When first in Cornwall my brother Endell and I had a market garden to try and make a little money, but my mother was living with my uncle in Mumbles, near Swansea, so we went back and forth. It was during one of these trips that we met Dylan Thomas, and through him his friends; and this was good, as not only did he open up another aspect of the art world to me but he was also a great companion. I remember we arranged to meet him to go to the England versus Wales rugger match.
We met in Woolworth Cafeteria. He had £1, but we had no money; however, my brother had a ring an ex-girl friend had given him so we pawned it for £1.10 shillings. This led to a memorable day and evening (needless to say we missed the match), starting at the Cross Keys in Swansea, and ending, after visiting a number of pubs on the way, at the Mermaid, at Oystermouth, some six miles away. Incidentally we learned that Dylan's £1 was to pay the butcher.
I have never heard it mentioned but he had a great ear for accents and could imitate them perfectly. Once, we were in a bar and he heard someone talking with a strong Yorkshire accent, he went up to him and asked in the same accent where he came from. When he replied "Bradford", Dylan said, "Well I am damned, so do I. Where in Bradford?" and the man said "Bramhope Road". "No!" said Dylan, "What number?" The man replied "98", and Dylan said, "This is too much: I used to live in number 6". Of course the man was so thrilled all the drinks were on him.
I was still trying to paint when the war came and, as well as the market garden I worked down Geevor Mine as a tin miner; again an experience, as working with a partner underground one really got to know him and I realised how deeply thinking and intelligent miners were, as they would discuss things they would never have dreamed of talking about above ground or in the pub. One of the most moving memories of that time was when we used to go back to the shaft to wait to go up. We would put out all our lights except one, and then in the dimness of this Cathedral-like vault cut out of solid rock seven hundred feet below ground we would sing hymns. It was most moving. Very different when after a stint two or three of us would climb up the ladders singing 'Who killed Cock Robin' until we arrived exhausted on the surface.
I was also in the Home Guard and
there met and became friends with Bernard Leach the potter. Ben Nicholson
Naum Gabo were in the ARP which we
rather looked down on. It was now the end of the war and my brother was
the landlord of the Castle Inn. He used to show the work of the young
avant-garde artists in the lounge, as they had great difficulty in showing
at that time. Both Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson helped them by
showing work there too—and the Castle became the meeting place
This happened just when I was becoming interested in sculpture and at the same time as the Penwith Society was being formed. It was a break away from the old St. Ives Society, which exhibited in the Mariners' Church, and where they only reluctantly hung the works of Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Naum Gabo and a few others in a corner behind the font and so low down you could hardly see them. The forming of a new society and working for Barbara, at the same time as she was producing some of her finest carvings, was both exciting and stimulating. Barbara had a fantastic eye for purity of form; time was no object to her until she was absolutely satisfied with the final shape. It was from this I learned that even on a very large carving less than a hair's breadth rubbed off with emery paper could alter the whole sculpture. From this experience I acquired the ability to work and concentrate on my own sculpture for eight hours a day, which is a rare capacity.
To work and be friends with two such professional artists as Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth was an education in itself. Ben I admired as a very great artist and his white reliefs are to me the final statement in inspired simplicity and I am always grateful for the help he gave me in so many ways. One small instance of many: he told me I must see the exhibition of Mexican Art at the Tate, and he paid for me to go. He was quite right as it made a deep impression on me. But his greatest help was to enable me to start working in bronze. This was another big milestone in my development as a sculptor, as I now worked in a material I had not used before, and the fact that I could only afford to have them cast at a local commercial foundry by the sand casting method was to prove a blessing in disguise, as only very simple shapes can be cast. So the very restrictions and limitations this imposed on my sculptures led to the development of my own personal forms. Also, as the casts came out very rough, I had to use all the knowledge and skill I had learned in carving to work on them, to achieve the quality and purity that could not be attained in any other way.
