MICHAEL SANDLE RA (b. 1936) is a British sculptor who trained at the Slade School of Fine Art after starting out on the Isle of Man and then at Chester College of Art. He has maintained a critical presence on the contemporary art scene, and is noted for large-scale (for which read “heroic”) sculptures.
His many works in public spaces often pass without remark. I wonder how many people walking along the Albert Embankment in Lambeth have spotted the bronze prow of a ship that seems to burst through the façade of the International Maritime Organisation. This is his Seafarers’ Memorial, unveiled in September 2001. A year later, he unveiled a Memorial to Lifeboatmen at Douglas, on the Isle of Man, where he spent some of his boyhood.
Elsewhere in London, he has contributed a lively fountain of St George and the Dragon at Dorset Rise in Blackfriars. In 1985, when he was a professor at Karlsruhe, he undertook a commission from the city of Mannheim to commemorate those lost in a military helicopter disaster on 11 September 1982.
Perhaps he is best known for the succès de scandale that came with his prize-winning drawing Iraq Triptych in the RA Summer exhibition in 2007, depicting a naked Cherie and Tony Blair being expelled from Downing Street. The reference to Genesis 3.23-24 may have been lost on many who first saw it, but it politically marked the outbreak of the Iraq War as the end of an age of innocence for New Labour.
Cork Street, which has become its own battleground, with overrunning commercial developments of properties on both sides of a street that once was a sanctuary for artists and is now set to become a modish allée for fashionistas, currently hosts a revealing show of his work over 25 years as a celebration of his turning 80.
There are some eight prints on show in a back upper room, but attention really centres on the 1995 studies for the Queen of the Night for a sculpture (1999) now at the Cass Foundation, near Goodwood in West Sussex. These recall images of the Hindu goddess of Love and Vengeance Kali in which a masked and helmeted figure is wreathed within a branch of phalluses. Its indebtedness to Futurism and Italian Vorticism gives each ink drawing an immediacy that might otherwise be lost in the sheer monumentality of the work.
From the same year dates his Study of hands holding a wreath, which is a powerful examination of the artist’s own hands as part of an enigmatic shadowy self-portrait. Is the figure wearing a Carmen Miranda hat or standing beneath a bough laden with fruit?
As a wartime child, Sandle, whose family home in Plymouth (his father served in the RN) was bombed, says that he was terrified of death.
Themes of death and of destruction have for years dominated his work, and, in his most recent work, Mediterranean Cruise, Moral Conflict (100 × 150cm) he shows a dozen figures falling as if through circles of hell.
These are the shipwrecked refugees who daily drown in the waters of the Med. In finely layered ink, Sandle has captured the fluidity of the killer sea, and, in praying for the man on the seabed, I found I could finally drown out the sound of the construction work carrying on obliviously next door and across the street.
“Michael Sandle: Now and Then” is at Dadiani Fine Art, 30 Cork Street, London W1, until 20 July. Phone 020 7287 3717.