Happy Birthday George Fullard! - by Michael Bird

To mark the anniversary of the birth of British sculptor George Fullard, author Michael Bird reflects on the remarkable journey of discovery that led to the writing of his monograph on Fullard's life and art: 'George Fullard : Sculpture and Survival'.

George Fullard, 'The Patriot', 1959–60, Wood assemblage and paint, 178 × 214.5 × 31.7 cm, Southampton City Art Gallery, Photography: Steve Russell Studios, Courtesy Gallery Pangolin.


George Fullard would have turned ninety-seven today. I don’t know what he’d be working on now – a monument to Boris Johnson, maybe, constructed from U-shaped sewage pipes. Because I imagine the humour and anger and inventiveness of the younger Fullard still burning bright. I know these qualities well, because for the best part of a year, between May 2015 and the spring of 2016, I lived with Fullard. At least, that was how it felt. Fullard himself wasn’t actually physically present – he’d died of a heart attack on Christmas Day 1973, aged fifty. But, if there was no body in the room, there was plenty of evidence.

Fullard was born into a coal-miner’s family in Sheffield and grew up in the tight-packed terraces near sprawling Nunnery Colliery. Playing among the poky alleys and yards, he recalled, was ‘like living in a sculpture’. He went to Sheffield College of Arts and Crafts – at that time as much a training school for the cutlery industry as a cradle of artistic talent – and deferred a place at the Royal College of Art to join the army in 1943. At the Battle of Monte Cassino – a drawn-out bloodbath that all but derailed the Allied push through Italy – an anti-tank shell nearly severed his left arm.

Pages from 'George Fullard : Sculpture and Survival', featuring Fullard's 'Infant with Flower', 1958, Plaster and metal 76.2x42x38 cm, courtesy of the Artist's Estate and Pangolin Gallery and 'Angry Woman', 1958, Bronze, 213.5&122&85cm, Sheffield Galleries and Museums.


He recovered (though never fully), took up his RCA place, and gained early recognition (notably from John Berger) as a working-class realist sculptor. Then, in the late 1950s, he started working in a more assertively expressive idiom, whacking and torquing the clay as if it were an antagonist from which he’d vowed to wring the truth. The Tate’s Infant with Flower, or Angry Woman, which stands in Sheffield city centre, feel like both vehicles and victims of Fullard’s tough love.

Soon the wooden armatures for these clay sculptures were turning into sculptures in their own right, assembled from demolition-site gleanings and junk-shop finds. ‘I make from what there is,’ Fullard wrote. In the 1960s he embarked on a series in which he felt he was ‘sculpting my autobiography’. In War Ghost, War Game, Death or Glory and half a dozen other large assemblages, he created phantasmagorical fusions of battlefield trauma and childhood games.

Pages from 'George Fullard : Sculpture and Survival', featuring Fullard's 'War game', 1962, Ciment fondu, 148x146x71 cm, On loan to Hatton Gallery, University of Newcastle.


This much I could have learned without letting Fullard too far into my life. I could have pursued my research in the air-conditioned calm of the Tate’s Hyman Kreitman Reading Rooms or the Henry Moore Institute, to both of which his widow, Irena, had gifted what she considered the pick of Fullard’s drawings and notebooks. But, just as Fullard never threw away a broken chair or orphaned dustbin lid that might find a new life in a sculpture – along with sketchbooks, notebooks, letters, photographs, private view cards and miscellaneous studio ephemera – he kept payslips and football pools coupons, used airgun targets pocked by pellets, and swatches of blank headed notepaper from Irena’s job with a telephone answering service, on which the day had yet to dawn when they would finally come in handy.

Pages from 'George Fullard : Sculpture and Survival', featuring Fullard's 'War ghost', 1961, Metal assemblage, 139.7 x 155 x 78.5 cm, On loan to Sheeld Galleries and Museums.


After his death, Irena moved from London to a cottage in rural Wales. She and Fullard had become estranged (as head of sculpture at Chelsea, he’d had affairs with students – the familiar story), but she kept every scrap of his. Since her death, Fullard’s estate has been represented by Gallery Pangolin. When I visited to begin work on the book, I was shown a dozen or so archive boxes and plastic crates containing what we informally named the Fullard Archive. As I lifted the lid on each of these in turn, the scent of the past – damp wastepaper basket with notes of mushroom and nicotine – rose like a genie limbering up for breakout.  

