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Copnall, Edward Bainbridge (1903-1973) Sculptor

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Copnall, Edward Bainbridge (1903-1973) Sculptor
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File (FO 371/117079) covers the statue of the Burmese General Aung San which was the work of Bainbridge Copnall. It covers the period February 1955 when the statue was unveiled in Burma and we can follow the deliberations of the Foreign Office as to what messages should be sent to Burma by Her Majesty’s Government for that unveiling ceremony. The file includes some local press cuttings covering the unveiling.

Bainbridge Copnall was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1903 but came back to Horsham in England when very young. His father was a distinguished photographer, Edward White Copnall,who worked in Horsham and Bainbridge Copnall's son was a leading abstract painter. The Copnall family have a strong association with this Sussex town and there is a thoroughfare "Copnall Way" in the centre of town named after them-see later comment on "The Astronomer" and "The Coal Christ".

He was educated at the Liverpool Institute and Skinners School and then trained at Goldsmiths College and Royal Academy Schools. Worked originally as a portrait painter but his introduction to Kennington, Eric Henri (1888-1960) Artist in 1927 decided him to turn to sculpture.

He carried out important sculptural work for the Royal Institute of British Architects building in Portland Place, along with James Woodford.The interior of the RIBA building features many works by Bainbridge Copnall and these are described in the splendidly informative booklet “66 Portland Place” ISBN 9781859461372 published by the RIBA, but it is Bainbridge Copnall’s “Architectural Aspiration” which greets visitors to the building this being placed high above the main entrance.

The work “Architectural Aspiration”

Further Bainbridge Copnall creations adorn the Weymouth Street side of the building. The central figure is that of Sir Christopher Wren. Wren is flanked by the painter and sculptor with hammer, as well as the artisan and mechanic. Some recently taken photographs are shown below:-

Bainbridge Copnall also designed the three panels set in the floor of the entrance hall which depict the “instruments of office routine”. A photograph is one of these is shown below.

One of the panels set in the floor of the entrance hall

In the Henry Florence Hall we see the deeply splayed piers of Perrycot limestone these bearing carvings by stonemasons executed from full-sized cartoons drawn by Bainbridge Copnall.A photograph of one of these is shown below.

One of the Perrycot limestone piers

The RIBA building was the creation of the architect George Grey Wornum, see bust below, and Wornum showed great vision in backing the sculptors Bainbridge Copnall and James Woodford, as well as Jan Juta, the glass engraver. Like James Woodford, Grey Wornum served in the 1914-1918 war. Grey Wornum served with the Artists' Rifles and suffered leg injuries and the loss of his left eye on The Somme in 1916.

Bust of George Grey Wornum

Wornum's service record WO 339/33746 is in fact available for viewing at The National Archives and we learn from this file that Wornum joined the 28th (County of London) Battalion.The London Regiment (The Artists' Rifles) in September 1914 as private 2775 and was subsequently accepted as a Second Lieutenant by the 3rd Battalion,The Durham Light Infantry. He was promoted to Lieutenant and was a temporary Captain when he had to leave the regiment owing to ill health. We read, and not surprisingly so, in view of his wounds, that he spent some time in hospital.

Bainbridge Copnall also produced wood carvings showing the history of shipping for the liners Queen Mary and the Queen Elizabeth, and engraved glass screens for the latter. He also produced one of the stone figures on the corners of the Adelphi Building in The Strand.

Bainbridge Copnall served as a camouflage officer in World War 2 and was awarded an M.B.E. and at the end of the war he was given a studio at the British School of Rome where he painted portraits of senior officers. On his return from Rome he was the headmaster of the Sir John Cass College of Art from 1945 to 1953. A copy of the citation can be seen on Documents online (there may be a fee)

Realized the potential of working in fibre glass and one of his early works in this medium was for the ICT building on Putney Bridge.

