Brian Taylor: A Heartfelt Vision by Richard Cork

The powerful inspiration provided by Italy played a crucial part in Brian Taylor’s life as an artist. After he studied at the Slade School of Art in the mid-1950s, his prowess as a sculptor of the human figure was so impressive that he gained a covetable three-year scholarship to Rome. The artworks Taylor encountered there stimulated him enormously, ranging from classical sculpture right through to early twentieth-century modernism. He became obsessed by the challenge of carving a life-size male figure, concentrating above all on its essential vitality. And the Director of the Courtauld Institute, Anthony Blunt, responded to Taylor’s ambition by providing him with a substantial block of travertine marble. So he was able to create a freely handled sculpture of a man pulling his shirt off, and in 1960 Taylor’s precocious dexterity earned him a solo exhibition in Rome.

For several years he lingered there, learning even more by working as a studio assistant for the immensely successful Italian sculptor Emilio Greco. But London’s rapidly increasing vivacity during the Swinging Sixties persuaded Taylor to return there, and he began his distinguished teaching career at Camberwell School of Art in 1965. Although sculpture was always his primary focus, he emphasised the fundamental role played by drawing as well. Close, first-hand scrutiny of human faces and bodies remained immensely important to him, and yet Taylor was also fascinated by a far more traumatised vision of life. As a teenager he had, tragically, suffered a severe mental breakdown which led him to attempt suicide. Both drawing and painting helped him to recover in hospital, and even during the late 1960s he still found stimulus in scrutinising people as unstable as Lily Pier, a former Camberwell student who gave vent to her anguish by screaming and weeping. The Dance of Lily Pier, an arresting bronze which vividly conveys her spiritual torment, shows just how deeply Taylor comprehended mental distress.

Italy, however, called him back in 1971, and he could not resist an impulse to visit the Serra di Burano. This alluring rural area, not far from Umbria, enabled him to study horses – in particular an unusually large and well-built animal strong enough to run even when pulling a very hefty cart. Although this pugnacious creature threatened to bite Taylor, he insisted on studying the mighty horse at close quarters. He cunningly distracted the animal by flinging wet clay onto its nose. And while the horse licked off this muddy substance, Taylor took detailed measurements of its head and body without suffering any assault at all.

As a result of these adroit manoeuvres, he was ready in 1972 to create the major bronze sculpture Burano Horse. Its title paid tribute to the countryside he relished in the seductive valley of Santa Maria di Burano, as well as the animal he had discovered there. Enchanted by his explorations of this terrain, while staying near the church of San Sepulchro with peasant farmers, Taylor made sure he returned to this compelling district time and again over a twenty-year period. During these visits he worked on a monumental sculpture paying homage, above all, to Piero della Francesca, who in the fifteenth-century painted two interlinked images called The Triumph of Battista Sforza and The Triumph of Federico da Montefeltro. In both these celebratory works, elaborate chariots are depicted as they proceed along a route high in a panoramic, luminous landscape. Although Taylor never completed the entire sculpture, he intended it to contain lifesize images of figures as well as animals. But several of these bronzes were finished, including oxen, cows and even a bull. With characteristic intensity and dedication, he based them on his own careful scrutiny of Italian animals found in a barn.

Even so, the disturbed area of his mind never went away. Back in the 1950s, as a teenager struggling to recover from his breakdown, he had become obsessed by Dostoyevsky’s alarming fiction as well as the end-of-the-world terror generated by The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. And now, in the latter part of his life, he conceived an uncompromising multi-part sculpture entitled The Death Cart. Taylor never lost his profound awareness of mortality, and succeeded here in creating several figures who testify to a heartfelt preoccupation with the fundamental vulnerability of our existence on this mysterious planet.

 

Richard Cork

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