Pages from 'George Fullard : Sculpture and Survival', featuring Fullard's 'Death or Glory', 1963-4, Wood assemblage 188x191x97cm, Tate. 


Why didn’t I – it was suggested – just take it all home? So I crammed the car with the Fullard Archive, which I then stacked, three or four boxes high, around my desk – behind and to each side – like a stockade. Or, it now strikes me, like one of Fullard’s monumental assemblages – my very own Book Game. And I set about sifting his life.

It’s what you do when a parent or grandparent dies, and it brought a similar, paradoxical sense of unlicensed intimacy alternating with irreducible otherness, as the person you thought you knew becomes the person they really were. You begin to look at things (yourself included) through their eyes. I soon realised that Fullard would probably have viewed me – a London-born, Oxbridge-educated wordsmith – with knee-jerk distrust veering either (depending on how we got on) towards tolerant satire or frank antipathy. One of his old friends told me that the book on which I explained I was working ‘was the last thing George would have wanted’.

George Fullard, 'Three Women', 1958, Bronze, One Known Cast, 58.7 × 55.7 × 33 cm, Photography: Steve Russell Studios, Courtesy Gallery Pangolin.


Was I wrong to persist? Can you write a life that differs and diverges so much from your own? If the answer’s ‘no’, historians might as well give up. Apart from anything else, the past really is a foreign country, where the flare of first-person memory soon fizzles out. And I had a way in, of sorts. The lives of previous generations in my family had been closer to the Fullard family’s in the days before the Second World War and the Welfare State and the whole post-war social-democratic settlement. Like him, and like an entire generation of new talent and aspiration in post-war Britain, they’d experienced the possibilities that all this opened up for young people from working-class and lower-middle-class homes, which had never been there before.

In one way or another, my writing about modern British art has come back again and again to this moment. Among other things, I think, it’s a time-travel pass to the period of my parents’ youth – that undiscovered country from which childhood is full of returning travellers and their tales – and a way of sublimating my anger that, today in Britain, we’re lurching – politically, socially, culturally, idiotically – in the opposite direction.

George Fullard, 'The Infant St George', 1962–3, Wood and Metal Assemblage
Unique, 211.5 × 115.5 × 124.5 cm, Photography: Steve Russell Studios, Courtesy Gallery Pangolin.


I hoped that Fullard might understand this as I unpeeled mouldy utility bills from paper napkins on which he’d doodled, wondering whether I should really take time out for an MA in conservation before proceeding any further. Every so often, I struck gold, in the form of scribbled notes that could easily have been binned, in which Fullard’s originality as a sculptural thinker suddenly shone full-beam. In his desk diary for 1958 he noted, Sense of sound in sculpture … sounds are often intensely evokative and can stimulate in me a sculptural idea … This is connected to the need to give sculpture the quality and power of silence …

Late in the day, after I’d written much of the book, I finally made contact with a former girlfriend of Fullard’s. We met, and she handed me a packet of his letters. Graphically erotic, tender, chatty and (this was still art history, I had to remind myself) uniquely illuminating about the very last pictures he produced, they let me somehow relinquish Fullard back into his own life. By which I mean – I think – an acceptance of otherness into which, in the end, we have no right to trespass.

George Fullard: Sculpture and Survival is the fourth monograph I’ve written about a modern British artist. In each case, my way in, my meeting places with the subject, have been different. When the boxes had been packed up and set aside and the book was in the press, Fullard turned up in a dream. He’d made a gigantic toy train out of brightly coloured bits of junk. It was running through a series of large, white, empty rooms (it might have been the Royal Academy). The atmosphere was relaxed, sunny. He seemed pleased. We got there, I thought. It’s ok.


-- Michael Bird 2020.


Michael Bird's book, 'George Fullard : Sculpture and Survival' is available to buy HERE.

Hardback • 160 Pages • Size: 290 × 240 mm
130 colour illustrations
ISBN: 9780957041738 • Publication: January 05, 2017


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