Skip main navigation

Friesian Calf and the tradition of animal sculpture

Animal sculpture has a long tradition in the history of British art. In this article,Dr Maddie Boden discusses Sally Arnup's contribution to the genre
A photograph of Friesian Cow by Sally Arnup. Full view from front facing position. King's Manor buildings in the background.
© Paul Shields / University of York

Friesian Calf is a life-size bronze sculpture of a new born Friesian calf, a breed known for their role in dairy production.

It is displayed in one of the University’s most unique buildings, the King’s Manor. We’ve left the 1960s CLASP-built campus in Heslington village and instead find ourselves in the city centre, in a Tudor-era building adjacent to the York Art Gallery and the famous Minster. Originally the Abbot’s House of St Mary’s Abbey, the King’s Manor served the Tudors and Stuarts as a seat of government, becoming residences in the eighteenth century and later, a school for the blind. The University acquired the King’s Manor in 1963 and it has since become an academic hub, so it’s no surprise that the impulse to decorate this university space with sculpture extends here too.

King's Manor Exterior

By the time Arnup made Friesian Calf in the 1990s, she was well established as an animalier, or artist who specialises in painting or sculpting animals. Animal sculpture is a popular field with a history that dates to the earliest examples of humans making sculpture. Animals are an important part of our collective culture; in religious traditions, hunting, farming, sporting competition, and of course, simple companionship. Therefore, you’ll find examples of animal sculpture from ancient Egypt to the present day. Can you think of any you’ve seen before?

Arnup often took commissions, requests from buyers who wanted a sculpture made for them. In this respect, animal sculpture can be quite similar to portraiture as many buyers want likenesses of their domestic pets, fastest race horses, or even prize-winning farm animals – you can see a range of Sally’s commissioned animal sculptures online. In the case of Friesian Calf, Arnup was gifted three calves which she reared on her farm, so the subject of this statue is quite personal to the artist.

Friesian Calf might seem considerably different from the first two examples we studied this week, Single Form (Antiphon) and Dryad. You might wonder where animal sculpture, with its attention to naturalism, realism and traditional role in art history, fits into our story of modern sculpture. However, an interest in animal forms and the pervasive role of animals in our culture did not die out with the advent of abstraction. In fact, many modern sculptors continued to look to animals as creative source material.

Gerhard Marcks (1889-1981) was one of these modern animal sculptors. He taught at the Bauhaus, a German art school that was considered one of the first modern art institutions in the world. Marcks was the head of the ceramics department at the Bauhaus, but he also had an interest in woodcuts and sculpture. After the dissolution of the Bauhaus by the Nazis, Gerhard Marcks’ was labelled as a “degenerate art” maker and he fled to Italy to wait out the Second World War. He returned to Germany and taught at art schools for the rest of his career, much like Arnup. Let’s look at one example of Marcks’ animal sculpture, Bremen Town Musicians (1951).

Town Musicians of Bremen

There are several versions of this animal sculpture: in the town square of Bremen, Germany, at the Lynden Sculpture Garden in the USA, and the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University. Bremen Town Musicians is based on a Grimm Brothers fairy tale. It tells the story of four ageing domestic animals, who after a lifetime of hard work are neglected and mistreated by their former masters.

Look closely at the sculpture: can you tell which four animals are represented?

Eventually, they decide to run away and become town musicians in the city of Bremen. Contrary to the story’s title the characters never arrive in Bremen, as they succeed in tricking and scaring off a band of robbers, capturing their spoils, and moving into their house.

Marcks’ Musicians is a more abstract and stylised type of animal sculpture than Arnup’s Friesian Calf. Marcks’ group of four are formed into a pyramid shape with pronounced and elongated backs and necks. The flowing lines are rhythmic – the same shape of line is repeated in each individual animal, but these lines work together to emphasise the cohesive shape of the whole sculpture. This group also shows Marcks’ ability to observe animals closely and depict their individuality without excessive detail.

Compare and contrast Bremen Town Musicians and Friesian Calf. What are their similarities and differences? Do you think they’re both a part of the same tradition of animal sculpture?

© University of York
This article is from the free online

Modern Sculpture: An Introduction to Art History

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now