Alan Thornhill

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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 exempted from military service as a conscientious objector. 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 is still 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).

Working methods[edit]

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.[1] His writings include notes about portraiture and the nature of the creative process.[2]


His portraiture in public collections includes:

Other eminent figures who have sat for Thornhill include Enoch Powell, Christabel Bielenberg, Frank Cousins, Richard Rodney Bennett, Michael Cardew, Sir Colin Davis, Dennis Silk and Basil Bunting.

Public sculpture[edit]


Public works include Bond,[8] purchased by the permanent collection[9] of the Jerwood Foundation and presently at Jerwood Sculpture, Ragley Hall.

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.[10]

'Summoner', a large bronze sculpture, is on permanent display in the Walled Garden of the Museum in the Park, Stroud, Gloucestershire. In addition, the Museum has other large bronze sculptures in their collection (but not on always on display), these are 'Punch 'n' Judy', 'Exit', 'Animaversion' and 'Together'. The Museum also holds some charcoal drawings and small terracotta works, such as 'Drowning Woman with Rescuer'.[11]

Biographical film[edit]

A 40-minute documentary, produced by his daughter Anna Thornhill, Spirit in Mass: Journey into Sculpture,[12] 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[13] and Chichester International Film Festival.[14] Artist and writer Clare Carswell[15] is interviewed in the film.

Henry Moore Institute Archive[edit]

The bronze sculpture, Walking and Talking[16] and many of the files and papers relating to Thornhill's portraits were acquired in 2007 by the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, UK.[17]


  1. ^ West Dean College 'Large Clay Sculptures' August 2008
  2. ^ essay – Thoughts on Creativity – Sculptor Alan Thornhill 2008 Archived 25 July 2013 at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ National Portrait Gallery bronze head of Hugh MacDiarmid
  4. ^ Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
  5. ^ The American College of Orgonomy
  6. ^ Inventory of Tom Stoppard papers and location of bronze head
  7. ^ Gordon Russell – Home
  8. ^ Bond – sculpture in Jerwood sculpture Collection, Ragley Hall, UK
  9. ^ Jerwood Sculpture Collection biography of Alan Thornhill
  10. ^ Public Sculpture of South London, T. Cavanagh, Public Monuments and Sculpture Association (2007) Liverpool University Press p.311 ISBN 978-1-84631-075-1
  11. ^ Museum in the Park, Stroud
  12. ^ Film: Spirit in Mass – Journey into Sculpture (2007) Archived 12 May 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ Appledore Visual Arts Festival 2008 Film schedule
  14. ^ "External Site : Chichester Film Festival". Archived from the original on 18 July 2011. Retrieved 17 July 2008.
  15. ^ Clare Carswell – the writing : writings on artists
  16. ^ "Walking and Talking bronze sculpture". Archived from the original on 5 July 2008. Retrieved 17 July 2008.
  17. ^ Henry Moore Foundation Archived 12 January 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  • 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

External links[edit]