Sydney Harpley, RA FRBS (1927-1992) The work of Sydney Harpley always surprised and delighted: dancers, acrobats, girls on swings were posed and executed with equal audacity and elegance. Establishing the single female as his favourite subject while still as student, he rose to become the most popular sculptor, not only among Royal Academicians but among all who exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions. Sydney Harpley was born in Fulham, London on 9 April 1927. The son of an electrician and cabinet maker, he grew up in Dagenham, and spent the war years as an evacuee in Berkshire and Bedfordshire. Though talented in both art and music, he left school at the age of fourteen to take up an apprenticeship as an electrician. He went on to work at an American air base, and would later cite aircraft as a formative influence on his artistic development, describing planes as ‘sculptures in space’.
Even more instrumental in his decision to become a sculptor was his encounter with the carved head of Ramases II, in Cairo, during National Service with the Royal Engineers (1945-48). On his return home, he took evening classes in drawing while working at a factory in Roehampton making artificial limbs. In 1951, he became a full-time student of sculpture at Hammersmith School of Art, and two years later began to study under John Skeaping at the Royal College of Art.
While still a student, Harpley established the single female figure as his favourite form; he exhibited examples at the Young Contemporaries and at the Royal Academy, and sold his first pieces to the National Gallery of New Zealand and the artist Fleur Cowles. In 1956, the year of his first marriage, he returned to Hammersmith as a part-time teacher and began to receive commissions for portrait busts and public figure groups. In 1963, he fully established himself, winning a competition to create a portrait memorial to Jan Smuts, and being elected to the fellowship of the Royal Society of British Sculptors. From 1972, he taught part-time at Leicester polytechnic, and while there met his second wife Jo, an art historian specialising in costume. Marrying in 1981, they moved to Radigan Farm, Somerset (1986) and then to Kilkenny, in Ireland (1989). At the height of his career, Harpley became a Royal Academician (ARA 1974, RA 1981) and had a number of successful international solo shows, including two at the Chris Beetles Gallery in 1987 and 1990. He died in Dublin on 9 March 1992.
Chris Beetles Gallery represents the Estate of Sydney Harpley, and is currently preparing a catalogue raisonné of the artist’s sculpture for publication in the near future.