The following transcript is of a talk given by Trevor Tennant.  The type written pages were selected to feature in the Dorothy Annan Trevor Tennant archive exhibition, held at the Henry Moore Insitute between 11th November 2014 and 1st March 2015.

On Sculpture

When I talk of sculpture now I am referring to carving in wood or stone from the solid block usually in the round or very nearly round and you can imagine that the conception of the sculptor is contained within the block.  He is going to release it.

I feel that very low relief is a simpler problem altogether as it is only designing in two dimensions instead of three and modelling for the brass foundry is, well - just modelling - unless carried to the very greatest heights and even then I personally would compare very few of the greatest bronzes with the finest achievements in stone or wood.

I admire the bronzes of the Indians, Chinese and early Greeks, but would not put them on the level of their best carvings and in fact I feel that the invention of hollow bronze casting was somewhat of a disaster to the art of sculpture.

The matter of which I am about to speak to you now is an expression of my creed, of my belief in the thing that I am attempting to create, but I think it is more than that, I feel it is the creed which many other sculptors who, like myself, are searching for significant and expressive sculptural form, would hold.

In fact, it is a creed which is professed by all the academies of the world, but with a different hypothesis - declaring that the great age of sculpture was when Myron produced the Discobolus (if he ever did) and Phidias his mighty statues of the gods, and they continue to produce their neo-Myron war memorials and public sculptures sugared with the banal sentimentalities of contemporary society.

We know the work of the popular sculptors only too well.  Employed by architects to fill up odd corners with ornament or figures - by Town Councils and public bodies to make monuments e.t.c. and employed by individuals who want portraits in bronze and stone.  Everybody is familiar with the results.  When the work is completed it is put up or taken home by its owner, and nobody thinks about it any more.  Why is this?  Because it is a rehash of something which was already effete hundreds of years ago.

I am prepared to go with these ardent propagandists with regard to the pre-eminence of Greek sculpture but I know that all the best of it, practically without exception, was executed before 600 B.C., but the theory that Greek sculpture reached any absolute final standard of prefection or that there can possibly be any such thing is just tommy-rot!

In other words, it is intimated that all sculptors would like to be able to achieve the Greek ideal if they only could. Imagine the great Peruvian or Mexican sculptors doing Greek gods after Phidias! What a dull world it would have been!

No sculptor who had any faith in himself as an original artist concerned with the enlargement of experience in relation to his own times, could possibly accept such a silly idea that all further sculptural activity must consist of imitation.

The carving of the archaic Greeks was almost godlike in its purity of form and extraordinary simplicity of conception, and it is sad to contemplate how very little remains of the superb masterpieces they created.

The sculpture of the so called golden age which has been worshipped with such blind devotion for the last four or five hundred years or so is common-place in comparison.

The work of men admittedly of a high intelligence and culture, but, somehow, almost totally lacking in that humility of spirit and simplicity of outlook belonging to all the greatest work.

It is to my mind due to this decadent Greek sculpture and to the high technical achievements of the bronze founderies that we owe the comparative lack of great sculpture in Europe since the Renaissance and even before.

In fact, practically all the best work was done either in spite of or in ignorance of the Greeks.  For example, the early Gothic architectural sculpture and the work, mostly religious, of the peasant craftsmen of the various countries.

Another cause of barreness can also be traced to the later Greeks. That is their worship and idealisation of the human form.  That completely warped sense of values that led them to believe that the aim of the sculptor should be to reproduce with surprising but tedious accuracy their ideally beautiful Venuses and Apollos, totally forgetting what their ancestors understood so well that sculpture is the creation of form in all simplicity within the limits of the material, not the imitation of it regardless of the material.

After the break up of the Greek and Roman civilisations there was comparatively little Greek influence in European sculpture until the Renaissance.

The best work of the Byzantine artists regained a lot of the fundamentals of good sculpture, thanks to the austerity of the early Christian Church and demanded a severer and much more sculptural point of view.

The early Gothic too, acknowledging the limitations of the stone and wood and working according to strictly architectural demands produced some of the greatest work.

But alas! eventually tired of the discipline demanded it finally petered out in the sentimental technical contortions of the later Germans.

To my mind, there are only two kinds of sculpture - good and bad - because sculpture only has one fundamental quality, and that is form.  The scope of the sculptor is therefore absolutely limited and his problem is tremendous in its absolutely stark simplicity.  Here is a block of stone - his whole vision, his whole creative instinct is confined within it, essentially controlled by the very nature of the medium.

Thus the only sculptural meaning of the finished work is the meaning of its form.  It may possibly have other meanings serving to evoke various responses in the spectator, but it need have no other.

