My Grandfather's Story
the labour unionist
My grandfather, Gordon William Allen was an interesting fellow. He was a lover of the arts and in his later years was himself a sculptor living and working in St. Ives. Had World War II not interrupted him, I think he would have been a sculptor from a young man. Instead, he joined the navy and played his part during the War.
He was an ardent Labour man and after the war he worked as an engineer for Vickers, becoming very politically involved in the Trade Unions. He caused a lot of trouble for himself and his family - often employers didn't want a troublemaker on their books. In truth he held socialist and often communist views, but most likely he had to be careful airing such opinions in post-war Britain.
He softened a little later on in life, my father tells me, but even in my late twenties my grandfather handed me the 'little red book' and told me to read every page thoroughly!
I knew my grandfather had many friends, but after his death I was overwhelmed by the amount of people that attended his funeral of whom I had never met. They had a great respect for him both as a friend and as an artist... yet all I saw at the end was a frail old man in a care home. I knew that age and a weary body didn't define a person but still that's what I concentrated on. I'd repeat like a parrot to anyone who listened that 'my grandfather was a sculptor' but I didn't look any deeper because I was just focused on his care. Towards the end of his life I had become a little detached from who he really was.
And so through his friends, his photos, books, poetry and sculptures I rediscovered Gordon William Allen.
an early exhibition
My grandfather exhibiting one of his 'vapour trail' sculptures
Gordon Allen didn't train as a sculptor in art school. As an engineer he used his knowledge and became self-taught. He made abstract forms, often from metal and tin, and once even obtained metal from an old Concorde plane. Many of his sculptures were infinite, they never ended because they looped and twisted so there was no start point. No start, no finish, no front and no back.
As a child, and indeed still to this day, my favourite of his sculptures were the 'vapour trails'. A continuous form that swirled and looped around itself, the vapour trails that aeroplanes leave in the sky. They were made of a chicken wire structure then covered in cement or plaster and sanded down. I make it sound far more simplistic than it actually was - these sculptures were often quite large, and shape and form were very important.
A sculpture by Gordon Allen
The first stage of a 'vapour trail' sculpture made from chicken wire.
The structure is covered in plaster and the form begins to take shape.
After many hours of sanding and reshaping, the result is an amazing smooth finish. A true labour of love.
religion and reproduction
The subject of my grandfather's sculptures sometimes surprise me. Although he wasn't religious, the subject of the cross fascinated him. He was commissioned to create crosses for the church but they also featured in his private work. A subject he also focused on was reproduction and the union of a man and woman.
A sculpture commissioned by St Timothy's Church in Liden near Swindon. The three crosses represent the Holy Trinity and the Crucifixion. The 10 discs represent the 10 commandments.
Aluminium sculpture from my grandfather's final exhibition in St.Ives (left).
A relief piece demonstrating the ridicuous adulation of footballers (right).
A love of Cornwall
When my grandfather moved to Cornwall in the 1990s, my father set him up with a workshop at St. Erth station. It was full of heavy machinery and tools, and was itself an interesting place to visit. Cornwall began to influence my grandfather's work - in particular the mining landscape. I think he saw the engine houses as sculptures in their own right and he loved the angular shapes their frames created. I think he also sympathised with the struggle of the miners, and would have shared very similar views with Socialist Arthur Scargill who led the National Union of Miners strike in the 1980s. And on a less political note, mining gave my grandfather the very materials he used for some of his sculptures.
A sculpture celebrating the Cornish miner, acknowledging their struggles.
Below are some photos celebrating my grandfather's work over the years.
Although he never considered himself professional, my grandfather loved to write poetry. When he was in the care home, and was no longer strong enough to wield sculpture tools or hold a paintbrush, he would hold a wobbly biro in his hand and write in his Little Book of Madness. I never really paid it much attention at the time, but now when I read it I realise It was his way of coping with old age.
Below is a poem I discovered amongst his belongings which I particularly admire. I see it as an honest look at how love can change within a relationship. It is quite melancholy, but beautiful none-the-less.
An Engineer Looks at Love
Love is like a piece of steel
Ore from the bowels of the earth
To the furnace of life
It glows red hot
Only to solidify into pig iron
Resurrected with the heat of love
It glows red again
Then cools into a grey mass
To be heated again
It glows red, orange and yellow
To be rolled into a long grey bar
Then, like love it is machined
Ground, polished until it becomes useful
For motor cars, knife, fork and spoons
To feed your love
You can cut with it
You can put it in a drawer
And forget it
Then you remember
But it is too late
Rust has set in
It crumbles into the dustbin of life
The earth takes it back with a kiss
Embracing life itself
A worm lies with it
Cold, waiting for warmth
Love may I hold your hand
G.W Allen 2005
The final exhibition
In his later years my grandfather lived in St.Ives. His final exhibition was held in the St.Ives Arts Club with good friends and fellow artists John Berryman and John Chambers. He had struggled to submit as much artwork as he had hoped due to ill health, but none the less the exhibition came together and my grandfather was happy.
the Final exhibition
Gordon Allen and his final completed sculpture
the Final exhibition
My grandfather, John Berryman and I
the unfinished sculptor
You should never be bored, Heather my grandfather always told me . He had an insatiable desire to create art right up to the end, even when his body would not allow it. I understand that feeling - the need to keep creating and never wanting to stop. That sense of achievement, that excitement of an idea coming to fruition, sharing it with others. I never made that link between us when he was alive, but rediscovering my grandfather has let me understand the similarities between us and help me remember who he was.
My grandfather passed away before he had the chance to finish his final work. It was a sculpture meant for me and it now sits proudly on my lounge window sill, almost complete. I am in two minds as to whether I should try and risk attempting to finish it myself. Maybe the beauty lies in the fact that it remains unfinished, just like my grandfather. Even with his 88 years of life, Gordon William Allen ran out of time to create all things that he wanted to.
He was the unfinished sculptor.
This painting of my grandfather by talented artist and friend of his, Nicola Clark. Sat in his armchair flanked by one of his sculptures, I imagine that he is lost in thought about the next artwork he wants to create.