He was responsible for the splendid reliefs adorning the office building which occupied the site of the old St.James’s Theatre. The subjects of the carvings ranged from Oscar Wilde, and Sir George Alexander to Lord Olivier and Vivien Leigh.

The closure and demolition of St James’s theatre was something of a “cause celebre” in 1957 and there was a nationwide campaign to try to save the theatre led by Vivien Leigh. The situation was raised on more than one occasion in the House of Commons.

However it was all in vain and the theatre was demolished in the December of that year and the new St.James House was completed in 1959. St James’s theatre had first opened in 1835 and Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Windermere’s Fan” and “The Importance of Being Earnest” were first produced there.

Bainbridge Copnall’s splendid reliefs include Oscar Wilde and Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier. The relief dedicated to Leigh and Olivier shows scenes of their legendary production of “Antony and Cleopatra”. The Leigh/Olivier relief is set into the wall under the arch next to the “Golden Lion” public house, and the other three of the four panels are at the other end of Angel Court. The top panel is dedicated to George Alexander, the actor who managed the theatre from 1890 to 1918. That in the centre features Oscar Wilde flanked on one side by Dorian Gray looking at his portrait and Salome on the other looking at the head of John the Baptist.The lower panel is dedicated to Gilbert Miller, the impresario who owned the theatre until its demolition.

It is sad that there is no plaque giving Bainbridge Copnall as the sculptor of the panels and explaining their meaning.

Below is a photograph taken in September 2008 of the three panels at the rear of the alley and then below a gallery showing some more detailed photographs.


Some further reliefs by Bainbridge Copnall can be seen in Page Street, Westminster. They adorn the front of what is now a block of flats but in 1952 had been a government building and Bainbridge Copnall's four reliefs portray the technological revolution which was taking place.

Immediately over the main entrance we have the relief entitled "Engineering". A recently taken photograph is shown below.

Copnall's relief "Engineering" with cogs, wheels and a ratchet lever

We then have a relief dedicated to "Transport" with car,ocean liner, steam train,airliner, and a central figure carrying a sextant and a bag of gold.

Copnall's relief "Transport" with various modes of transport depicted

The next relief is "Trade", and the central figure has little time to dawdle with parcels, boxes and bales to move.

Copnall's relief "Trade"

Finally we have bureaucracy or the office. The figure is on one knee before a desk with typewriter, and various files and ledgers. A telephone handset is shown as the figure calls "it's for you" to one of his colleagues.

Copnall's representation of the office

Bainbridge Copnall was awarded the silver medal of the Royal Society of British Sculptors for his large sculptured stag adorning the new Stag Place in Victoria, and was for a time the president of that organisation. This sculpture is now in Maidstone outside the Larksmeadow Centre.

A photographic collage dedicated to Copnall's "Stag" is shown below, the photographs involved being taken on a visit to Maidstone in May 2009.

The Stag at Maidstone

Perhaps one of Bainbridge Copnall’s best works is the statue “Becket” in the gardens of St Paul’s Cathedral, this work acquired by the Corporation of London in 1973. Copnall captures and freezes in time the death throws of Thomas a Becket, murdered in a brutal fashion at Canterbury in 1170.

Below is a photograph of the prostrate Becket, taken in September 2008, and in the gallery below that some further studies of the work.

Copnall’s “Becket”

Amongst Copnall’s other works are:-

1. The relief “The Wrestlers” at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, University of Birmingham. This is part of the University's admirable "Campus Sculpture Trail". Carved from granite, the work was dedicated to Professor F.K.Bannister (1909-1975), Professor of Thermodynamics, who founded the Postgraduate School of Thermodynamics. A photograph of this work, taken on a visit to Birmingham in June 2009 is shown below. As the University's pamphlet states- "The first impression is of a solid mass, but on closer inspection the two entwined figures become clear".

