A party of disorderly couples has gatecrashed the Picture Gallery at Bath’s Holburne Museum, climbing on to the antique furniture, hanging off the track lighting and sprawling on the floor, putting the noses of the resident Gainsboroughs, Constables and Zoffanys out of joint. Lawks-a-mercy! What has come over the Holburne? A passel of Mrs & Mrs Popes, that’s what: 36 years’ worth, to be precise.
Nicholas Pope carved his first married couple from sliver-thin Forest of Dean stone in 1978 in homage to Van Eyck’s ‘Arnolfini Portrait’. At the time, this young minimalist contemporary of Antony Gormley, Richard Deacon and Tony Cragg was on the up and up: in 1980, aged 31, he would represent Britain at the Venice Biennale. But in Venice, far from feeling that he had arrived, after seeing Georg Baselitz’s sculptures in the German Pavilion Pope began to question the emotional limitations of minimalism and wonder if sculpture wasn’t ‘about more than making work to go in a gallery’. In 1982 he took himself off to Tanzania to learn from the Makonde carvers and, while there, contracted encephalitis that left him with a legacy of Parkinson’s disease. For years he struggled to come to terms with his loss of skill until, accepting the impossibility of taking back control, he decided that ‘ham-fisted making’ was the way to go. At that point, all his former ideas of tastefulness went up the spout.
While his contemporaries continued to make work to go in galleries, Pope began to make work to please himself. No longer able to operate a chain saw, he swapped wood and stone for more malleable media and abstract concepts for more personal subjects. The first ‘Mr and Mrs Pope with Holes’ (1985) was carved roughly from wood, but the other eight couples now hanging around the Holburne — literally, in the case of ‘Mr and Mrs Pope, Knitted, Shrunk and Hung’ (2012) — are made of aluminium, epoxy resin, ceramic, felted mohair, glass and bronze. In their multifarious, poignantly human forms they chart the periodical mood swings of a long marriage, from ‘Spiked and Holed’ (1987) and ‘Melting’ (1991) to ‘Lit from Within’ (2009), ‘Vased and Flowered’ (2014) and ‘Dead and Buried’ (2020). Janet Pope died while the show was in planning.
The word ‘multidisciplinary’ doesn’t do Pope justice. His latest venture is into deep pile carpet, woven in Turkey after his loopy drawings; four new examples have just been unveiled at The Sunday Painter in the second of a trio of exhibitions suddenly celebrating his under-represented genius. As well as drawings and a monstrous papier-mâché model of a ‘Chapel Coming in to Land’ (1995) — of which more anon — the show features a selection of helmets inviting visitors to enter the sculptor’s headspace. They include a ‘Pom Pom Helmet’ made of curtain netting stretched on wires that would make the wearer look like a spook haunting a haberdashery and a ‘Gold Light Helmet’ of lustred ceramic fitted with fairy lights programmed to deliver a personalised light show.
A longer view of Pope’s oeuvre is on offer at the New Art Centre near Salisbury in a mini-retrospective that starts with a group of his elegantly carved and polished pre-Parkinson’s ‘Yews’ (1981) and ends with the lumpen fired stoneware ‘Medium Weird’ (2020), a rabbit-eared, pot-bellied product of lockdown that made me laugh out loud. Heaven knows what really weird would look like. In between are spin-offs from the artist’s two gesamtkunstwerks: ‘The Oratory of Heavenly Space’, a scheme for a chapel to house his many religious works — including the life-sized terracotta ‘John the Baptist Pointing the Way and Lit by His Own Light’ (1993-96) and the gaily coloured, borderline obscene ceramic ‘Apostles’ Piss Font’ (1995) on show here — and ‘The Motorway Service Station of the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Virtues’, Pope’s bid to give the motorway stop a moral dimension. Work on this project seems to have focused mainly on sanitary fixtures such as the biomorphic ceramic washbasins — one silver, the other pink, with multiple plugholes — in this exhibition. ‘All the urinals flush,’ Pope once assured me, ‘but I shall take my hat off to any curator who plumbs them in.’
How has this complete original been sidelined? It didn’t help that he buried himself in the country, refusing to relocate from rural Herefordshire to London, or that — although not himself a committed believer — he began making work about religious faith. Those ‘couple things’ are not his only point of contact with that other great English eccentric, Stanley Spencer, who also entertained dreams of his own chapel and delighted in muddying the sacred with the profane.
Despite a brief interest in his service station from Moto, Pope doesn’t have high hopes of his chapel being built. All things considered, that’s probably for the best. The joy of his work lies in its free-flowing invention; official recognition could block the outlet.
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