Best in show | Plaster, 1993, by Elisabeth Frink - Museums Association

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Best in show | Plaster, 1993, by Elisabeth Frink

This artwork, on display at Dorset Museum in Dorchester, shows the sculptor's fascination with animals in their wild state
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Plaster, 1993, by Elisabeth Frink
Lucy Johnston
Exhibition manager at Dorset Museum

“When we were preparing this exhibition – which documents the sculptor Elisabeth Frink’s life and work in Dorset, from 1976 until her death in 1993 – we were delighted to discover 10 of the artist’s plaster figures of animals and people in warehouse storage.

They are special because they have her original touch all over them; it’s like examining the brushwork on an old master painting.

Films of Frink at work show her immersing her hands in bowls of wet plaster and shaping it, along with newspaper and scrim, with tools and manually.

This made a satisfying slapping noise as layer upon layer of material was applied to an armature of metal rods and chicken wire.

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The finished bronze cast of this figure is in the gallery, but I love the worked surface of this plaster horse because it makes it look so alive.

Look a little more closely and you can see little patches of orange where rust from the armature is showing through the plaster. We wanted to create some sense of what Frink’s bright and airy studio at Woolland House, in Dorset, was like, so that visitors come into the exhibition and learn more about her working practices, her friends and her social life.

One of the first things people see, for example, are some of the huge cut-out figures Frink produced for the fashion designer Issey Miyake’s shop in London.

Frink was disciplined and would swim in her pool each morning before starting work. Visitors recall some amazing lunches she held there, which were regularly accompanied by a bottle of champagne.

She would return to the studio in the evening and switch on the fluorescent lights to review the plasters she had made in relief to record what needed to be done the following day.

Another lovely object we found in storage is an old wine box that dates back to the time she spent in France. It’s full of paints and brushes, old Polaroid photographs of Frink’s dogs, and cassettes of the music that was constantly on in the background while she worked. She particularly loved the works of Dvorˇák and Mozart, as well as jazz.

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This horse sculpture has a quiet strength that makes me think of Frink working. She created a lot of them towards the end of her life but they were never sentimental; she loved animals in their wild state and wanted to capture that in her art.

We have a screen print of Frink’s depiction of the inter-relationship between a man and a horse as they rest together. As the man reclines, the horse has its hoof on him, and they are in marvellous harmony. Frink believed we had much to learn from animals and that their dignity was worthy of our respect.

When one of her own horses was injured, for example, she admired the way it remained steady and composed, rather than thrashing around in anguish. That memory served her well, I believe, when she later contracted cancer. It’s as if the horse gave her reason for living, as well as a real sense of pride at the end of her life.”

Interview by John Holt. Elisabeth Frink: A View from Within is at Dorset Museum, Dorchester, until 21 April

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