Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Brian Yale: painter, sculptor, designer and teacher

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November 30, 2009

Brian Yale: painter, sculptor, designer and teacher

Yale's painting Bluster (1985), acrylic on canvas

(Bridgeman Art Library)

Yale's painting Bluster (1985), acrylic on canvas

Brian Yale was an innovative and versatile artist whose career encompassed teaching and designing as well as many years undertaking public art commissions for the Greater London Council and the London Docklands Development Corporation.

Yale was born in 1936 in the Black Country in Staffordshire, and his childhood experience and memory of the Black Country’s industrial landscape was to influence his later cityscape projects. In 1952-56 he attended the Stourbridge School of Art and in 1958 gained a place at the Royal College of Art, though his education was interrupted for two years by National Service. In 1961, while still at college, he won a competition organised by Pilkington, the plate glass manufacturers. The challenge was to invent a pattern for sheet glass which thoroughly obscured see-through vision and lent a fresh approach to add to the existing range. His design, Cotswold, became one of the most popular in the range.

In 1962 Yale was one of only three students to graduate from the royal college with a postgraduate scholarship. He applied for and won a part-time teaching post at Hornsey College of Art in North London, where he worked for six years. His time at the college coincided with the famous student “sit-in” in the summer of 1968 whereby a number of disgruntled students ejected the principal and took over the running of the college for two months. Yale was a witness to these events, though he took no active part, and shortly after the sit-in ended he left Hornsey to become an artist and environmental designer for the architecture department of the Greater London Council (GLC). He would stay in this post for the next 20 years, designing murals, sculptures, public art works and play spaces for GLC housing estates and schools.

True to his versatile nature Yale was not content with working in one role. In 1965, while still lecturing at Hornsey, he founded Group One Four in association with three other artists. The group was dedicated to bringing art to the attention of the wider public and between 1964 and 1970 held more than 70 exhibitions in the UK and abroad. Yale was instrumental in developing new ways of working individually and in collaboration with the group, and in preparing compact travelling exhibitions. During this period his interests had come to focus on painting and sculpture. His aim, in his own words, was “to produce work which was abstract and impersonal in execution, platonically classical in form and capable of being read internationally”.

The departments of architecture and civic design that Yale joined in 1968 embraced a Modernist approach and led the field in many areas of civic design. Yale was employed as an in-house artist for the architects’ department, where he worked closely with the many teams specialising in different kinds of work. Though there was never a budget for “art” as such in building work, there existed a fund allocated to projects that required a visual impact. Hence Yale initially worked on designs for play facilities for children, intended to provide play objects that also fulfilled an aesthetic function within the landscape. His designs for play spaces for new and rehabilitated housing appeared at Kennington Oval, the bike track on Gloucester Grove Estate and the South Bank. One of his most striking pieces was The Long Man, a climbing frame in the shape of a man painted on the roof of a ground-floor shopping area and measuring 168ft from head to toe.

Yale combined his work for the GLC with his career as a private artist, working as an environmental designer during the day and painting in his studio at night and weekends. Throughout the 1970s his paintings were exhibited regularly in, among other places, the Thackeray Gallery in Kensington and the Oriel Gallery in Cardiff, and in the early 1980s he began to exhibit one of his most powerful and continuing works, No Man’s Land. This consisted of a series of paintings of the battlefields of the First World War, inspired by Yale’s interest in the impact that Man’s presence has on the natural landscape. In his paintings he demonstrated the enduring physical scars left by the First World War, even after a period of 70 years, while also showing the tranquil rural calm or modern urban development of what were once battlefields. In 2004 the title of the exhibition was extended to No Man’s Land and the Architecture of Terror to reflect Yale’s interest in modern-day conflict.

In stark contrast to his urban-based works for the GLC, Yale also constructed a visual record of the very different environment of the shingle beaches at Dungeness and Romney Marsh in Kent. His work in architecture led him to value the quality and simplicity of the painted image and that, as a painter and sculptor, all choices and decisions were his own. Working from a clapboard cabin only a hundred yards from Prospect Cottage, owned by the film director and artist Derek Jarman, Yale painted striking images of the area such as Dungeness Power Station by Night and created a garden full of quirky nautical sculptures. Jarman and Yale discovered that they had many things in common and encouraged each other in the creation and development of their remarkable sculpture gardens. Yale’s paintings of the First World War battlefields and his work relating to the landscape of Dungeness were an attempt to capture in images “the sky, the land, the sea, how they meet and how they are affected by the meeting”.

In the late 1980s Yale was approached by an old colleague and asked if he wished to contribute sculpture and artwork for a project in Beckton organised by the London Docklands Development Corporation. Yale accepted and produced a sculpture of three lifesize horses and a man made of stainless steel to adorn a walkway. While this commission was in progress he began discussing another major project for a work at Prince Regent Station. The result, erected in the summer of 1996 and one of Yale’s finest works, was The Docklands Frieze, a series of 50 stainless steel panels that showed the life of the Docklands over the previous three centuries. Yale worked on further commissions for Docklands, repeatedly demonstrating his ability and vision as a public artist. It is worth noting that his work as an environment artist was never vandalised, and that not even the enormously long frieze at the Prince Regent Station became a target for graffiti artists.

Besides his work as a public and private artist, Yale continued to teach when invited to do so. In the summer of 1986 he was invited to teach a short course in a US university and at the same time was asked to teach in the department of silversmithing and jewellery at London Guildhall University. An able and effective teacher who enjoyed working with students, Yale stayed in contact with many of his old pupils and took a great interest in their backgrounds and aspirations.

Brian Yale’s versatile philosophy as an artist can perhaps best be summed up in something he overheard his wife Sheila, a distinguished textile artist, say when asked if she had an agenda of her own. She said: “I can’t see why we don’t do something just for the joy of it.” As Yale himself commented, you can’t argue with that.

Yale is survived by his wife Sheila and their son.

Brian Yale, painter, sculptor, designer and teacher, was born on June 29, 1936. He died of cancer on October 12, 2009, aged 73

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