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Following is the newspaper obituary of the artist by John Halkes, published in The Independent, Cornwall, March 25, 1993.
THE SCULPTOR Denis Mitchell lived
just long enough to hear the news of the opening of his last major solo
exhibition at the gallery Flowers East at London Fields. This
retrospective exhibition was first mounted in St Ives for his 80th
birthday last June, and it encapsulated all his remarkable gifts which
came from a long life dedicated to making art.
Mitchell was born in 1912 in Wealdstone,
Middlesex. At the age of one he moved to South Wales, his mother's home
country, and it was in Mumbles and Swansea
that he grew up and developed his interest in art and his zest for
living. Although he moved permanently to Cornwall when he was 18 he
never lost the faint but distinctive Welsh resonance in his accent. He
treasured the memories of his early friendship with Dylan Thomas. His
exhibition at the Glynn Vivian art gallery in Swansea in 1979 gave him
But it was Cornwall
which provided the right climate for Mitchell to emerge as an artist.
Arriving in the St Ives area in 1930 he and his brother Endell earned
their living by renovating cottages and cultivating a market garden.
However it was the heady artistic atmosphere of the small town of St Ives, which really attracted him and there he began to paint seriously.
1935 Mitchell was 'going flat out in all directions', as he put it. In
1939 he married a local beauty - Jane Stevens - and their first
daughter was born in 1940. The war years saw him working underground as
a miner at Geevor tin mine near Land's End. This episode was to have a
great influence, for it was the carving and hewing of rock, the
handling of tools and the manipulation of loads, which gave him new
skills and developed his sensitivity to three-dimensional work. When at
the end of the war, Bernard Leach suggested his name to Barbara Hepworth
as a suitable assistant he was the right man at the right place.
hired him for a day and he remained with her for 10 years - most of
that time as her principal assistant, supervising the crafting of some
of her best-known sculptures. By the early Fifties, Mitchell's own work
had made the transition from painting to carving and he was playing a
full part in the buoyant post-war St. Ives art scene. He counted among
his friends Ben Nicholson, Terry Frost, Bryan Wynter, Sven Berlin,
Bernard Leach, Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron, W. Barns-Graham and, of
course, his mentor Barbara Hepworth. Today it reads like a roll of
honour in modern British art.
In 1955 Mitchell
was elected chairman of the prestigious Penwith Society, which was the
exhibiting society for the group of abstract artists. It was a
difficult task - St Ives art politics were legendary - but the calm
sagacity and diplomacy of Denis Mitchell and his transparent goodness
did much to harmonize the community and encourage younger artists. His
studio in Fore Street, St Ives, was a welcome and hospitable place for
a whole generation who came to think of him as a confidant.
the Sixties, Mitchell's own work flowered. His carved and polished
bronzes with their flowing forms and aspiring vertical shapes won
critical acclaim and he exhibited in London and New York. By the end of
the decade he needed more space in which to work and a new era opened
up for him when his old friend John Wells invited him to share his
large studio complex in the village of Newlyn on the other side of the
peninsula. Mitchell felt at home in Newlyn, which itself had a long and
distinguished history as a place sympathetic to artists. It was here
too that the young Cornish sculptor Tommy Rowe came to work as
Mitchell's assistant. In their fruitful partnership Rowe worked
alongside his teacher and friend and helped him to translate the
endless sketchings and drawings into exquisite three-dimensional works
in slate, bronze and wood. From 1973 to 1979 the British Council toured
a large exhibition of sculptures in the Middle and Far East, and his friend Marjorie Parr represented him in her London gallery.
the age of 67 Mitchell felt that the retrospective in Swansea must
surely be his last show. But still the ideas flowed and new works
emerged. His stable home life with Jane and the support of his
daughters and a wide circle of loyal friends and colleagues provided
him with confidence and energy, even on the days when his physical
strength seemed inadequate for the task. His final year was a fitting
pinnacle to his career. Last summer the 80th-birthday exhibition
supported by the Henry Moore Foundation gave a balanced and
comprehensive view of his 60 years as an artist. A major outdoor piece
was purchased by the Millfield Sculpture Park. At the very end of his
life the thought of the final show with Angela Flowers delighted him
and although his long last illness prevented him from travelling to
London he tenaciously hung on until he heard that it had successfully
opened. His deep faith and his utter professionalism remained with him
to the end.