In 1956, Phillip King, then a student of modern languages at Christ’s College, Cambridge, enquired casually at Foyles bookshop in Charing Cross Road, London, if there was an art school nearby. “There’s one next door,” was the reply. At St Martin’s School of Art King encountered Anthony Caro, who was teaching there. Back in Cambridge, King mounted a show of his sculpture and sent Caro a first-class ticket to attend the opening. Within a year, he had been invited to become a part-time tutor at St Martin’s and, with Caro’s help, an assistant to Henry Moore.
However, by 1960 neither Caro (who had also been Moore’s assistant) nor King could be content with such an old-masterish mentor. They felt that sculpture should have a new identity. After a visit to the US, Caro began to sculpt by welding steel. King spent three months in Greece and on his return stripped his studio and made his first independent sculpture, Declaration, from green concrete and marble chippings. While the sculpture is (indefinably) Greek, it also speaks of modern urban London. King wanted up-to-date sculpture that would also resonate with centuries past. Thus he became a founder of the sculptural “revolution” associated with St Martin’s. Caro liked to think that “we were a movement”.
King, who has died aged 87, had decided to explore basic forms and new materials. He opened the cone, in various ways. In 1962 he made Rosebud from plastic; it is pink (“the least sculptural of colours,” he said, with satisfaction) and a delicate green is visible through a split in the cone’s surface. Other divided cones were made from aluminium, fibreglass and wood, sometimes within the same sculpture. After he met the abstract expressionist sculptor David Smith while teaching at Bennington College, Vermont, in 1964, King began to use steel.
In the late 1960s and 70s, King had exhibitions around the world, received many awards and commissions and was appointed to visiting professorships in Australia, Japan and Berlin. He became an international artist, the more so because he liked to embed himself within a foreign culture. There were regular London exhibitions at the Rowan Gallery and in 1968 (with Bridget Riley) he was the British representative at the Venice Biennale.
The quantity and variety of his work after 1970 was owed to long hours in two studios: a small one in his garden in West Hampstead, London; and a much larger workshop near Dunstable, Bedfordshire. There, at Clay Hall Farm, was a huge agri-industrial shed with outbuildings and a wide concrete pad next to the sliding doors. King had steel, wood, slate – which became a favourite material – welding equipment, trolleys, pallets, a fork-lift truck, paint and an assistant.
The first major sculpture from Clay Hall Farm was Sky, made from steel and commissioned for Expo ’70 in Tokyo. Other large, extravagant pieces followed. The most challenging of them filled a whole Royal Academy gallery at the exhibition British Sculptors ’72. It seemed to overpower Burlington House.
In 1974, King was appointed CBE. At Buckingham Palace, people were in an alphabetical queue as they awaited their honour. King found himself next to Philip Larkin. Their conversation was, said King, “a stuttering duo of mutual incomprehension. He did not wish to see beyond his spectacles.” King felt that poets, like sculptors, ought to be internationalists.
While he was still in his 40s, King appeared to be an old master of modernism. He was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1977, a time when the RA was still suspected by the avant garde; and in 1980 became professor of sculpture at the Royal College of Art.
In 1957, King had married Lilian Odelle. Their son, Antony, born in 1965, drowned in 1984 while swimming in the Mediterranean. The news was brought to his father as King worked with a group of students by the Thames. Then came a further disaster. The Dunstable studio burned to the ground. King lost his workplace, all his materials and much finished or half-finished sculpture.
King’s sculpture had already contained autobiography. Now he invoked personal mysteries and occasionally told friends that he had “a private religion”. He became less productive and commissions were few. His sculpture had also become more arcane – even, it was said, reactionary. Some artists of the 80s were disconcerted by sculpture from him that resembled architectural models or was figurative, and sometimes had a painted background of clouds in a blue sky. There was a piece that celebrated Japanese amphibian life, Fire King No 2, Plop, the Frog Jumps, and an empty three-dimensional seascape, It’s a Swell Day for Stormy Petrels.
The Petrels sculpture was made after a visit to a New Zealand inland sea. After divorce from Lilian, in 1988 King had married Judy Corbalis, a New Zealander. She was the dedicatee of such 90s pieces as Judy’s Butterfly.
King was elected president of the Royal Academy in 1999, having been professor of sculpture at the Royal Academy schools since 1990, when he became professor emeritus at the Royal College of Art. In 1999 he was also made a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery. After a turbulent period for the RA, when his presidency came to an end in 2004 he refused the knighthood traditionally given and returned to the place that best suited him, his own studio.
He was born in Tunis, son of an English merchant, Thomas King, and his French wife, Gabrielle (nee Liautard). In his childhood, the boy would be brought sweetmeats on silver trays from the bey of Tunis, the Tunisian monarch whose summer palace adjoined the King family home at Khereddine, two stops along the old railway line from Carthage. In his short trousers, he played among the ancient ruins.
He spent only occasional days at school and dug for clay to make pots and images of animals. Thus King began life as a sculptor. His later art, he said, was also influenced by Islamic architecture and its use of colour.
King’s father moved the family to north London in 1946. His son was astonished by the neat suburbs, the greenery (“and rabbits!”). King senior did not wish to buy a house but established a home in the Mill Hill hotel. Phillip attended Mill Hill school (an education he recalled with a slight shudder) before, in the afternoon, recrossing Hendon Way to the hotel.
It is hard to say how much King’s mature art was formed by his unusual early life. He gave interviews, particularly at the times of his retrospective exhibitions at the Kröller-Müller museum in the Netherlands in 1974 and at the Hayward Gallery in 1981, and he published some of his thoughts in the avant-garde magazine Studio International. Yet one always sensed that there were depths of memory that could not be explained. King’s sculpture was the mysterious made tangible.
In recent years, he exhibited new work less often. Later shows, which included a retrospective at the Flowers Gallery in 2011 and an 80th birthday exhibit at Tate Britain in 2014, indicated that his artistry continued to develop, while there were also metamorphoses, sometimes gleeful and sometimes mournful, of motifs he had invented in previous decades.
King is survived by Judy.
• Phillip King, sculptor, born 1 May 1934; died 27 July 2021