If some artists are born and others are made, Tom Glynn is surely one of the former. Growing up in West Sussex in the 1950s and 60s, he possessed a voracious aesthetic sensibility from the start. Not long after beginning at school, aged five, he spent the best part of a week constructing an elaborate tunnelled structure in a sandpit – much to his teachers’ astonishment. In subsequent years he fashioned animals from plasticine, made assemblages from scavenged wood, sketched on scraps of paper, and built miniature model theatres. As he grew older, Glynn became interested in earlier artists, establishing what he has called a ‘lifelong friendship’ with the work of Picasso, Matisse, Arp and Brancusi. But his ambitions to become a serious artist himself only crystallised at the age of fifteen, when he visited the studio of the great post-war British sculptor, Robert Adams. Glynn even showed the older artist some of his own creations, which Adams is said to have admired.
Glynn attended Farnham School of Art between 1974 and 1977, where he was tutored by Ben Franklin, Robin Ball, Leszek Muszynski, Bryan Ingham and Phyllida Barlow. In the same period he also met William Turnbull, Kim Lim, Nicholas Pope, and David Nash – with whom he planted the masterpiece of land art, Ash Dome. Glynn, like Nash, was primarily making sculptures at the time – often on a vast scale. Towards the end of his degree he created two huge totemic towers, more than three metres high, with frames made from wooden packing crates. Their roughly-hewn surfaces were peppered with mysterious apertures, boarded-up doorways, and interior spaces visible through wooden slats, housing everyday objects that looked like sacred relics. Glynn, who has always been fascinated by ancient cultures, and visited archaeological sites around the world, conceived the pieces as monumental ruins of an imagined civilization. Both were exhibited at the Northern Young Contemporaries exhibition at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester in 1975. [figure 1]
Glynn’s ambitious and allusive sculptures unsurprisingly attracted attention. Not long after leaving college Glynn was commissioned to make a similarly large sculpture for BBRK Ltd, a successful advertising and production company based at Shepperton Studios in Surrey. He constructed another elaborate tower, this time from metal, in which flat sheets of steel were curled into fish-eye forms, then linked together by a series of brackets into a tapering pagoda-like structure. The piece, which was almost as tall as Glynn’s totems, sat outside the front of BBRK’s main office for many years, greeting countless executives and creatives from the worlds of film and advertising. Glynn in fact briefly entered the industry himself, making props and sets for a number of celebrated television adverts. But ultimately he decided to embark on a long and distinguished career in art education. It was only on retirement, in 2008, that he once again devoted himself to making art full-time.
‘Late Glynn’ – if we can call it that – is a large and diverse body of work, fuelled by a lifetime of close-looking, careful making, and above all a deeply-felt admiration for earlier artists that, for all its nods and allusions, never subsides into pastiche. He continues to make sculptures and assemblages from found materials, just as he did five decades earlier. City Moonscape, made in May 2016, is one such example. [figure 2] It is an homage to one of Glynn’s favourite artists, the American sculptor (and fellow scavenger) Louise Nevelson. It imagines a view looking down over a vast city at night, perhaps Nevelson’s New York. The piece is covered in carbon black paint (to simulate the nocturnal environment) but is nevertheless a thrilling sight to behold. The source materials – driftwood, furniture turnings, cupboard handles, pegs, and towards the centre, a large slate coaster, which doubles up as a moon – produce a rhythmic interaction of rectilinear and curvilinear forms, their dynamism enhanced by a frame that seems to crumble around them.
Many of Glynn’s pieces are inspired by the work of other artists. After seeing David Hockney’s painting Cleaning Teeth, Early Evening (10pm) W11 (1962) – which depicted two men lying in bed together fellating phallic toothpaste tubes – Glynn made his own sculptural equivalent. Reclining Forms 2 (2017) consists of two pieces of wood laid down on sacking cloth and sealed in a Joseph Cornell-style box. [figure 3] The wooden forms are clearly intended to be the men: from each protrudes a knotted rope that, like Hockney’s toothpaste tubes, brings to mind the form of a penis. But like all of Glynn’s work, the assemblage is layered with references and associations: the title alludes to those given to sculptures by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth; the incongruous concatenation of found objects and materials recalls Surrealist objets trouvés; while the two cork balls (and their associated holes) even suggest the possibility of viewer interaction. ‘My thinking and intention was also the playful idea of contained ball bearings in Victorian bagatelles’, Glynn writes, ‘where the aim is to try to get the ball into the hole/s’.
In recent years Glynn has focused increasingly on painting, though he often invests his canvases with a deep-rooted sculptural sensibility. He applies acrylic paint in thick, rippled textures; sometimes makes or paints his own frames; and adorns surfaces with pasted papers, photographs, and cut-outs from cereal or biscuit boxes. Equinox (1) is one such augmented painting. [figure 4] The picture is clearly inspired by Paul Nash’s own series of equinoxes, about the ongoing cycles of nature, painted at the end of his life. Just as in Nash’s Landscape of the Vernal Equinox (1944), Glynn shows both the sun and the moon in the sky at the same time, above a mysterious undulating landscape. But Glynn enlivens the painting with materials his predecessor would never have dreamed of using. The radiant yellow hills are matted with scrim; an outcrop of rocks is fashioned from cork; the furrows of the fields are evoked with corrugated cardboard; and the tree (and a flock of almost imperceptible sheep beside it) is made from children’s toys that have been glued onto the picture and painted. It is characteristically inventive and humorous, but carries the same existential concerns that exercised Nash. ‘I have a great sense of mortality’, Glynn says. ‘What’s going to happen beyond. And what’s going on now’.
For all its variety, Glynn’s oeuvre is united by a mastery of form and colour. His paintings bubble up into vivid cerulean blues, retina-resonating reds, vital vegetal greens, and yellows so radiant that they seem to cause sunburn. Glynn’s control of his pictorial ingredients is perhaps best seen in his abstractions. Aerial Landscape 2 (2012), inspired by the aviation-themed canvas of Peter Lanyon, is particularly impressive: a blizzard of initially unrecognizable forms gradually coagulate into the titular landscape: the puffed whites of clouds, the dark blue depths of rolling seas, the scalloped greens of trees and bushes, and the pink frames of a window past which the world races by. [figure 5] The painting, as Glynn puts it, is about ‘memories, momentary interactions, glances, thoughts and explorations through the physical environment’. It is also a technical tour de force: an amalgam of disparate objects, planes, viewpoints, brushstrokes and colours, woven together into exquisite harmony. It is as accomplished as anything painted by Peter Lanyon.
Tom Glynn is a rare breed: an artist who can move effortlessly between artforms, materials, scales and registers, equally adept making miniature paintings and monumental sculptures. And yet all of his work is unmistakably English in mood. His images are populated by the country’s Neolithic monuments and pastoral landscapes, and informed by the many artists who went before him. Glynn is driven by the same Romantic spirit that motivated Palmer and Turner, Nash and Piper, Wallis and Lanyon, Hockney and Hodgkin, but his art is always completely his own. It is, after all, underpinned by an urge that has coursed through his veins since he first stepped foot in a sandpit.
25 June 2020
Totemic Towers 1976 [figure 1]
City Moonscape May 2016 [figure 2]
Reclining Forms 2 June 2017 [figure 3]
Equinox (1) June 2017 [figure 4]
Aerial Landscape 2 October 2012 [figure 5]