Kenneth Armitage was born in Leeds where he also studied at the Leeds College of Art from 1934 to 1937. He continued his studies at the Slade School of Fine Art until 1939 where he received training in sculpture and was influenced by Brancusi in particular. He then served in the army until 1946 when he was appointed Head of Sculpture at the Bath Academy of Art in Corsham, a post which he held for a decade. He began to exhibit and gain recognition quite late in his career, holding his first solo exhibition at the age of 36 in 1952. He first attracted international attention in the same year as one of a group of young British sculptors, including Reg Butler, Lynn Chadwick, Eduardo Paolozzi and William Turnbull who showed at the 26th Venice Biennale and whose work demonstrated a new expressionist approach. In 1953 he became Great Britain’s first university artist in residence at the University of Leeds and, five years later, he won a prize for the best British sculptor under 45 at the Venice Biennale. His international reputation was further confirmed when he won first prize in an international competition for a war memorial in the town of Krefeld in Germany. From this period onwards, he exhibited widely throughout Europe, the United States, Japan and South America, including three retrospective exhibitions, at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London in 1959, the Artcurial, Paris in 1985 and the Yorshire Sculpture Park from 1996 to 1997. In 1969 he was awarded a CBE.
Armitage is recognised as one of the major British sculptors of the twentieth century. His work always inclined towards abstraction and a simplification of form, with bronze a preferred medium. His preoccupation was with the human figure. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s he worked in clay and employed wax, resins and aluminium while his pieces became darker and more abstract. He also worked on pieces of disembodied limbs and “furniture-figures” and, in the 1970s and 1980s, moved from the human figure as subject matter to nature in work such as his sculptures and drawings inspired by oak trees in Richmond Park.