Geometry of Fear

The Geometry of Fear was an informal group or school of young British sculptors in the years after the Second World War. The term was coined by Herbert Read in 1952 in his description of the work of the eight British artists represented in the "New Aspects of British Sculpture" exhibition at the Biennale di Venezia of 1952.[1][2]

Geometry of Fear
Years active1950s
CountryUnited Kingdom
Major figures


The eight artists who exhibited "New Aspects of British Sculpture" in the British pavilion at the Biennale di Venezia of 1952 were Robert Adams, Kenneth Armitage, Reg Butler, Lynn Chadwick, Geoffrey Clarke, Bernard Meadows, Eduardo Paolozzi and William Turnbull.[3] All were under 40, with years of birth ranging from 1913 to 1924, and of a younger generation than established British sculptors such as Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. A large bronze by Moore, Double Standing Figure, stood outside the British pavilion, and contrasted strongly with the works inside. Unlike the smoothly carved work of Hepworth and Moore, these were angular, jagged, rough-textured or spiky. They were more linear and open; Philip Hendy compared Butler's sculptures to three-dimensional drawings.[3] Many of the sculptures in the pavilion were of human or animal figures, and several showed the influence of the continental sculptors Germaine Richier and Alberto Giacometti, works by whom had been shown at the Anglo-French Art Centre in London in 1947.[2] The British sculptures were seen as reflecting the angst, the anxieties and the guilt of the immediate post-War period, with the recent memory of the War, the Holocaust and Hiroshima, and the fear of nuclear proliferation and the effects of the Cold War.[3]

In his catalogue description, Herbert Read wrote:

These new images belong to the iconography of despair, or of defiance; and the more innocent the artist, the more effectively he transmits the collective guilt. Here are images of flight, of ragged claws "scuttling across the floors of silent seas", of excoriated flesh, frustrated sex, the geometry of fear.[4]

Read's quotation "scuttling across the floors of silent seas" is from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot and is a reference to Crab, a sculpture by Bernard Meadows in the exhibition.[3] Read's words were widely quoted, and despite the differences in style and technique between the eight artists, they came to be known as the Geometry of Fear group.


The Geometry of Fear exhibition was well received, both within and outside Britain. Alfred Barr, the former director of the New York Museum of Modern Art, spoke highly of the sculptors and bought work by three of them – Robert Adams, Reg Butler and Lynn Chadwick – for the museum;[3] he described the exhibition as "the most distinguished national showing of the Biennale".[5]:262 All eight sculptors achieved rapid recognition and career success in the 1950s.[3][6]:871 In 1953 Butler won the international competition to design the monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner, chosen over more than two thousand entries including submissions by Naum Gabo and Barbara Hepworth; the prize was £4500, enough at the time to buy a large house.[7] In 1956 Lynn Chadwick won the Grand Prize for Sculpture at the Biennale di Venezia of that year, selected over César, Giacometti and Richier.[6]:871

Within a decade the Geometry of Fear group had fallen from view. In the 1960s British sculpture was dominated by the abstract, particularly that associated with Anthony Caro and his circle at Saint Martin's School of Art. Figurative expressionism and post-war angst were out of style.[6]:873 Butler's eighteen-metre Unknown Political Prisoner was never executed;[7] he, like Adams, Clarke and Meadows, essentially disappeared. Chadwick and Armitage were neglected in Britain but had some following in other countries, while Paolozzi and Turnbull began to work in different styles and remained in the public eye.[6]:873

Other artists

While the Geometry of Fear group initially consisted only of the eight sculptors who exhibited in Venice in 1952, and never had any of the characteristics of an art movement, other artists have been associated with it, or thought to have been influenced by it. These include, among others, the sculptors Ralph Brown, Anthony Caro (in his early work), Robert Clatworthy, Hubert Dalwood, Elisabeth Frink, George Fullard, John Hoskin and Leslie Thornton, and the painter John Berger.[3][8][9] The post-War paintings of Francis Bacon and Graham Sutherland share some of the Atomic Age anxieties of the Geometry of Fear sculptors.[3]


  1. The Sculpture Show 17th December 2011 − 24th June 2012: Geometry of Fear: British Sculpture of the 1950s. Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Archived 12 January 2012.
  2. Glossary of art terms: Geometry of Fear. Tate Gallery. Accessed June 2015.
  3. Ann Jones (2007). Geometry of Fear: Works from the Arts Council Collection (exhibition leaflet). London: Southbank Centre. Archived 30 June 2015.
  4. Herbert Read (1952). New Aspects of British Sculpture (exhibition catalogue). London: British Council; cited in: Glossary of art terms: Geometry of Fear. Tate Gallery. Accessed June 2015.
  5. Ian Chilvers, John Glaves-Smith (2009). Geometry of Fear, in: A Dictionary of Modern and Contemporary Art, second edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199239665.
  6. James Beechey (December 2003). Lynn Chadwick. London. The Burlington Magazine 145 (1209): 871–873. (subscription required)
  7. Tom Overton (2009). Reg Butler (1913–1981). British Council. Accessed June 2015.
  8. Peter Davies (30 April 2013). Ralph Brown: Member of the 'geometry of fear' school of sculptors. The Independent. Accessed June 2015.
  9. George Newson (2015). In memoriam: Robert Clatworthy RA. RA Magazine (127), Summer 2015.

Further reading

  • Herbert Read (1952). New Aspects of British Sculpture (exhibition catalogue). London: British Council.
  • Lawrence Alloway (1953). Britain's New Iron Age. Art News June–August 1953.
  • Sandy Nairne, Nicholas Serota (1981). British Sculpture in the Twentieth Century (exhibition catalogue). London: Whitechapel Art Gallery.
  • Andrew Causey (1998). Sculpture Since 1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Martin Harrison (2002). The London Art Scene in the Fifties (exhibition catalogue). London: Barbican Art Gallery.
  • Margaret Garlake, James Hyman (2003). Henry Moore and the Geometry of Fear (exhibition catalogue). London: James Hyman Fine Art.
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