The woman behind the Bafta mask finally remembered

Sculptor Mitzi Cunliffe created the famous BAFTA mask but her work remains little known. An exhibition at Leeds University now seeks to redress the balance.

She created the famous BAFTA mask trophy that has been awarded to the great and the good of the film and TV worlds for more than 60 years. But some say the work of sculptor Mitzi Cunliffe has been overlooked ever since.

In order to redress this the University of Leeds has collaborated with the American artist’s daughter to create an exhibition of her work – Sculptor behind the Mask: Mitzi Cunliffe’s work of the 1950s – at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery.

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Cunliffe’s elder daughter Antonia Cunliffe Davis has been working to raise awareness of her late mother’s artistic legacy for more than 20 years.

“After all this time, I hope this mission will finally come to fruition and that the exhibition at Leeds will help get her the recognition she deserves.”

This year the University celebrates the 60th anniversary of one of Cunliffe’s most important 1950s public sculptures – Man-Made Fibres, a huge Portland stone sculpture which was created for a new textiles building, also called Man-Made Fibres, now the Clothworkers’ South building.

The sculpture features two monumental hands with a striking weave motif cradled between them, reflecting the exciting developments in synthetic fibres that the new building represented.

While she was working on that sculpture, Cunliffe was commissioned by the then Guild of Television Producers to design the BAFTA award, which was presented for the first time in October 1955. Man-Made Fibres was unveiled by the Princess Royal – then Chancellor of the University – in June the following year.

The exhibition considers Cunliffe’s career in public art and as a designer of ceramics and textiles in the 1950s, when she created the famous BAFTA trophy.

“The exhibition concentrates on Mitzi Cunliffe’s major public art commissions,” says Professor Ann Sumner, the University’s Head of Cultural Engagemen, who curated the exhibition. “This includes her little-known contribution to the Festival of Britain, which launched her career in this country, as well as commissions for other Universities such as Liverpool, for schools in Manchester, her frieze for the Heaton Park Pumping Station, also in Manchester, and the remarkable War of the Roses screen in Lewis’s department store in Liverpool.”

The Leeds exhibition will focus on the Man-Made Fibres sculpture, culminating in the 60th anniversary of the building on which it sits, on June 29.

Items on display – some for the first time – will include Cunliffe’s original maquettes (preliminary models), photographs, letters, drawings, textiles, ceramics and exhibition catalogues.

Arthritis and eye problems led Cunliffe to switch to teaching and writing from the early 1970s. She later retired to Oxfordshire where she died aged 88 in 2006.

As part of the year’s events to celebrate Cunliffe’s association with the University, Man-Made Fibres is being conserved, and new public art will be commissioned in response to it.

The exhibition forms part of the University of Leeds Public Art Project and will be accompanied by a series of events and talks, as part of The Yorkshire Year of the Textile celebrations.

Sculptor behind the Mask: Mitzi Cunliffe’s work of the 1950s, Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery to July 2. Monday 1pm- 5pm and Tuesday-Saturday 10am -5pm. Admission is free.