Auction Insights with Nigel Kirk

How Polish Resistance Fighter became a sculptor in Nottingham

23rd October 2017

Witold Kawalec Image

When art dealer and Antiques Roadshow expert Peter Nahum sold his collection of 20th century pictures at auction ten years ago the Sale was aptly billed as ‘The Poetry of Crisis’. That phrase sums up how artists respond in war, at times of flux or great pivotal changes in history. 

 

Think of the exhilaration expressed by William Wordsworth (1770-1850) on hearing of the French Revolution, the poetry of W B Yates (1865-1939), war poems of Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) or the haunting effects of the Spanish Civil War on the art of Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) or photographer Robert Capa (1913-1954).

 

Such creativity can be latent and only emerges after the artist has found a new, settled life far from the place of their birth.  In such works there is often a profoundly moving sense of longing, for example in the music of Polish composer Henryk Gorecki (1933-2010).

 

Closer to home, one such was Nottingham sculptor Witold Kawalec (1922-2003). I was unfamiliar with his work until this week, when we collected three of his stone and metal sculptures from the grounds of a Nottingham house where they had been since the early ‘60s.

 

Kawalec was born in Wilno, Poland and fought with the Polish resistance during World War Two.  He was captured by Russian soldiers but later served with a Polish army unit in the Middle East including the allied North African campaign and the battle to relieve the Siege of Tobruk, 1941.  He also trained as a night fighter pilot with the Royal Air Force and while training at RAF Newton married a WRAF, Danuta Banszel.

 

After the War they settled in Nottingham where he studied sculpture at Nottingham College of Art, opening his first studio in 1953.  Much of his work was carved in local alabaster or limestone and in 1959 one of his works was shown in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.  His public sculptures include that of St Christopher for Dame Cicely Saunders St Christopher Hospice at Sydenham.  His work can also be seen in St Aidan’s Church at Basford.  In 1976 he moved to Devon, where he continued to work until he died. It would be interesting to hear from anyone who remembers Witold and his sculpture from his Nottingham period.

None of the three abstract sculptures has a title or at least if it did it is no longer known.  One is in the form of a human figure and all reflect the influence on Witold of some of the most important contemporary sculptors including Henry Moore (1898-1986).

 

The smallest work is made of cast aluminium, the three range in height from 53-110cm and since hardly anything by him has been sold at auction before they have modest estimates of around £300.  There is however great interest in so called mid-century British art of the post-War period, from the late 1940s to the early 1970s.  I am looking forward to seeing how they perform at auction when they go under the hammer on 29 November.

 

Many of Witold Kawalec’s comrades fought bravely against the Nazi occupiers.  Those that could left Poland to carry on the fight from England, many serving with great distinction in the RAF and army.  By the 1960s the East Midlands and Nottingham in particular had one of the largest Polish communities in the United Kingdom.  They soon had jobs, were hardworking, raised families and integrated well.

 

Seventy years later, as populist movements reappear around the world and nations plan walls, real or bureaucratic, to keep foreigners out or their citizens in, people who remember those of Witold’s generation and what they endured for freedom’s sake are, it seems, alone in remembering the lessons of history.

 

That will be the subject of another object in next week’s Under the Hammer. 

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