Tributes paid to sculptor and art educator Dame Phyllida Barlow

Phyllida Barlow
Phyllida Barlow
UCL colleagues, past and present, have paid tribute to acclaimed artist, Emeritus Professor Dame Phyllida Barlow, who both studied and lectured at the Slade School of Fine Art, before finding global fame as a visionary sculptor.

Dame Phyllida, described as an "extraordinary force" in both British sculpture and arts education, passed away on 12th March 2023 at the age of 78.

Best known for her large-scale sculptures and installations, made from everyday materials such as cardboard and polystyrene, Phyllida is often considered "one of the art world’s most celebrated late starters" having found fame at the age of 65.  

Prior to international prominence, Phyllida taught art for four decades - including 23 years as a professor at the Slade School of Fine Art at UCL. Here, she mentored several prolific artists, including Rachel Whiteread, Tacita Dean, Monster Chetwynd, Bill Woodrow and Eva Rothschild.

Professor Stella Bruzzi, Dean of the UCL Faculty of Arts & Humanities, said: "Dame Phyllida Barlow studied at Slade School of Fine Art and taught there for over 40 years. A sculptor of great international influence and cherished citizen of Arts and Humanities at UCL, her students included Rachel Whiteread and Tacita Dean. Phyllida’s legacy is immense and her role in shaping the Slade will continue to be honoured for decades to come."

Professor John Aiken, who was Slade Professor between 2000-2010 , said: "Phyllida was an inspirational teacher and an exceptional artist. It was a privilege for me to have worked closely with her over many years at the Slade and like so many others benefit from her generosity of spirit and her thoughtful, enthusiastic approach to life."

Remembering Phyllida, members of undergraduate sculpture team met in ’studio 10’ - the heart of the Slade sculpture area. In a joint statement they  said: "Without a doubt we have lost a legend. Phyllida’s ability to speak about sculpture, materials and making in such a thought-provoking and inspiring way: she had an uncanny ability to disentangle thoughts, feelings, ideas and ambitions for students and their work from across all areas of the Slade.

"There are generations of students who owe so much to Phyllida’s extraordinary insights and generosity long after they graduated. Her colleagues learnt so much from teaching alongside her; her intellect was always evident, but her sense of humour was never far away. We are all greatly feeling her loss today, and we simply cannot believe it. Our thoughts are with her family, who were Phyllida’s world."

Early years

Phyllida was born in 1944 in Newcastle and her family moved to Richmond, London, following the war. She was the great great-granddaughter of the naturalist Charles Darwin.

In the early 1960s she attended the Chelsea College of Arts and studied painting, before switching to sculpture. Phyllida then transferred to the Slade School of Art (1963-1966), where she began experimenting with materials such as plaster, resin and wood.

Phyllida’s childhood experiences of the bomb damage and rebuilding of the city were life-long sources of inspiration for her artistic work.

Discussing her early influences Phyllida said: "I have lots of references about damage, and reparation and regeneration. A kind of cycle of decay and regeneration. That fascinates me, because that is what my generation has witnessed, seeing London in ruins and then seeing it come up, and then fall down again."

Throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, Phyllida displayed her work across north London in locations, including abandoned houses, playgrounds and the homes of friends. Sometimes, the artist would even throw her work into the Thames as a sculptural performance for "an audience of one".

Alongside her art career, Phyllida also began teaching, first in Bristol, then at Brighton, Camberwell, and finally at the Slade School of Art in 1986. In 2004 she was made Professor of Fine Art she stayed in her role her until she retired in 2009.

Rise to stardom

Just a year later, in 2010, Phyllida was visited by Iwan Wirth, the president of Swiss gallerists, Hauser & Wirth - who had heard about her work through her ex-students. 

Later that year, Phyllida had a joint show with Iranian sculptor Nairy Bahramian, at the Serpentine Gallery in London, which brought her work to an international audience. As a result of her global recognition, she went on to host a number of solo exhibitions across Europe and the US - including a show-stopping installation ’dock’ for the Duveen Galleries of Tate Britain in 2014.

In 2011, Phyllida was also accepted as a member of the Royal Academy of Arts. She was awarded a CBE for her services to the arts in 2015 and a damehood in 2021.

In 2017, she was also selected to represent Britain at the Venice International Art Biennale, which is regarded as the most important contemporary art festival in the world. Yet Phyllida was not intimidated by the global stage, saying: "The interesting thing about coming to exhibition opportunities like this late in life, is that there’s no point having nerves".

Phyllida’s most recent exhibition, entitled Hurly-Burly and in collaboration with Whiteread and Alison Wilding, opened at Gagosian Paris in January 2023.

Director of Undergraduate Studies at the Slade School of Fine Art, Melanie Counsell, Associate Professor, Brighid Lowe, and Lecturer in Fine Art, Katrina Palmer, said: ""This morning, we had planned to say a few things to the undergraduate sculpture students to convey to the students how truly brilliant, unique and special Phyllida Barlow was.

"In the end it was difficult to find any words without tears and such deep sadness. Phyllida, will forever be associated and remembered at the Slade School of Fine Art, and in particular Slade sculpture, in ’studio 10’, the heart of the Slade sculpture area. It was in this space that we held our meeting this morning - the memories, fun, laughter and legacy were all very real and palpable. 

"Without a doubt we have lost a legend. Phyllida’s ability to speak about sculpture, materials and making in such a thought-provoking and inspiring way: she had an uncanny ability to disentangle thoughts, feelings, ideas and ambitions for students and their work from across all areas of the Slade.

"There are generations of students who owe so much to Phyllida’s extraordinary insights and generosity long after they graduated. Her colleagues learnt so much from teaching alongside her; her intellect was always evident, but her sense of humour was never far away. We are all greatly feeling her loss today, and we simply cannot believe it. Our thoughts are with her family, who were Phyllida’s world."

Iwan Wirth described said: "Her ideas, knowledge, experience and wry humour were always shared with the most extraordinary warmth. Her generosity of spirit extended through her art, her writings, and her many years of teaching and mentorship.

"A truly thoughtful and companionable human being, Phyllida was a guiding light and inspiration to so many. Her loss will be felt deeply by all who knew and collaborated with her in the art community and beyond.

"Our thoughts are with Fabian and the wonderful family they created together."

Director of the Tate Modern, Francis Morris, added: "Barlow’s practice implicitly acknowledges that in a world saturated with objects, the role of sculpture and the job of the sculptor might be less about making things than generating a particular type of experience of the work, and of the world in which it temporarily resides."

Dame Phyllida Barlow, (4 April 1944-12 March 2023) is survived by her husband Fabian Peake, their children Florence, Clover, Tabitha, Eddie and Lewis, grandchildren, and her siblings, Camilla Whitworth and Jeremy Barlow.

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