As a young man in the 1930’s and 40’s Wilf was a practising artist and sculptor, but sadly very little of his work from this time has survived. There is, however, enough of Wilf’s work still in the family for us to have a good idea of his style and approach to art. Despite being tutored by some famous abstract artists during his time in Germany, Wilf’s own work was more figurative in style. When I interviewed him in 1996, he talked about his approach as an art & design educator and he recalled a life-drawing class with Paul Klee:
We went in and I drew from the model…he looked over my shoulder and said ‘how do you get at it’, how do you make that arm look three dimensional’… I said ‘when I draw an arm my arm seems to get hot, I’m drawing my own arm….and I had this when I was drawing from the model in Highgate Ponds…somehow or other I’m drawing my arm, with female accentuations leaving out the strengths and the peculiar thing which is masculinity’. So he said ‘come and look at mine’ and I went and looked at his and said ‘I can’t understand it’, it was such an odd drawing, it wasn’t a life drawing at all really and I told him what I thought…1
While this is a perfectly understandable response to seeing abstract drawing (possibly for the first time), it is perhaps an indicator that abstraction would not be the direction that Wilf would take in his own work. He believed that art should be grounded in a skill, and although he liked some abstract art and would not completely dismiss the contemporary art that was popular in art schools in the 1990’s, he felt that much of it was just gimmickry:
When you are learning a craft you have to learn to use two hands on a chisel, you have to learn technique. Today, art students go through art school and they learn the technique of making nothing in particular.
That is not to say that I think that nobody produces art of any value today. But I do think that many people produce art that is of very minor importance to life, which is not what it should mean. It should mean something to life, to our life, to social life or collective life. And if it doesn’t mean something to that, then it’s trivial, it’s immediate and it won’t matter. It’s something that you shouldn’t be worrying about.
Human emotion is tied to our love of one another and our desire to aid and work with one another. This is the basis of the reality of both art and science. They are not two opposites. Art is expressed in our relationships with one another, or it stays inside and becomes trivial, nothing. There is no such thing as a work of art “for myself”. My work of art must be a major part of my relationship with some other people, if not all other people.2
The inscription on the base of this delightful woodcarving reads “Carved by Wilf Franks C.1932.” It could have been created during one of the two Boosbeck Work Camps held that year. But the owner lives in West Sussex, close to Michael Tippett’s home during this period, so Wilf may have made it while staying with the composer. The piece is elegantly carved from elm. The intricately detailed arm and hand are particularly striking. It is 11 inches in height.
Wilf gave this watercolour as a gift to Barbara Slaughter after she interviewed him in 1999. He told her that it was one of his old paintings that he had found amongst the pages of a book. Interestingly he signed this watercolour, something that he never did in his later paintings. The picture has a looseness and sensitivity that is less evident in his later work. His subtle use of blues, greys and whites has captured something of the vastness of the sky. There is a pleasing spontaneity to this piece which captures the mood of the English countryside rather well.
The family has always referred to this piece as The Green Lady, it is a plaster casting of a sculpture he produced as a demonstration to students while teaching at a working men’s college in London. It is undated but we believe it dates from the late 1930’s. The figure is formal in style and shows that Wilf had a flair for the medium. His skilled and sensitive use of clay is seen in this elegant female figure which stands 65 cm in height.
These shop window mannequins are an example of Wilf’s commercial work from the post war period. The torsos of these elegant figures are quite sculptural, demonstrating Wilf’s skill and attention to detail. I find the photograph of the mannequins, posing in nothing but their shoes, quite humorous.
Saint Christopher was produced in the late 1950’s. It was one of two pieces commissioned for a London exhibition and shows the famous religious scene of Saint Christopher carrying the boy Christ across a river; a curious subject for a Marxist to find himself painting. It is less formal and more stylised than the other paintings. The dramatic light of the sky and the dynamic water are contrasted by the calmness of the figures in the foreground. The textured brush work of the background creates a dramatic mood while the more refined treatment of the hand in the foreground provides a focal point which gives a feeling of strength and stability to the figures. Wilf had a curious habit of re-working his paintings; at some point he started to re-paint the right hand and arm of the boy. This painting remained in the family because the gallery rejected it, saying they could not display a “black Christ”.
The landscape painting Bilsdale was completed in the early 1960’s, not long after Wilf moved with his young family from London to North Yorkshire. Always a lover of camping and walking in the countryside, Bilsdale in the North York Moors, inspired Wilf to paint this summer scene. His gentle use of light on the trees and the subtle misty glow rising from the valley behind them give a nice depth to the painting.
Wilf’s wife Daphne grew up at Beggar-Me-Neighbour Farm in Stokesley, North Yorkshire, which was a stud farm. She was an expert horsewoman and when the family moved to Yorkshire they too lived at the farm. Wilf was immersed in this equestrian life, and naturally his artistic work began to reflect his new environment. The oil painting Phantasy depicts his daughter Rosie riding her horse ‘Phantasy’. It was painted in the late 1960’s. During this period Wilf produced a number of equestrian paintings. They were more figurative in style than Saint Christopher, which was painted ten years earlier. This change in style was largely due to the fact that the paintings were commissioned by members of a rural farming community with a more conservative taste in art.
Very little is known about this rather haunting female figure, but we think it is probably from the 1940’s. It is a partially finished portrait in oil. 75 cm x 50cm in size.
Wilf enjoyed a long, healthy and active life. In 1993, when he was 85 years old, his fourth grandchild Tom was born. Delighted with the new addition to the family, Wilf created this charming bust of the boy which he modelled in clay. The picture below shows the piece as a work in progress.
- Wilf Franks. Recorded interview, 1996.
- Barbara Slaughter interview for the World Socialist Website. 1999.
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