Pat and Delia Heron were more than kind and helpful to me. When they lived in London they insisted I stayed with them and, through them, I met many people, including Henry Moore, who asked them to bring me to see him at Much Hadham. I was thrilled, but after a very hectic and exhausting week, with three openings and a party, I was completely worn out. So I asked Delia's brother, who is a doctor, if he could give me anything to keep me awake and he gave me a large tablet, which I took. When we arrived, Henry came out and greeted us with a bowl of plaster in his hand. He said, "Please wait while I use up this plaster", there was only a little in the bottom but he said, "I just cannot waste any, as in the past I could not afford to". I only too well understood this. He was working on a very large reclining figure which I thought was most exciting, but I have never seen a bronze of it. When he had finished showing us around we went into have tea in a small conservatory on the back of the house and I was seated opposite him, facing the light and listening fascinated to the conversation, when suddenly the tablet started to have an extraordinary effect on me: I found I had no control over my eyes and they started to roll independently of each other, one going one way and one the other. It was one of my most embarrassing moments, but no one said anything.
Later, Pat was very kind in writing the introduction to my exhibition at the Marjorie Parr Gallery. It was due to Marjorie's enthusiasm for showing and selling my work that it became possible for me to devote my whole time to sculpture.
Some of my friends came as assistants to me and worked for practically nothing: Breon O'Casey, Tommy Rowe and William Hodge, among others; and they really were my right hand. People always ask how much of the work an assistant does. If they are sympathetic and work with you, they get to understand what you want, and how you strive to attain your forms. They can then carry the work right through. Some sculptors feel very guilty about this and do not like to give the credit due to their helpers. Not very long ago, William Hodge came to see me and looking carefully at a sculpture I had just completed, said it was not up to my usual finish and standard. This shook me, but when I considered it carefully I realised he was quite right and it was a great help to have a truthful criticism. I was grateful for it.
Art, with my earlier experience of working close to nature on the land in the market garden, beneath it as a tin miner, and later at sea fishing, taught me three most important things; faith, humility and patience. Roger Hilton once said, "Denis, you know I am very intelligent, you are not; but you have something I haven't, you have wisdom". I would like to think this is true. I know now that art alone is not everything for me, as family and human relationships are equally important, so that was why, in my old studio in St. Ives, I kept an open door and a coffee pot always boiling. Friends would drop in for a cup of coffee and a talk. We would share our worries and our few successes, as they also were working under the same difficulties and lack of money, and I got as much help from them as I gave. There was a wonderful comradeship and even if one had no money one could always go into the Castle Inn or the Sloop Inn and someone would pay for a half a pint. Incidentally, it was Terry Frost who gave me the coffee pot and we were very close friends going around together. We even formed an artists’ cricket team. I value this friendship very much still today.
For a time, to make money, I printed
table mats with Stanley Dorfman. We could not afford to pay for designs,
so all our friends did designs
in exchange for two dozen mats. And what a list of artists it makes!
Barbara Hepworth, Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton, Michael Snow, Stanley Dorfman,
Terry Frost, Robert Adams, Willie Barns-Graham, Patrick Heron, John Forester,
William Gear and John Wells. Where else could this have happened? I also
remember the day before my work was leaving for my exhibition at the
Waddington Gallery. It was not ready and we were working late when about
seven friends arrived with beer and they all stayed to help finish the
work until long after midnight. It was also this show that even the bank
manager Mr. Furner helped. I had asked for an overdraft of £300.
When I went back to see him again, he said he thought £300 was
not enough, so I made it £600.
I am also often asked what and where the ideas for my work come from. I think they come from the experience of life and this comes out in the quality of the work. When I taught for a short time at the University of the Andes in Bogota, all the students said they were taking psychology as another subject so they would know the reason for their art. I was shocked by this because I feel there should be a bit of mystery and magic about Art. I have many ideas for sculptures which I hope to create, but if I stopped to analyse where they came from I would not want to do them.
I could never have arrived where I have without the dedication and help of my family, who have been marvelous and never grumbled at the sacrifices they made for me. There have been many crises and critical moments, but something or someone has always turned up to save me from each seemingly impossible situation. I feel the same as the person who said: "God has given me the ability to be an artist, there is nothing in using this gift, only to be utterly ashamed if I do not".
Denis Mitchell, Newlyn, September