published 09/05/2013 at 15:08 BST by Gillian Whiteley
Sculptor whose creations had a dark, disturbing sensuality
Ralph Brown in his studio. His best known work is Meat Porters, commissioned in 1959 for the new town of Harlow, in Essex. Photograph: Steve Russell
For more than 60 years, the artist Ralph Brown, who has died aged 84, explored the human body through drawing and sculpture. Some of his most important work was made in the 1950s and 60s: a
notable series of Brown's figurative sculptures, which included Mother and Child (1954) and Clochard (1955-56), was critically acclaimed by John Berger, then the art critic for the New Statesman.
At the time, Berger associated Brown's work with a range of other British art which he identified as "social realist", not for any overt political imagery, but primarily for its poignant and
Brown's most significant and well-known sculptural work is his Meat Porters, commissioned in 1959 by Harlow Art Trust, the organisation acquiring works of art for Harlow New Town in Essex, as the centrepiece for the town's new market square. This magnificent visceral bronze was based on studies of bummarees (porters) hauling meat carcasses at Smithfield market in London. Expressively Rodinesque, the muscular surfaces of the sculpture also reflected the fissures and clefts of the rock-faces and limestone pavements in Brown's native Yorkshire, where he had spent many weekends rock-climbing as a youth. A paean to physical labour, Meat Porters evoked the brutality of the abattoir. At the same time, with its gaping vertical split, it had a blatantly erotic element. Characteristically, here, as in much of his later work, Brown combined a keen social engagement with a sometimes dark, disturbing sensuality.
Born in Leeds, where his father was a school caretaker, Brown was the youngest of three brothers. On leaving Leeds grammar school, he spent two years in the RAF, going on to Leeds College of Art in 1948. In 1951, he made the first of two trips to Paris, which proved to be formative experiences. Berger arranged for him to stay in the Left Bank apartment of the British artist Raymond Mason. Brown's extensive sketchbooks from the period document the everyday life of street urchins and working-class Parisians but he also made lengthy visits to the Musée Rodin and had brief meetings with the artists Germaine Richier and Alberto Giacometti.
Invigorated by his experiences, on his return to London Brown studied under Leon Underwood at Hammersmith School of Art. From 1952 until 1956, he studied sculpture at the Royal College of Art under the tutelage of Frank Dobson and John Skeaping. Later, he taught at various art schools including Bournemouth, Bristol and the Royal College of Art, where he met and fell in love with his student, Caroline Clifton-Trigg, whom he married in 1964.
In the 1950s, he was a contemporary of the group of sculptors that Herbert Read famously allied with a kind of cold war angst which he dubbed the "geometry of fear". However, Brown certainly did not share their penchant for crustaceans and spiky attenuated forms. While Brown did identify with his Yorkshire roots – sharing a sculptural heritage with Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Kenneth Armitage – he had much more in common with the figurative work of European sculptors such as the Italians Emilio Greco, Giacomo Manzu and, in particular, Marino Marini, for whom he had the greatest admiration. Indeed, although a sculptor, Brown frequently described himself as an "image-maker" who drew primarily on a Mediterranean humanist tradition.
Through the next two decades, a Mediterranean sensuality continued to inform Brown's work, as in his sculptural reliefs of the 1960s, in which swimmers metamorphosed into entwined lovers. Other tumultuous sculptural heads and voluptuous forms had erotic, phallic or sometimes androgynous allusions. Later works, such as his "confluences" of folding, pouring forms were based on bulbous body parts.
For a few years in the 1970s, Brown moved his family nearer to the Mediterranean, living for a while in a rambling derelict farmhouse in the Cévennes region of southern France. Despite his critical success, selling work proved difficult and with financial problems and an increasing sense of isolation, the family moved back to the UK and Ralph established a studio base in Bath, eventually settling in various locations in the Cotswolds.
In 1993, after more than 40 years working in clay and plaster for casting in metal, Brown started to carve marble, and established a working relationship with Studio Sem in Pietrasanta, Italy. His later years, however, were marked by a series of returns, working through a series of motifs and revisiting earlier work.
A major achievement was the production, in 2009, of one of his largest sculptures, Queen, which became the focal point of a retrospective exhibition staged in Brown's 80th year. An earlier related work, Standing Queen (1962), had caused a major controversy when he first proposed exhibiting it at Digswell, the arts community in Hertfordshire where he was based at the time. The disturbing image, with its split visage and a note of vulgarity, was felt inappropriate by Digswell Trustees who were expecting a visit from a member of the royal family. The equation of royalty with sexual voraciousness was just too much. They insisted he changed the title of the work; Brown refused and was asked to leave Digswell.
For various reasons, and similar anxieties, the large Queen, originally commissioned by Peterborough Development Corporation for a public site in front of the cathedral, was never realised. Witnessing the artist, a lifelong socialist, putting the finishing touches to the first cast of this monstrously burlesque "royal" in his Cotswold studio in 2009 was a great privilege for me. PJ Kavanagh captured Brown's sensibility and humanity when, in 1972, he wrote of his work as "a hymn to the body which, because it is respectful, lets in the soul as well".
Brown is survived by Caroline and their son, Jasper; and by a daughter, Sara, from his first marriage, to Margaret, which ended in divorce. His eldest child, Matthew, died in 2011.
Ralph Brown, sculptor, born 24 April 1928; died 3 April 2013