Denis Mitchell 1912-1993

The context of St Ives, where Denis Mitchell lived from 1930 until the late 1960s, was critical to his creative development. Trained as a painter, he undertook piecemeal employment as his young family grew, working as a market gardener, fisherman and tin miner. In 1949 he became principal assistant to Barbara Hepworth, and that same year he carved the work he regarded as his first sculpture. Ballet Dancer, which was admired by Ben Nicholson, abstracts gently from the human form, rendering it as two stacked rhomboids, pierced to indicate the dancer’s angled legs and raised arms. From some angles a body is clearly discernible, but as it turns, the outline dissolves into abstraction, to become an exquisitely balanced combination of forms.

In 1952 Mitchell’s work was exhibited in ‘The Mirror and the Square’, at the New Burlington Galleries in London, alongside sculpture by Hepworth, Chadwick and Caro. The exhibition aimed to explore the urgent issues of realism versus abstraction, although its extent and diversity proved too great for most to draw any firm conclusions. Yet Mitchell’s adherence to abstraction was already clear. During his ten years as Hepworth’s principal assistant, he would hone his instinct for carving and the purity of form, exploring the abstract implications of enfolding, modular or asymmetrical structures, even when his titles implied figurative origins.

When Mitchell turned to bronze in the 1960s, by necessity using a local sand-casting foundry at St Just, he brought a remarkable degree of sophistication to the process, filing and polishing the somewhat rough casts to create sculptures that were both elegant and aesthetically unified. Patrick Heron, in his introduction to Mitchell’s exhibition at the Marjorie Parr Gallery in 1969, wrote,
… a Mitchell is a form, usually a single, rather streamlined form, enclosed as it were by a single skin … In such art, intuition and intellect are always inextricably locked. ₁... read more