Born in West London in 1921, I was reared between 1925 and 1936 at Fittleworth in rural West Sussex.
In 1935 I went to my second spell of boarding school, at Radley and then, just after the outbreak of WW2 in 1939 to New College, Oxford.
Late in 1940 I enlisted as a private in the Gloucestershire Regiment, eventually becoming an officer in a cavalry regiment, and for a time I served as aide-de- camp to the fiery intellectual General who had been responsible for mapping the Western Desert during the inter-war years. Major General Sir Percy Hobart had now been charged with overseeing the development of special devices for use in the forthcoming Invasion of France, preparations for which were then the main focus of the war effort in the UK.
Eventually returning at my own request to normal duties, I took part as a liaison officer in the D-Day landings in Normandy. Later, while back in the UK recovering from an injury, the annihilation bombing of Dresden took place. In protest against this form of warfare, I became a conscientious objector. I was released from further service and having done 4 years in the army was free to return to Oxford, for two more years of study from 1946-48.
After obtaining a reasonably respectable degree but uncertain about my future direction, I decided to spend a shoe-string year in Italy, living in Florence, teaching part-time at the university of Pisa and travelling about the country, looking at its treasures. I came to realise that I was in a state of bafflement and impasse regarding my future, but with a clear realisation that academic pursuits were not for me.
Hearing through a friend, Roger James, of the work of Wilhelm Reich I travelled to Norway where one of Reich’s former trainees was in practice. I spent 6 months in Oslo doing odd jobs, learning Norwegian and undergoing Reichian Therapy. The main result of this period was the decision to return to London and try working creatively with my hands.
After sampling at several art departments various materials with which I might choose to work, the briefest encounter with clay produced in me a clear decision that this was the medium I was looking for.
So in 1949 I spent a year in the pottery at Camberwell School of Art under Dick Kendal and Nora Bradon followed by a year at Farnham under Henry Hammond and Paul Barron.
At Camberwell I met the painter Sheila Denning. We married and moved in 1951 to Eastcombe near Stroud in Gloucestershire where in 1955 and 1957 our two daughters Anna and Teresa were born. In 1963 the marriage was dissolved. In 1976 my son Philip Bittner was born.
I set up Hawkley Pottery in Eastcome which in due course became a supplier to Heals and to the seminal Sloane Street crafts shop founded by Henry Rothschild, Primavera. My pottery came to be included on the Council of Industrial Design’s ‘Index of Good Design’ and pieces went to the Council’s exhibitions abroad in Hamburg and Helsinki. My work was shown regularly at the annual shows of the Guild of Gloucestershire Craftsmen at Painswick, and ceramic jewellery found its way to Mary Quant’s trendy shop in the Kings Road, Chelsea.
Having begun to feel frustrated by the repetitiveness involved in the making and selling of pots, and helped by a friend, Jack Greaves, I had already started to gravitate towards sculpture. In 1959 we moved as a family to London, having found in Putney a property which included a semi-derelict outbuilding that could be made into a studio.
Since 1957 I had been teaching pottery, part-time, at Kingston School of Art. However, as a result of changes brought about by the Summerson Committee’s report on Art Education, pottery at Kingston was dispensed with and in 1961 I was made redundant.
For the next two and a half years, from 1961, I did an evening and night job as a French-speaking telephone operator at the Continental Telephone Exchange near St Pauls. This enabled me to continue with work in my newly contrived studio by day. By 1968 I had accumulated enough work for my first one-man show at the Drian Galleries, near Marble Arch.
In 1965 I obtained a job, under the umbrella of Barking Regional College, at Rushlake Green in East London. Here I devised a course entitled Claywork which broadened the scope of the activities on offer to the students, many of whom were engineering apprentices on day-release. This course was supported by a pamphlet which I had written describing my procedures and pointing to the potential use of clay in art education.
In 1967 I was invited by the Art Advisor to the London Borough of Redbridge to run a short course for teachers. Maurice Barratt afterwards wrote: “You successfully encouraged us to approach the clay as if for the first time. In this way the clay was able to speak to us and create fresh avenues for exploration…You made us all reconsider our attitudes during a very limited period of time.”
