Alan Thornhill (born 1921) is a British artist and sculptor whose long association with clay developed from pottery into sculpture. His evolved methods of working enabled the dispensing of the sculptural armature to allow improvisation, whilst his portraiture challenges notions of normality through rigorous observation.
Born in London, he grew up in Fittleworth, West Sussex, attended Radley College, and then in 1939 went to New College, Oxford to read Modern History. In 1944 he returned to Oxford, having been released from the Army for conscientious objection. He obtained his degree, and spent a year in Italy based in Florence, teaching English at Pisa University. He then stayed six months in Oslo undergoing Reichian therapy, from which came the decision to try working with his hands.
In 1949 he was accepted for the pottery course at Camberwell School of Art under Dick Kendall and Nora Braden, followed by a year at Farnham under Henry Hammond and Paul Barron, before moving in 1951 to Eastcombe, Gloucestershire, where Hawkley Pottery was set up at Toadsmoor. In 1958, frustrated by the repetition involved in making and selling pots, he started to gravitate towards claywork and sculpture, and in 1959 moved to London, having found a property in Putney which included a semi-derelict outbuilding that became his studio. His studio still remains there, although he is now largely based near Stroud, Gloucestershire.
He first taught claywork at Kingston School of Art, Barking Regional College, Rush Green College of Further Education and then sculpture at Morley College, London between 1970 and 1987, and at the former Frink School of Sculpture where he was a founder trustee and with a later teaching role (1995–2001).
Devising his own way of working which dispensed with the traditional sculptor's armature, he began working with random clay elements, constructed of coarse clay with uniform thickness, so that sculpture could develop, be turned and incorporate subconscious impulses in building the work. The assemblage of clay elements was dried and slowly kiln fired, if necessary being cut up to accommodate to the size of kiln and then rejoined after firing. The simple impetus was the desire to produce another sculpture, yet the later resulting large works – part figurative, part abstract, came to echo pre-occupations for him at that time. The process of improvisation and avoiding pre-conceived ideas (and in his portraiture, avoiding notions of normality through rigorous observation) continues to be taught through some of his own former pupils. His writings include notes about portraiture and the nature of the creative process.
His portraiture in public collections includes:
- Hugh MacDiarmid (Christopher Murray Grieve) – purchased in 1978 for the Primary Collection of the National Portrait Gallery in London
- Emanuel Shinwell (Manny, later, Lord) – Bronze head was purchased (accession number S.309) for the Collection of Glasgow City Art Gallery. in 1973.
- A. S. Neill, the renowned educationist of Summerhill School – Bronze heads are located at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh and the American College of Orgonomy, New York.
- Tom Stoppard – Bronze head is with the Stoppard papers in the reading room of the Harry Ransom Centre at the University of Texas.
- Sydney Gordon Russell – Bronze head is in the collection of the Gordon Russell Museum in Broadway, Worcestershire.
Nine large works now form the Putney Sculpture Trail along the River Thames at Putney in the Borough of Wandsworth, formally opened in September 2008. Load has been on Putney Embankment since 1989.
Punch 'n' Judy a large bronze sculpture is usually on display at the Museum in the Park, Stroud, Gloucestershire, which also holds some charcoal drawings and small terracotta works, such as 'Drowning Woman with Rescuer' .
A 40-minute documentary, produced by his daughter Anna Thornhill, Spirit in Mass: Journey into Sculpture, was released in 2008 with an award from Screen South and UK Film Council. This was launched in Oxford and subsequently appeared at the Appledore Visual Arts Festival 2008 and Chichester International Film Festival. Artist and writer Clare Carswell is interviewed in the film.
Portraits of Thornhill
Terracotta portrait heads of Alan Thornhill exist by former students of the Frink School of Sculpture Jon Edgar and Sarah Smith, from sittings in Gloucestershire in 2004 and 2005 respectively. These are both featured in the film.
Henry Moore Institute Archive
- West Dean College 'Large Clay Sculptures' August 2008
- essay – Thoughts on Creativity – Sculptor Alan Thornhill 2008
- National Portrait Gallery bronze head of Hugh MacDiarmid
- Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
- The American College of Orgonomy
- Inventory of Tom Stoppard papers and location of bronze head
- Gordon Russell – Home
- Bond – sculpture in Jerwood sculpture Collection, Ragley Hall, UK
- Jerwood Sculpture Collection biography of Alan Thornhill
- Public Sculpture of South London, T. Cavanagh, Public Monuments and Sculpture Association (2007) Liverpool University Press p.311 ISBN 978-1-84631-075-1
- Film: Spirit in Mass – Journey into Sculpture (2007)
- Appledore Visual Arts Festival 2008 Film schedule
- External Site : Chichester Film Festival
- Clare Carswell – the writing : writings on artists
- Walking and Talking bronze sculpture
- Henry Moore Foundation
- authors, various (2008). Responses – Carvings and Claywork: Jon Edgar Sculpture 2003–2008. UK: Hesworth Press. ISBN 978-0-9558675-0-7.
- Public Sculpture of South London, T. Cavanagh, Public Monuments and Sculpture Association (2007) Liverpool University Press p. 464 ISBN 978-1-84631-075-1
- Web archive of works
- Alan Thornhill Sculpture, Drawing and Painting Exhibition (2012) at the Museum in the Park, Stroud – the museum also holds some of Alan's work
- Essay by Clare Carswell MA (RCA) 2008
- portrait head of Alan Thornhill, 2004 by sculptor Jon Edgar
- Wandsworth Council Sculpture Trail map
- Sculpture Trail leaflet/map download in pdf