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Glenys Barton has created three of the most powerful portraits in the National Portrait Gallery’s Contemporary Collection in ceramic sculptures of Jean Muir, Glenda Jackson and Joan Bakewell.

Born in Stoke-in-Trent, home to the Wedgwood factory, she studied at the Royal College of Art and is one of very few sculptors working in ceramic. Since the 1980s she has focussed on the human form, the head and hands in particular, and claims humanity as her subject.

Twenty years ago I interviewed Glenys in her studio in Essex for a film for the Gallery’s IT Gallery and which can be now viewed on the Gallery’s website. In this film she explained how she works and how the portraits in the Gallery’s Collection evolved.

Artists featured in this Curation: Glenys Barton (b.1944)
3 artworks
  • Jean Muir (1928–1995)

    One of Barton’s Jean Muir portraits was the lead image for the 'Portrait Now' exhibition held at the National Portrait Gallery in 1993. This Jean Muir is a whole-length statuette just over 60cm tall. Barton's process starts with familiarising herself with her sitter through photographs of them.

    As she then explained

    ‘One particular photograph gave me more than most; it was a photograph from The Independent of Jean Muir standing in her completely white apartment in Albert Mansions, with massive amounts of space around her, very sparsely furnished, pure white and there she is, a tiny figure in all this space, it’s a fabulous photograph. She looked like a little cut-out figure and this gave me the idea for the figure’.

    Jean Muir (1928–1995) 1992
    Glenys Barton (b.1944)
    H 67 cm
    National Portrait Gallery, London
    Jean Muir (1928–1995)
    © Glenys Barton, Flowers Gallery, London. Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, London

  • Glenda Jackson (b.1936)

    The sculptor has written of this piece

    'My most vivid memory of Glenda in the sixties was as Gudrun in Women in Love. As a romantic would-be young artist I identified with the character of Gudrun, a sculptor herself, in the film. From then on I was always interested in Glenda's career and, inclined towards the left politically myself, was even more impressed when she became a Labour MP.'

    In my interview she talked about the resulting double image

    ' the foreground in high relief, almost three dimensional and in the background the young Glenda from Women in Love in very low relief. In fact, the piece looked almost in a way like a film poster but that wasn’t intentional, it was just one of the things that came as it went along'.

    Glenda Jackson (b.1936) 1993
    Glenys Barton (b.1944)
    H 40 cm
    National Portrait Gallery, London
    Glenda Jackson (b.1936)
    © National Portrait Gallery, London. Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, London

  • Joan Bakewell (b.1933)

    This is the final of a trio of portraits Barton made of Bakewell and is part of a series on influential women. The sitter glances to the viewer’s left and appears to be speaking. Viewed from the front, the bust looks like a fully-realised figure, although the features are modelled in low-relief and the rear of the sculpture is left unworked.

    Barton has said of this portrait

    ‘I always seem to come back to the theme of powerful women in my work and Joan is no exception. That’s why it was so important for me to capture Joan’s strength and charisma in the final form. While hands are very significant, as they’re very often the way we convey our emotions, my biggest challenge was Joan’s smile as she has a very expressive face'

    Joan Bakewell (b.1933) 2014
    Glenys Barton (b.1944)
    H 53 x W 44 x D 23 cm
    National Portrait Gallery, London
    Joan Bakewell (b.1933)
    © Glenys Barton, Flowers Gallery, London. Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, London

  • Glenys Barton

    Magnus noted that ‘the deep thoughtfulness’ on Barton’s face is ‘often present in the faces she creates’.

    As Barton says on her website

    ‘My subject is always humanity: sometimes a specific human, sometimes human relationships, sometimes human society. The forms may be heads, parts of figures, whole figures or figures within figures. Heads and hands particularly fascinate me. As I work I feel that I am directly linked with those who have tried to fashion the human form from the earliest times. My greatest achievement would be to create a timeless image.’

    Glenys Barton by Mayotte Magnus
    Photo credit: © Mayotte Magnus / National Portrait Gallery, London