Douglas Wain-Hobson: born August 12 1918; died February 12 2001
The Guardian’s Obituary, 2001
“He survived sculptural controversy in Balham to embellish many public spaces”
By Brian Morley
The Guardian, Tuesday 10 April 2001
Following his success as a prizewinner in the Institute of Contemporary Arts’ Unknown Political Prisoner sculpture competition in 1953, Douglas “Dougie” Wain-Hobson, who has died aged 82, was commissioned to produce a sculpture for the lawn outside the new wing of St James Hospital in Balham, London.
When unveiled, the life-size male nude, sans fig-leaf, so shocked people living nearby, that petitions were signed, and the locals attempted to raise £500 (Dougie’s fee) to buy the statue from the hospital, and return it to the sculptor. Overnight, someone thoughtfully provided the statue, titled Recovery but soon better known as the “Leafless Man of Balham”, with a green hospital gown and a white apron loincloth. Weeks later, police were called in, following a student dance at the hospital, when the statue was discovered to be partially covered with surgical plaster and bandages.
In the 1950s, Dougie was one of the country’s leading young sculptors – in the ICA competition he had been one of seven prizewinners from 3,500 entries. Other finalists included Eduardo Paolozzi, Barbara Hepworth, Elizabeth Frink, FE McWilliam and the winner, Reg Butler.
The Balham episode certainly appeared to do him little harm, as Dougie was quickly commissioned to do several portrait heads, and architects continued to use his sculpture to embellish buildings. In 1964, he produced a 9ft-high bronze figure of Shakespeare for the Shakespeare Centre at Stratford-on-Avon, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the writer’s birth.
Dougie was born at Norton, Derbyshire, the only son of a builder. His mother encouraged her son’s early interest in drawing and constantly sent in his work for competitions. The family moved to Sheffield where Dougie contracted tuberculosis. To aid recovery he was sent by his mother to her family home in Lincolnshire, where he lived with his grandparents for two years.
He left school at 11, with little formal education, but his talent for drawing led, at 14, to a scholarship at Sheffield art school. Starting as a painter, his innate practical skills – he was never happier than when working with his hands – inspired a move to sculpture. In 1938, he entered the Royal College of Art. It was here that Dougie met his wife, Joan Drummond, an engraver and illustrator, before their studies were interrupted by the second world war.
Dougie served in the army between 1940-45. He and Joan married in 1944 and resumed their studies after the war. In 1946, he won the RCA silver medal for sculpture and, in 1947, the Rome scholarship in sculpture. He and Joan spent three years in Italy – which Dougie saw as the most formative part of his education. He loved Italy.
After his return to London in 1950, he began teaching, part-time, at the RCA and at Kingston School of Art. He exhibited his sculpture at the 1951 Festival of Britain shows, and at the Battersea Park Open Air exhibition; he also designed medals and coins for the Royal Mint and was commissioned to produce sculpture, for the Barbican, Norwich Union and Hoares bank on Fleet Street. Then came the ICA competition – and Balham.
Alongside his sculpture there were increasing teaching commitments, and he became senior tutor in sculpture at the RCA. He was a popular figure in the department. In the life-room, he once dismissed the model, left the room himself, to return with a skeleton and a very large polythene bag filled with water. “That’s what we would look like without the skeleton underneath,” said Dougie. In 1968, he left the RCA to become head of fine art at Manchester Polytechnic. From 1978 to 1983 he was dean of the faculty of art and design there.
Dougie was a large and imposing presence, with a rather military bearing; an impression supported by his closely trimmed moustache and often terse manner. During the last few years of his life, he was not in good health, and the death of his wife in 1987 was a severe blow. No longer able to cope with the often physically demanding disciplines of sculpture, he returned to painting during his last decade.
He is survived by two sons and a daughter.