Peter Thursby FRBS PPRWA
Peter Thursby died on January 6, 2011 at the age of eighty. He produced his first work in the wake of the second world war, a time when new brutal abstract art came into being, challenging the semi-abstract and figurative. His own early sculptures were hard and aggressive with form sacrificed to surface qualities. In time a more human and humanising modernism took over. His work ranged in scale from the architectural and monumental to small pieces for the domestic interior. Technically skilled, he worked with a range of materials from cast concrete, stone and slate to bronze, stainless steel, aluminium and silver, working with Frank Johnson on the silver pieces.
Peter had a rather military bearing, and indeed his father was an Army officer. His handshake was firm, and his manners and his dress (when not in the studio) were both impeccable. Physically strong, he would jokingly claim that his strength derived from his ‘King Canute ancestors’, the Thoresbys, a group of marauding Norsemen who settled south-west of Carlisle at what is now the village of Thursby.
Peter’s childhood years were spent in Jamaica where a vigilant gardener once saved him from a sea of invading scorpions. Once back in England, he attended Bishop Wordsworths’ School in Salisbury. William Golding was his English master, and Peter remembered Golding provoking his pupils into ‘thinking’, something that was not normally on the curriculum. National Service followed, and then he began to study art, completing two foundation years at St. Paul’s, Cheltenham. He then studied with Paul Feiler and Ernest Pascoe at the West of England College of Art. Attending their life classes honed his natural drawing skills while also laying down the ideas which informed his first sculptures.
Subsequently at Exeter College of Art Edward Atkinson stimulated Peter’s interest in sculpture, but throughout the 1950s his output was almost exclusively in the form of paintings. By 1957 his canvases had not only become richly textural, but also fully abstract. His red, black and grey paintings of Metal Objects in Space being praised in La Revue Moderne. His switch to sculpture was marked with early success when, in 1962, he beat Lynne Chadwick amongst others to win first prize in an exhibition held in Gloucester entitled 19 Young Sculptors.
Referencing the human form, Peter’s early totemic sculptures were dark, coruscating pieces, verging on the brutal. These evolved into winged creatures thrusting into space; disturbing presences. Marjorie Parr bought one winged creature at his solo exhibition at Plymouth Art Gallery in 1964, and subsequently he showed regularly at the Parr gallery until its closure. Gradually his organic sculptures became subsumed by the mechanical. New bronze table-sculptures took on an unnerving resemblance to assemblages of engine parts. Not all of his audience was convinced, though he was in good company with Chillada, Paolozzi and Cesar.
An elegant interlude followed these weighty works, with a number of tensile, poised aluminium sculptures, their linear forms in tune with new modernist architecture. They were the antithesis of what had gone before and foreshadowed Peter’s large public sculptures of the 1980s. Cast in bronze by the Morris Singer Foundry, these monumental works weighing up to three tons were erected on sites in America, Germany and the UK. Professor Simon Olding has described them as stylised symbols of growth, and water was brought in to flow over many of them, creating movement, light reflection and sound.
Peter was to remain fairly constant to abstraction through out his career, though he was not averse to semi-figurative work if he felt the subject called for it. Such was the case for his 1970s Podmen and his late Sarum and Flight series. Intrigued by satellites and space travel, he produced a number of hard polished ringed and domed sculptures in the 1970s and 1980s, works which both reflected and refracted light. He also made a successful tower series in which sculpture becomes architecture.
A good communicator, he gave generously of his time to art education and arts organisations, including Hele’s School, Exeter Art College, the Museum Council, Art and Architecture and the Royal West of England Academy, of which he was President for five years (1995-2000). In 1995 he received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of the West of England, and in 1987 was a winner of the Royal British Society of Sculptors Silver Medal.
- Vivienne Light