hornsey Art School I did not go into art teaching but worked as an artist-craftsman doing any commissioned work I could get in a conventional style. Working for architects and private clients, I produced carved lettering (which included designing and making an original font for the commemorative plaques for the 1948 Olympic Games, now in Brent Museum, London),architectural decorations, fireplaces, church figures, portraits, anything requiring a sculptor’s skills that came my way. In the 1950s, I was asked by Ruth Borchard to contribute a self-portrait in relief for her collection of British artists’ self-portraits. My present individual style grew out of private experiments made in this period when time permitted.
Eventually these experiments clarified into a particular way of looking at the art of sculpture that I had to recognise was basically incompatible with much that I had been making. Ultimately I was able to give up conventional work when I moved to Oxford in 1969.
The influences behind this change of direction were too many and too various to explain here. However,one artist in particular I would mention-Paul Klee. His “Pedagogic Notebooks” (about two dimensional work and colour) gave me the clue to what I was really looking for: an approach to three dimensions that was rigorous, analytical and at the same time genuinely liberating and poetic.
There have been two exhibitions devoted to my work, the first in Reigate, Surrey, in 1958, and the second at Christ Church Gallery, Oxford, in 1994, while I also contributed work to The Royal Society of British Artists and The London Group during the 1950s and 1960s.
Hugo Powell, 2013