File Note 72: Eric Bainbridge - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Penelope Curtis



Eric Bainbridge Images References Quote Biography Credits

Eric Bainbridge

Most, if not all, British sculptors have an awareness of British sculpture as something specifically British. Even if they can’t quite put their finger on what that means, it tends to have something to do with the landscape, and with Henry Moore. And with Anthony Caro. While some define the tradition as essentially Oedipal, in which successive sons kill successive fathers, I am not sure if this explains anything of what we see, and why that may be as similar as it is different. 

The beauty of Caro’s early work continues to challenge those who succeeded him. If it has been easier, and safer, for sculptors to seek alternative routes away from those works of the early 1960s, it seems that at some point they are, almost inexorably, led back. 

And so, after avoiding Caro for thirty odd years, Eric Bainbridge has now decided to try and deal with him instead. Or rather, to deal with that small group of works epitomised by Early One Morning, made in 1962, and which has been in the Tate collection for almost as long.1 

As I say, the Caro problem has been around the British art school since the 1970s, and it seems to make sense that in tackling the problem Eric Bainbridge has decided to use material which comes not from the street, or the scrapyard, but from the art school itself. All thse pieces of steel were found in the metal store, some of them earmarked by Bainbridge a decade or so ago, when he first arrived in Sunderland to teach. This is found material, in the proper sense of that tradition, but found in the educational workplace, rather than in ‘real life’.

These pieces of steel have been only very slightly altered; mostly they remain as found, but some have been slightly shortened, or had their ends tidied up. It is the skill which comes from the real world, as it were, because the welding (and the bolting) has been done by David Aldridge who used to work in the shipyards of Sunderland, but who now works as Bainbridge’s assistant in the art school. 

Bainbridge has long been preoccpied about the British place in sculpture, and its uncertain position between the States and mainland Europe. He was first inspired by Beuys, and was troubled by the lack of Beuys in the London art schools of the late 1970s. Most evident in the corridors and cupboards of St. Martins and other art schools at that time were the progeny of Early One Morning: the troubled, less successful offspring, who had found it hard to find a home, and continued to linger in the basement. 

This new set of works by Bainbridge, made in succession over the last few months, and specially for this show, have none of that uneasiness. They have attained the lightness and elegance which are key to Caro’s early success, and have largely set Bainbridge’s usual humour to one side. Nonetheless, if they are far from pastiche, they do not quite aspire to the homage. 

It is interesting to hear that in dealing with 1960s sculpture, Bainbridge has mostly been thinking about it rather than actually looking at it. And if he has been looking at anything, it is more likely to have been the images which represented this sculpture in all its other-worldly presence on the glossy page of a book or magazine, in which the walls and floors disappeared, and in which the coloured lines seemed almost to float. 

And so it seems relevant to note that this group of sculptures comes close on the heels of another consolidated period of working on the page, on hundreds of bright, light, colourful collages, with plenty
of body and sexuality.2 The sculptures seem both to draw their page-like sprightliness from this work, while eschewing its volume and carnality, achieving their own resolution in a way which is much more ascetic, but nonetheless good-looking. 

Bainbridge has always been good with economies of scale and material. If his early work showed that he wasn’t afraid of big—in scale, volume, sensation—his work as a whole has pared away at the inventory, making it smaller, lighter and cheaper wherever possible. In many ways this group of works seems both to take its part within his vocabulary of economy, while referring at the same time to something more grandiose in terms of its historical position. This group of works sits comfortably with his work to date, but also gets us—and the artist himself—to the point where he started, at last.

Dealing with Caro is not something to be done lightly, because so many have failed.3 Bainbridge has taken a risk in making these works, even if it is knowing. By taking his cues from Caro, but allowing them to be shifted—so that his material comes from the art school, and his colour is found not applied—he has given himself some breathing space. By placing two sculptures on blankets, and placing a teatowel over another, he has kept his alternative (Beuysian) aesthetic at play and bought himself a little more time. But ultimately, surely, we shall have to judge these works as abstract sculptures, and it is this challenge—the dealing with Abstraction—which takes us beyond the local (and beyond Caro) and onto a larger stage. We will be obliged to judge these sculptures for themselves, to put their funny names and accoutrements to one side, and make up our minds about how beautifully they defy gravity, in perpetuity. 

The question of time and timelessness is a difficult one. These sculptures are, necessarily, old-fashioned before they start. And to be successful, they have to be both old-fashioned and beyond fashion. Their vocabulary is not new and they have to make their way in the world which has seen it before. On the other hand, it is some time since we had a chance to see for ourselves how lines can sit in space, and how sculpture can overcome image or image overcome sculpture. These works, which consistently maintain a deftness of touch, of the drawing or doodle, of the classic and of the caricature, and which reach on occasion back through the 20th Century, make up for a deficit in Bainbridge’s personal trajectory, and in the sculptural field more generally.


1 For a fuller background to this piece, see author’s entry in the recent Royal Academy exhibition catalogue for Modern British Sculpture.

2 See the catalogue  Eric Bainbridge Collages produced by The New Art Gallery Walsall.

3 John Panting, an artist who did not fail, might feature as a useful comparator here.

James Lee Burke Bitteroot Simon & Schuster (2001)

Henning Mankell Faceless Killers Vintage (2008)

James Lee Burke Burning Angel Phoenix (1998)

Henning Mankell Depths Vintage (2010)

James Lee Burke The Tin Roof Blowdown Phoenix (2008)

Henning Mankell The Man from Beijing Vintage (2011)

James Lee Burke In the Moon of Red Ponies Phoenix (2005)

Robert Day (Dir.) The Rebel (1960)

William Friedkin (Dir.) The French Connection (1971)

Arthur Hiller (Dir.) Man of la Mancha (1972)

Andrew Niccol (Dir.) Gattaca (1997)

Quentin Tarantino (Dir.) Pulp Fiction (1994)

Bertrand Tavernier (Dir.) In the Electric Mist (2009)

Laura Cantrell Not the Tremblin’ Kind Spit and Polish (2000)

Kasey Chambers Barricades and Brickwalls Warner Brothers (2001) 

Rachel Harrington City of Refuge Skinny Dennis (2008) 

Gillian Welch The Harrow and the Harvest Warner Brothers (2009)

 ‘To know one thing, you must know the opposite.’ Henry Moore


Eric Bainbridge (b. 1955, County Durham, UK) lives between London, Northern France and North East England. He studied at the Royal College of Art from 1978–81 (MFA) and at Newcastle Polytechnic from 1974–77 (BA). He is currently Professor of Fine Art at the University of Sunderland. His solo exhibitions include: Forward Thinking MIMA, Middlesbrough, UK (2008); Eric Bainbridge Works 92–97, Cornerhouse, Manchester; Delfina, London (1997); Eric Bainbridge Sculptures, Royal Festival Hall, London (1995); Style, Space, Elegance, The Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1989); and View Points, Walker Art Centre, Minneapolis (1986). His group shows include: Modern British Sculpture, Royal Academy, London, UK (2011); The Economy of the Gift, A Foundation, Liverpool, UK (2010); Northern Art Prize, Leeds City Art Gallery, UK (2008); Size Matters, Longside Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park (touring, 2005); Collage, The Bloomberg Space, London (2004); Other Criteria, Leeds City Art Gallery, Leeds (2004); and Glad That Things Don’t Talk, Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin (2003).


Penelope Curtis is Director of Tate Britain.

Supported by The Henry Moore Foundation.