A rebel of the time, departing from conventional art in the early 1950s to produce revolutionary welded sculpture out of metal, his work is collected all over the world and is represented in The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Arts Council of Great Britain; Peggy Guggenheim’s Collection; Nelson Rockefeller’s Collection; The Victorian and Albert Museum and the Daily Mirror to name but a few, and in numerous private collections (40 plus) mostly in the USA and also in Canada, Europe and the UK.
Very well represented in the US, Mr Thornton’s sculpture is rarely seen in the UK – 1950s Britain was a bleak place and it was a time of post-war austerity and fear with people not quite ready to depart from conventional art.
However, his work sold prolifically to US buyers, who rapidly embraced his revolutionary, unconventional new style of sculpture, buying 15-20 pieces in one year, for example.
Born in Skipton in 1925, he was raised solely by his beloved grandmother from the age of two – but his world fell apart when she died from pneumonia. His cousin Ann took him in and looked after him with her husband, Bert Cooke ,of Skipton.
He attended Brougham Street School in Skipton, where he surprised the teachers with his drawing skills. He had to draw from memory or imagination. He could not master maths and knew he would never make it to a grammar school and left school aged 14.
He spent his childhood from a very young age either climbing trees and gas lamps or drawing. He said he had a passion for drawing; it was his principal hobby from toddlerhood onwards – faces, figures, birds, trees. He also made planes and galleons out of bits of wood he could find.
He protected the weaker and more vulnerable boys.
He started work aged 14 as an apprentice at GH Mason, Skipton, an upmarket painting and decorating company. As part of this apprenticeship he attended Keighley Art School on a Saturday morning and one evening.
A painting hung in his grandmother’s house – an oil painting by his great grandfather. The young Mr Thornton used to stand on a chair to study it. It was a bird’s nest with eggs inside and two birds perched at the side. Mr Thornton said his grandmother loved his drawings and encouraged him to draw.
As a child, he was particularly inspired by the typography of the weekly newspaper The Craven Herald, which fascinated him, and he spent much time copying it.
In 1943, at the age of 17, he was conscripted to work as a Bevin Boy in the Yorkshire coal mines for two years. He had just started his training at Leeds Art School on scholarship and it was abruptly ended for duty to country – against expectations, he was able to resume it later.
He was initially assigned to a pit just outside Leeds and was given lodgings with a miner’s family who were wonderfully kind and caring toward him. “Miners are marvellous people,” he once said.
He described his experience as a Bevin Boy as “a tough job down pit, it played havoc with my hands”. When released from this, his hands were calloused but his spirit was undaunted and he took up his scholarship at Leeds School of Art. His admiration for miners remained throughout his life.
He won a place at the Royal College of Art (RCA) 1948-51 after submission of his portfolio. He felt honoured as there were only 10 places per year in the sculpture school.
At this time, his knowledge of sculpture was exhilarated by visits to the British Museum and actually handling very early Cycladic terracotta figures, simple and direct. It was an inspiring experience he could never forget.
Feeling constrained by the conventional forms of art and restive during his training in conventional form at the RCA, Mr Thornton found himself “completely at war with traditional sculpture” on leaving the RCA in 1951.
He was determined to depart from tradition and struck out in a new field using metal instead of the conventional materials of the time. In 1953, he took himself off for a two-week instruction in the art of welding at the British Welding School in Cricklewood and then found a disused stable in Tooting, London, for his studio. And the revolutionary departure from tradition began.
Belief in himself and his idea was soon justified – two pieces, Figures in a Wood and Façade, were immediately sold to a collector in the US.
A newspaper clipping from the era described him as a “revolutionary” and his work as “exciting, invigorating”.
From then, collectors in the US and Canada snapped up his work – 15/20 sculptures sold to the US in one year in the 50s. Each piece from this era is unique.
He was married to Constance Helen Billows for 63 years before her death in 2013.
He said: “I took a flower from life’s gardens. My life was enriched and enhanced by knowing Constance – beyond measure.”
They celebrated their diamond wedding anniversary in September 2010, having married at Skipton Parish Church. They had met at a cricket club dance in Skipton Town Hall.
So entranced was he by her that for many months after their first meeting, he attempted to raise his stature by cutting up endless cardboard to place in the heels of his shoes to make him a little taller.
It worked, but not for that reason. Connie was mesmerised by this young artist; he was not like any person she had met before.
Mr Thornton is survived two children Lisa Jane and David Robert. His life story is recorded at the British Library.