Of my three-year period of teaching in the Barking area my senior lecturer, Trevor Lakin Hall ARCA, wrote: “Alan has used the flexibility of clay to promote creative thinking that has become a basic feature of our education. The recent exhibition which he presented showing work by these students elicited wide and enthusiastic acclaim.”
This show attracted a visit from Hampstead by Joanna Field/Marion Milner, the well-known psychoanalyst and author of On Not Being Able to Paint, who wrote of my “insight into the nature of art and obvious skill in communicating his vision and enthusiasm.” There occurred too a brief but warmly confirming correspondence with the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott.
Teaching in the Barking area involved a long early morning journey right through London from west to east. In 1970 I took a job in Adult Education at Morley College, nearer home, in Lambeth. I started with just an evening class, but with a foot in the door, the commitment expanded quite quickly to 2 full days a week. Eventually my courses changed from Pottery to Claywork to Sculpture, at the newly acquired Pelham Hall annexe nearby. This job was to last for 17 years until my retirement in 1987.
During this period and until 1991, in my Putney studio, and sometimes working alongside my students in the College, I was to produce, amongst other smaller works and portrait heads, 16 sizeable pieces of sculpture. All these sculptures were made in clay using methods devised to dispense with internal armatures. Firing in a kiln was thus made possible, and the elimination of the casting process, as well as freedom to make radical changes as the work progressed.
This method stemmed from the search for other less technical advantages. For instance it became possible to make pieces without having a prior idea as a starting point; instead using a process of improvisation. This was a practical response to temperamental propensities towards immediacy, adventure and the unforeseen. How do I know what I want until I see what I do?
Rather than from glimpses of other sculptors’ work, encouragement to proceed in this direction came from experiments that were going on in other media and fields of activity; for instance Roddy Maude-Roxby and Ben Benison’s Theatre Machine whose performances or antics, discovered in the cavernous back room of a pub in north London, explored the delights of immediacy for both doer and viewer. Equally the verbal procedures, mask-work and physical games of Ed Berman-inspired Interaction workshops at Oval House, with their multiplicity of wheezes to dissolve the habitual stand-offishness of the young when scenting any whiff of authority. In the field of dance there were Rosemary Butcher’s Contact Improvisation classes which I was allowed to observe. There were also performances by outstanding but modest cutting-edge dancers like Julien Hamilton and Maedee Dupres and the astonishing mover’s magic of the (mostly medical student) American company Pilobolus to be seen at Sadlers Wells. These experiences fed into and fuelled my efforts to achieve equivalent freedom in making and unpredictability of outcome in my own work.
Part of this unpredictability found expression in my offer to make a gift to the people of Wandsworth, the group of eight large sculptures now forming the Putney Sculpture Trail, inaugurated in 2008.
At the conclusion of my time at Morley on reaching retirement age, I was invited by Rosemary Barnett FRBS, founder head of the recently formed Frink School of Sculpture based in Stoke on Trent, to become a Trustee, an invitation which I felt honoured to accept. I was also asked to do some part-time teaching. The school clientele were all full-time would-be sculptors from various backgrounds and the school provided fellowship, tuition, experience and stimulus relating to a commonly shared interest and activity – a rare situation. That it lacked support from the artworld did not deter would-be candidates wishing indeed to avoid the supposedly all-pervading phenomenon of conceptualism in the established Art Schools of the country. The atmosphere was congenial and studious – the teaching varied, reputable and enjoyable. I continued to participate until the long journey became an insuperable obstacle. Sadly the exceptional school which many students enjoyed and benefitted from has now vanished without trace or adequate recognition for its admirable and dedicated Founder Rosemary Barnett. Arguably more independent schools of this kind would be beneficial to students wanting freedom from the rigidity of current trends, whatever they happen to be at the time.
My final appearance at the Frink School was marked by a wonderful surprise feast in the school’s yard. It was for me a sad but happy moment to find myself saying goodbye to so many of whom I had grown paternally fond and with whom I maintain good ongoing contact. Teaching, especially at the Frink, was a great experience for me and hopefully for many, reciprocal. I need forgiveness for not being the best of correspondents.