For this reason, good sculpture can always be considered apart from time and space.  The same movement - the same rhythms but with infintie variations - can be found in the work of sculptors as far apart as India and Peru, the Germans and the French of the middle ages or Egyptians of the first dynasty separated by hundreds of years and thousands of miles.  That is why in studying work of past civilisations long since dead it has still a sculptural meaning although any other meaning it might have possessed may now have perished.

Thus sculpture needs the strictest discipline.  For what after all can a sculptor (assuming he is a good sculptor) do with a piece of stone except carve it into an expressive, balanced and beautiful shape?

Give a painter paint and brushes and his scope is almost unlimited. He can paint form like the post-impressionists or patterns like the primitives. He can paint in a thousand colours and tones.  He can paint thick or thin - he can glaze or scumble.  There is practically no limit to his range.  He can be a cubist or a surrealist, he can paint details like the Dutch or vaguely and romantically like Whistler.  Whatever he paints and in whatever school, given that he has the vision, there is no reason why he should not produce a work of art.

Therefore for every one piece of sculpture that is produced, there are probably ten thousand pictures and by the laws of average among these ten thousand pictures there may be ten good ones and also by the laws of average the one piece of sculpture will very probably be a bad one!

The range of the painters problem can change tremendously but that of the sculptor a very little, yet in spite of this the versatility of the human mind is so great, the possibility of creating new and vital form, of varying every sculptural theme so vast, he need never despair.

Because sculpture is so very limited in its fundamental range the general appreciation of it is also limited.  It requires a much greater perception and a much closer contact and familiarity to understand the subtle distinctions between good form and bad.  One meets many cultured people whose critical faculty with regard to pictures is highly developed, who completely flounders when it comes to judging sculpture.

There have been and will be many schools of painting, music and philosophy, differing fundamentally, but there never have and never will be schools of good sculpture differing at all fundamentally.  One is often asked, how about the Gothic, the Greek and the Egyptians? There is no fundamental difference between the Gothic, the Greek and the Egyptians at their best.  The only fundamental difference is when any of these schools have become decadent and lost their way in a welter of dull shapes and trivial superficialities.

Michael Angelo is supposed to have said that a good test of a piece of sculpture was to roll it down a steep hill.  If it was found to be damaged on coming to rest at the bottom it did not matter much anyway as it was obviously a bad work, not conforming to sculptural requirements!

I think this might very well applied to most Greek sculpture after about 600 B.C. and very little would survive the test! In fact, very little of Michael Angelo's would either for that matter.  He was a mighty personality, a great theoretician, a great painter, but he was far too literary minded to be a great sculptor.  For sculpture must always be dominated by the quality of abstract form.  If the literary, the human, the decorative or the quality of purely technical brilliance predominate, then it is bound to fail.

Perhaps I should not include technical brilliance, because it is rather a fallacy to suppose there is much hope for such in sculpture.

I am perfectly well aware that it would be absolutely impossible for the most expert and efficient house painter to imitate the technique of a Daumier or a Rembrandt, however many his years of apprenticeship, to flip on the paint with the apparent ease of a Picasso, but any good stone mason could produce the technique of the sculptor.  It is cut and dried, or should be, and almost mathematical, and is something any intelligent person could acquire with practice.

For instance, all Rodin's work was done in clay.  The marble versions of his statues were produced by marble masons who he never even saw!

I have heard people declare that such and such a sculptor "murders a piece of stone"; that Epstein has no technique, for instance.  What utter nonsense! He has the technique sufficient and common to any decent sculptor, that of the good stone mason, to carry out his fine conceptions.

Hence the sculptors who indulge in the flamboyant excesses of the later Greeks or the decadent Gothic, for instance, were not even showing what clever boys they were.  Any fool could produce their boring eccentricities with sufficient patience and a common-place enough mind.

It is partly this limitation of technique which makes sculpture such a searching test - such a dangerous adventure! The poor sculptor having once embarked must keep to the straight and narrow path.  No side tracks for him! No half holidays indulging in the sensuous delights of colour and of line.

But we needn't really be sorry for him, he actually likes this discipline! The modern sculptor prefers direct carving because its discipline seems to stimulate his will and energy, to support his sculptural aims, and that is whay there does not seem to him to be the same virtue in clay modelling, which leads to improvisation and spontaneity, and to the recording of casual impressions; meanings which, as I have said, he regards as non-sculptural, and he restricts himself to the austerity imposed by carving from resistant substances.

Whatever his medium, however, he must always seek to create this sculptural form, which possesses almost the quality of geometry in its permanence, and if he can do this he will produce work of value which will always give the spectator an original experience.