The work “The Wrestlers”

2. The work “The Astronomer” at Horsham. This can be seen in the College of Richard Collyer in the town. It was a gift to the college by Bainbridge Copnall's sister Phyllis Millar and is on display in the upper quadrangle. A photographic study of this striking work is shown below. The photographs in the collage were taken on a visit to Horsham in May 2009.

The work “The Astronomer”

3. In the town of Dudley in Warwickshire, we can see two Copnall works. The first is a frieze in Birdcage Walk in the town centre. Made from powdered aluminium and fibreglass it measures 25 feet by 7 feet and depicts at each end chainmaking and coal mining with a mother and child in the centre representing education. A photograph taken on a visit to Dudley in June 2009 is shown below.

The frieze in Birdcage Walk Dudley, Warwickshire
A collage of Birdcage Walk Frieze

The second work is just near to Birdcage Walk and is a piece entitled "Family Group". It was carved from a single piece of wood and depicts a man and woman back to back, with a child at their side and supporting two further children on their shoulders. The work was carved by Copnall from the stump of an oak in his own garden. A photograph of the work is shown below as well as a collage of other views so as to fully appreciate the dynamics of the carving. The carving is to be found on a pedestrian bridge over King Street in Dudley. It was unveiled in August 1969.

The carving "Family Group" in Dudley, Warwickshire
A collage of photographs of the "Family Group"

4. The Swanupper at Putney. A 15 foot high work in Fibreglass. Swanupping is an annual counting of the swans on behalf of Her Majesty the Queen. This count starts out from Putney and Copnall’s work features a man grappling with a swan and is on the front of the ICT building by Putney Bridge.

5. A sculpture in St.Columba Church, Anfield, Liverpool.

6. Another of Bainbridge Copnall's works can be seen in the gardens of The Horsham Museum. It is a remarkable work in coal dust and resin and a photographic collage of this work,the photographs involved being taken on a visit to Horsham in May 2009, is shown below. The 10 foot high figure had been given to St John's Church in Bainbridge Heath, Sussex in 1963 and had been there for many years until the vicar asked that it be removed as it was "unsettling for young children". After negotiations with the Horsham Museum the latter agreed to hold and display the piece. Thus a remarkable work is preserved and has stayed in Horsham. The Horsham Museum is a splendid little museum holding much of interest and is well worth a visit.

The work “The Coal Christ”

7. “Little Tom” in fountain in Victoria Park commissioned by The Constance Fund

8. A relief for the old Baker Street Training Centre and Canteen.A photograph taken in April 2009 shows the work which was entitled "Diana, Goddess of the Harvest". The old London Transport building is in fact in Aspall Place, near Baker Street. Bainbridge Copnall intended the image to symbolise the part played by women in the preparation of food. Women were trained here to work in London Transport canteens.

"Diana. Goddess of the Harvest" by Bainbridge Copnall.

9. The work “The Family” outside the Billingham Art Gallery in Billingham, near Stockton.

10. Two reliefs over the cinema in Cranbourne Street just off Leicester Square. These represent sight and sound.

11. Work at All Saints Church, Hanworth, Middlesex. See photograph below taken in May 2009.

A relief above the main door of All Saints Church

12. Monument to Sir Percy Harris in St Nicholas Churchyard, Chiswick.

13. On the Chelsea Embankment and in the gardens facing Cadogan Square is "The Boy David" a memorial to the Machine Gun Corps. According to "Discovering London Statues and Monuments" by Margaret Baker, published by Osprey Publishing, ISBN 0747804958, 9780747804956, this statue was commissioned to replace the original work by Derwent Wood which was stolen in 1963.Derwent Wood's original statue would have linked to his major work at Hyde Park corner on the same subject. Bainbridge Copnall was asked to execute the replacement. He has done well with the commission considering it is hardly in his normal style!

14. There is a large low relief sculpture by Bainbridge Copnall above the entrance to the Redwood Building of Cardiff University. This has been home to the Welsh School of Pharmacy since the opening of the building in 1960.

relief above entrance to Welsh School of Pharmacy