George Wagstaffe studied at Coventry College of Art and later attended courses at Leicester College of Art and Slade School of Fine Art, University College, London. In 1958 he won a prize for his sculpture, Naiad, at the Young Contemporaries exhibition held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. As a consequence of this early success he received his first public commission. The Coventry City architect, Arthur Ling, saw the Naiad at the ICA, and in 1960 a bronze copy of it was made for the Earl Street Courtyard in Coventry. Arthur Ling then commissioned the Phoenix which now stands in Hertford Street in the city centre. George Wagstaffe has since worked on a number of local and national commissions and it is these and related works that provide the thematic content of his work.
The Naiad initiated a number of drawings, paintings and other sculptures that explored the female form and rocks in a mythical context. The Phoenix, commissioned during the post-war reconstruction of Coventry, functions as both a memorial and a symbol of rebirth and resurrection. These early works established some of the key themes and metaphors that appear in George's later work, particularly that of the last decade. The theme of rebirth and resurrection can be seen in the working models for Resurgence, a major work in bronze, commissioned for the Shell Chemical Headquarters. Rather than represent an industrial company through mechanistic imagery, George chose a symbolist approach, expressing figuratively the resurgence of dormant powers released from below the ground.
The Naiad prompted a chain of ideas and metaphors exploring the dichotomies of organic and mineral form; of women against rocks, in which the vulnerability of the flesh is set against hard, inert, crystalline, brittle and crumbling substances. Similar dichotomies of vulnerability and strength can be seen in the Egg and Rock bronzes where the fragile egg, breaking on a column, suggest new life at its point of destruction. The breaking eggs appear to inseminate inanimate matter, suggesting the possibility of new life cracking open the unyielding rocks or re-energising decayed and dead organic manner. Like the Phoenix, the egg is a symbol of resurrection and rebirth. Similar ideas are embodied in the ambiguous female torsos which reveal not just their pregnant state, but also the ruthless exploitative, and ultimate destructive powers of nature. Fertility and energy is also suggested in the powerful composite image of the phallic Horsewoman - a manifold in which several layers of meaning and association are locked together.
The theme of woman and horse if one of growing significance in recent work. They took root in the 1970's with a series of running horses, but according to George, the girl then appears as a healing power and force of nature within the landscape. In this healing capacity the girl becomes the mother earth goddess in another guise.
She appears in the magical paintings of Horse, Girl and Moon, Starry Night, Among the Oaks, Invisible Force and Encounter - works that vividly call to mind the British Neo-Romantics and symbolist works of Odilon Redon and Jean Deville. With the landscapes Autumn, Cornfield and Forest, we encounter a recent surge of spontaneity in his work as he paints the scenes, not with brushes, but with the substance of the landscape itself - with twigs, grass and leaves. Like Chinese ink paintings they have a Zen-like way of encapsulating the animate spirit of the artist within the gestural marks and brushstrokes. This current burst of energy supports his conviction that resurgence and rebirth are intrinsic to the creative process itself, as well as being constant and enduring themes in his work.
Professor Richard Yeomans.