Sunday, July 1st, 2001

Emily Young

Leighton House Museum
12 Holland Park Road
London W14
June 13- July 28, 2001

Head of an Angel Purbeck marble 84cm high
Head of an Angel, Purbeck marble 84cm high

I have known about Emily Young since the early ’90s, but only finally got to see her work “in the flesh” the other day. Announcement cards over the years would survive on the mantlepiece beyond the closing date of the unseen show (which would sometimes be at the Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh). Her work is, to use a uselessly loaded and complex phrase, “traditional”, that’s to say classical, serene, unflashy, and shamelessly old-fashioned in a way that has nothing to do with being retro or ironic. Yet a quality came through, from the reproductions I so warmed to, that amounts to more than a tasteful torso or poised bust would ordinarily deserve, that belies anachronism. There was just sufficient a twist of individuality to make them hers and therefore new and therefore, miraculously, of our time, not mere refugees from the Age of Winckelman. If they did evoke a particular historic moment, it was the early Twentieth-Century classicism of Despiau, Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Arturo Martini, and the first efforts of Brancusi: a dignified restraint, a clean, calm straightforwardness, a certain streamlining that is much about modernity as classicism. This, at least, was my high expectation.

Winged Angel Bottocino marble 230cm high
Winged Angel, Bottocino marble 230cm high

Her current exhibit consists of two dozen pieces set in the gardens of Leighton House Museum in Holland Park, London (the exotic home and studio created by that eminent Victorian Alfred Lord Leighton at the height of his fame as painter and sculptor of pearl-skinned nymphs in classical and oriental settings. En masse, some serious disappointment with Emily Young set in, but there was enough evidence to suggest that the positive feelings elicited by her invitation cards were not mere flukes. Her carvings, in a variety of marbles and other stones, are of archaic torsos and angels, both very Rilkean subjects. There’s that classic line in Rilke, inspired by a fragmentary torso, “You must change your life”. I can almost hear these torsos saying to their author, however, “You must change your technique”! For so many of these carvings have been spoilt by theatrically achieved fragmentation: hunks hacked out of the stone by vandalism not decay, heavy-handed shortcuts to Sphinx-like erosion. Where I had liked to think of Young as a sculptor in the mould of the worthies mentioned above, not to mention Eli Nadelman, Carel Vogel, et al., I’m afraid this arty distress was putting me much more in mind of Ivan Mestrovic or Igor Mitoraj. Mannerism, but of the unfortunate rather than the invogorating kind. For let’s face it: she is not a postmodernist. Her lapses of taste are only that.

Sleeping Warrior Purbeck marble 80cm high
Sleeping Warrior, Purbeck marble 80cm high

But as I say, the curate’s egg principle gives grounds for hope. “Sleeping Warrior” viewed from eighty feet is a work of powerful simplicity. It has a Buddha-like quality to its calm, sardonic smile. The classicism is perennial, a restrained striving for the good, the true, the beautiful. On closer inspection the after-thought hack (literally) work imposes a phony archaeologism on the piece, which, let’s face it, is simply not good, not true, not beautiful. One can’t help feeling that the setting – the grounds of Leighton House – contains some symbolic warning for this artist, for Leighton himself was a talent poised between genuine classicism and questionable taste.