This exhibition of the sculptures, pastels and drawings of Michael
Foley, shown alongside his murals in the Red Bar, represents the
first retrospective show ever given to this gifted young Modernist
artist since his premature tragic death in the Second World War in
1943 at the age of 31. Made possible by the generous loan of works
by his widow, family and friends, the research and organisational
work of his nephew Geoffrey Taunton-Collins and the active and enthusiastic
support of the Royal Burnham Yacht Club (where he spent some of the
happiest times of his life), it provides eloquent testimony to an
enormously promising artistic career cut tragically short.
Born in London in 1912, the son of an Australian-born business man, he was educated at Ampleforth School between 1926 and 1930. Well before he left, he had shown clear signs of his artistic passions, making a technically very sophisticated sculpture in plaster of Peter Pan (1928) and, on leaving, a carved statue in oakwood of St. Teresa of Avila as a present to the Headmaster. This still exists at the school as well as the Music Trophy, which is annually competed for.
He went up to Oxford to study Classics but he abandoned this after a year and enrolled instead at the Central School of Art and Design in 1932. The Central was regarded at this date as perhaps the leading art school in London and Michael’s studies in sculpture and drawing there were under one of the leading Modernist sculptors of the time, John Skeaping. Skeaping had been at the Royal College of Art just after the First War and had been a Rome Scholar in Sculpture in the early 1920s, where he had met and married Barbara Hepworth. Through her, he was introduced and became friends with the young Henry Moore and the famous art-critic Herbert Read. Working closely together for a few years (up to his divorce from Barbara in 1931) the three young artists, Moore, Hepworth and Skeaping, had a powerful influence on each other in the now world-famous development of a Modernist and increasingly abstract style of working, one that involved direct carving techniques from wood and stone. At the time a still largely disregarded and unfashionable way for sculptors to work - for the most part they either made plaster models which were then cast in bronze or had the work enlarged in marble by professional craftsman – Skeaping, with his influential teaching role at the Central, did a great deal to help change and popularise such attitudes.
Skeaping’s early influence on the young Michael Foley is a good example, as can be seen from the photographs and pieces shown here, of works he had produced before and just after he went to the Central in 1932 – Peter Pan (1928), E.N. Prescott (1931) and Sir Thomas More (1933) on the one hand and Torso (1933), and Prophet (1934) on the other. This is most clearly seen in the abandonment of a literal and realistic handling of facial and anatomical detail and drapery in favour of a greatly simplified and much more abstract approach to the human form. It results in works that possess both a remarkable austerity and force that mark out Foley as already a contemporary sculptor of considerable potential and originality.
The Murals at the Royal Burnham Yacht Club
Skeaping was also a superb draughtsman at this period and Michael Foley learnt fast and adeptly from him the drawing and compositional skills he put to amazingly precocious use in the Red Bar murals at the Royal Burnham Yacht Club. Produced in 1934 and thus while he was still a student - presumably in the summer holidays – they represent a highly ambitious artistic achievement for so young and inexperienced an artist, aged just 22. Most significant among the lessons he seems to have learnt from Skeaping in painting these murals, was the bold decision to do away with many of the fussy details of sky, landscape or interiors. This had the effect of allowing him to silhouette the five main figure groups against a simple white background, so concentrating our attention more clearly on the telling of the stories – The Steps and Hard, the RBODs, The Protest Group/Victor Ludorum Group, The Bathing Raft, and The RBYC Fancy Dress Party. This he does with wonderful wit, verve and economy, celebrating the introduction of the new One Design Class boats. A crucial moment in the club’s history when many new young members (his own sisters included) started taking a more active part in events.
In order to show how he went about making these murals the organisers have placed facsimile copies of the squared up drawings that he made beforehand of each wall, and used to get the proportions and final appearance of the murals looking correct. It is interesting to look closely to see what he did decide finally to change. While most of the main figure groups remain largely unaltered, there are numerous changes to the details of the scene, all of them designed to make the final composition read more clearly. A good example is in The Steps and Hard panel where Foley has made the decision to eliminate many of the effects of the small waves and eddies of current, linking the scene together instead by emphasising and extending the line and buoy being hauled in by the young boy on the right-hand boat.
