Sydney Harpley is best remembered for his sculptures of figures on swings and hammocks, celebrated as highlights of the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibitions and hugely popular with the public who awarded Harpley the coveted Visitors Choice Prize two years running in 1978 and 1979.
Born in Fulham in 1927, Harpley spent the early years of his childhood in Essex, before being evacuated early in the war to Berkshire and Bedfordshire. He left school at the age of fourteen and, later reflecting on his life, he recognised that his love of sculpture manifested itself at a very early age when he became fascinated by the streamlined machines of the 1930s which he called “sculptures in space”. He carved aeroplanes and ships from wood with limited tools and materials and these models formed the genesis of his interest in the concept of movement in form culminating in the figures on swings and hammocks at the end of his career.
After leaving school, he enrolled with the Royal Engineers. He was posted to Cairo and whilst there he became fascinated and strongly influenced by Egyptian sculpture. On discharge from the army, Harpley returned to London with the intention of pursuing a career as a sculptor. He took evening classes leading to full time study at Hammersmith School of Art from 1950 to 1953 and worked part time in the artificial limb factory in Roehampton. The experience gained in modelling and casting limbs accelerated his understanding of anatomy.
Concentrating on life drawing and working from the human figure, Harpley rejected the current vogue for stylisation in favour of social realism. When he embarked on his postgraduate degree at the Royal College of Art in 1953, his greatest influence was the work of Edgar Degas who worked from life. In 1954, Harpley exhibited for the first time at the RA Summer Exhibition with the life size “Seated Girl”. The following year “Girl Asleep in a Chair” was exhibited at the RA and the art critic of the Daily Telegraph and Morning Post declared it to be the year’s “most notable exhibit”. After graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1956, Harpley’s work was shown at the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition almost every year until his death.
In 1958, whilst teaching part time at Hammersmith School of Art, he was elected to the Royal Society for British Sculptors and began to enter competitions for public works and accepted commissions. The immediate post World War II period saw an upsurge of community sculpture and Harpley’s ‘Mother and Child’ was commissioned by the London County Council in 1958 and unveiled in 1959 in the grounds of Hammersmith College of Further Education. In the same year Hemel Hempstead Borough Council commissioned a number of public works located throughout the town and in 1962 “The Dockers”, commissioned by the London County Council, was unveiled. This sculpture marked a departure in both style and subject matter, with its bulk and mass strongly influenced by the work of Auguste Rodin.
In December 1961, Harpley won the commission for the Memorial to Field Marshall Jan Christian Smuts and this was followed by two highly successful exhibitions in South Africa in 1965. Between winning the Smuts Memorial competition and its unveiling Harpley won the Topham Trophy prize, Aintree and modelled a replica of GF Watts “Physical Energy”, which was presented to the Queen Mother. In 1962 a maquette of “The Dockers” won first prize at the UNESCO International Exhibition at the Hague, Holland. After “The Dockers” he continued to use the male figure for a series of rugby players, footballers and “The Swimmers” which were commissioned by the Guilde Internationale du Disque in 1966. Bearing a formal resemblance to Rodin’s Dance Movement series, they were the first of his sculptures to experiment with balance and implied movement and they required considerable technical innovation and skill.
From 1968, he concentrated on drawing, book illustration, and painting and produced a large number of sculptured portraits, notably Prince Albert of Monaco in 1967. Indeed, portraiture was a consistently important part of Sydney’s career with a commision for portrait of Prime Minister Edward Heath in 1973 and a portrait of Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew of Singapore in 1981.
By the end of the 1960s there was a return to the single female figure and subject matter drawn from every day life: dancers, sunbathers, reclining figures, girls sitting by tables. Sydney had visited the Cairo Museum again and was influenced by the small scale domestic figurines there. His first “Girl on a Swing” was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition in 1974, the year in which he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy.This election gave him the opportunity to exhibit six works every year at the Summer Exhibition and also provided the opportunity to show a wide range of work. In 1984, His Excellency David Marshall, Paris Ambassador to Singapore, commissioned a life size “Girl on A Swing”, which was followed by “Girl on A Bicycle” and “Nude on a Hammock”.
From the mid-1970s until his death, Harpley exhibited extensively, so popular that his work sold out in 1987. In 1989 Sydney and his second wife Jo moved to Belline House in Kilkenny. Set in magnificent grounds, for the first time Harpley was able to display his life size work in a landscaped setting and established a large studio which suited all his needs.The tranquil environment stimulated the artist who worked with energy, bursting with new ideas. Sadly, he was diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas in 1991 and died in Dublin on 9 March, 1992.
By no means a revolutionary, Harpley established himself as an artist with a humanist outlook, firmly rooted in the classical tradition, with his output belonging to the established roots of European sculpture.
Courtesy of the artist’s estate.