Numerous examples can be found elsewhere as in The Bathing Platform panel. As well as tiny changes of incidental detail – notably bucket and spade to the left, and swimmer to the right – the effect of the water has been simplified to a highly rhythmic series of shapes that exuberantly links the three main figure groups together. Sometimes one suspects the intervention of a senior club member in the final painting, above all in the Victor Ludorum Group, where a chamber pot crowning the winner, has been replaced by an altogether more sober laurel wreath! Elsewhere, as in the RBYC Fancy Dress Party, the sense of youthful high spirits that so characterises these murals is allowed full reign. However, this painting is also full of good-natured digs at both the younger and older generation as they stagger away from the festivities somewhat the worse for wear! Now perhaps these splendid murals should come to be seen as among the most stylish and remarkable survivals from the Art Deco of the Roaring Thirties.
The Steps and Hard
Turning back to the sculptures, drawings and record photographs in the next door Billiard Room, it is fascinating to see how accomplished an artist he had become in the very short period between going to art-school in 1932 and being engaged in full-time service in the Navy from January 1940, after which time he only managed to keep working on his sketchbooks, all sadly lost when he was killed in the sinking of his ship in 1943. His professional career as an artist began in earnest when he left the Central in 1935 and made the decision to take a small studio space in Chelsea (see photograph), producing enough work there to have two group shows of sculptures and drawings in 1936 and 1937.
In the five small sculptures that have been borrowed back for this exhibition, as well as the photographs of some other of his completed works displayed here, it is clear that Michael now continued to apply and develop those lessons of sweeping, boldly simplified forms and truth to materials he had leant from John Skeaping at the Central to ever greater effect. This is seen in the superbly bold terracotta Head of Joy Cooper, the rhythmic, sweeping lines of the Praying Monk, and the austere simplified form of the carved wooden Dove. Skeaping had, in recent years become particularly interested in animal and bird sculpture (and rather later in horse subjects especially) but in this last piece and the other images of animal sculptures from the late 30s, Michael Foley shows himself rapidly becoming at least the equal of his more celebrated teacher.
The Paris International Exhibition
That Skeaping held him in enormously high regard is evidenced by the fact that in 1937 he asked Michael (two years after he had left the Central) to be his assistant. This was for the huge Modernist figure murals that Skeaping had been commissioned to paint for the British Pavilion at the prestigious Paris International Exhibition of that year. As the photographs of the pavilion show, this was a quite monumental undertaking. The technical and practical difficulties of making these murals, at least 200ft long and around 15-20ft high, being compounded by the fact that they were, according to Skeaping’s own nonchalant account, completed in just four weeks!
The Drawings and Paintings
The substantial group of drawings shown here reveal a lively sensitivity, whether in quick observational pencil studies or more finished subjects in crayon, pastel and oils. Like all good artists he explored a wide range of subjects - nude studies, portraits and charming studies of children as well as land and townscapes and, of course, the sea and sailing. In some cases, as in the bold and very beautiful ink studies of deer, and other animals, they can be related to sculptures he intended to make at some point in the future. Lastly there are some wonderfully vigorous and accomplished sailing and nautical drawings, done both at Burnham and on the Solent. Michael had to give up hope of undertaking anything other than sketchbook drawing after he finally volunteered for active service in early 1940 to join the RNVR, as one or two poignant ship-board letters to an old friend make sadly plain. These last sketchbooks were all lost at the time of his death when his ship was sunk by a mine off the Corsican coast, Michael in fact losing his life trying to save a wounded colleague.
How fortunate that we now have the opportunity to celebrate, almost 65 years to the month of his death, the remarkable things he did manage to achieve in such an astonishingly short period of time. How appropriate too, given Michael Foley’s huge fondness for the place, that his life’s work should be so handsomely celebrated in this way in the Royal Burnham Yacht Club, that has done so much to preserve one of his most complete artistic achievements.