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Last, Frank Clifford (1918–1991)

by Geoffrey Edwards

This article was published online in 2020

Clifford Last, by Mark Strizic, 1966

Clifford Last, by Mark Strizic, 1966

National Gallery of Victoria, 81487

Frank Clifford Last (1918–1991), sculptor, was born on 13 December 1918 at Pooks Green, Hampshire, England, younger son of English-born parents William Last, cabinetmaker, and his wife Nellie (Nella), née Lord. Shortly after his birth, the family returned to Barrow-in-Furness on the Lancashire coast, where Clifford’s paternal grandfather and a maternal great-uncle had worked as wood craftsmen. His mother was later acclaimed for her diary written for Britain’s Mass Observation Archive, parts of which were published as Nella Last’s War: A Mother's Diary, 1939–45 (1981). By his own account a mediocre student at Barrow Grammar School, Clifford quit formal schooling aged sixteen, preferring instead an apprenticeship in his father’s shop-fitting workshop. Over a period of four years he learnt basic woodworking skills and gained the particular affinity with wood as a responsive and tactile material that underpinned the deftly carved and assembled sculpture for which he became best known.

In 1939 Last was called up for six months military training. With the outbreak of World War II in September, he went on to serve in North Africa as a private in the Cheshire Regiment. He completed officer training in Palestine and was commissioned as a lieutenant in 1944. Seriously wounded by an exploding German grenade while serving in Italy, he was hospitalised for several months and part of his right hand was amputated. He was mentioned in dispatches for his role in this action, and eventually returned to duty as adjutant to the Glider Pilot Regiment for the remainder of the war.

Demobilised in 1946, Last enrolled in evening classes at the Hammersmith School of Wood Sculpture, London, working by day as assistant to an interior decorator. A regular visitor to exhibitions of modern sculpture, he sought out work by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, pioneers of a new direction in sculpture defined by concise, abstracted, and mostly biomorphic forms. He was awarded a scholarship to the City and Guilds of London Art School, and studied there before a growing disaffection with life in England prompted his migration to Australia.

Arriving in Melbourne in January 1947, Last moved briefly to Sydney and attended classes at the East Sydney Technical College under Lyndon Dadswell. Back in Melbourne later the same year, he established a studio and home in the hayloft of a coach house behind an old mansion in St Kilda Road. Under the auspices of the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme, he enrolled in further study at the (Royal) Melbourne Technical College, where his instructors were the figurative sculptors George Allen and Stanley Hammond. He held his first solo exhibition in October 1948 at Georges Gallery in Collins Street, showing small-scale wood and stone carvings influenced by the work of Hepworth and Moore. Further solo exhibitions were held in 1949 at John Martin’s Gallery, Adelaide, and again at Georges Gallery in 1950.

In 1951 Last secured a passage to Europe as a crew member aboard a Scandinavian freighter, touring England, France, and Spain, before returning to Melbourne in May 1952. This travel afforded him an opportunity to see recent work by a younger generation of British sculptors, including Robert Adams, whose predominantly geometric abstractions offered a clear alternative to the organic romanticism of Moore and Hepworth. His subsequent sculpture reflected this latest influence, as seen in the works he showed in 1953 in a Melbourne exhibition by the newly formed Group of Four that included, in addition to Last, the sculptors Julius Kane, Inge King, and Norma Redpath.

The 1950s was a period of artistic self-doubt and disillusion for Last, when he also struggled to establish close human and family relationships. In his sculpture he focused accordingly on variations on the theme of family groups and solitary standing figures, attenuated in form and creating interlinked flowing compositions. To supplement his income, he was a lecturer (1955–62) at Mercer House Teacher Training College. He moved to a cottage in Osborne Street, South Yarra, in 1957, later acquiring a neighbouring property that enabled him to extend his studio and living quarters. His house, studio, and a tiny garden were noted for their meticulous neatness and austere elegance. He was naturalised in 1960. After a failed affair the next year, he began to practise meditation and vegetarianism, also attempting celibacy.

In 1961 the Group of Four expanded its membership to include Lenton Parr, Vincas Jomantas, and Teisutis Zikaras. Adopting a five-point plan, they became known as the Centre Five group of sculptors. In this company, Last exhibited on several occasions, participating also in the group’s program of fostering a wider public appreciation of abstract works as well as advocating for architectural commissions for contemporary sculptors. His wood carvings and occasional bronze castings became increasingly fluid and open in structure. While certain works continued to evoke figurative subjects, others were of a more generalised organic character, resembling leaves, bones, and sinewy structure. Mostly vertical in nature, they possess a formal even hieratic presence.

Represented in the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV)’s 1964 exhibition Recent Australian Sculpture, which toured State galleries, Last also won the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery’s Crouch prize for contemporary art in 1965. He was awarded a British Council travel grant in 1967, meeting the Scottish sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi. His influence encouraged Last’s increasingly geometric sculpture created by modifying and assembling a trove of old wooden patterns for machine parts salvaged from a foundry. He was awarded a number of public and corporate commissions throughout the 1960s. Christ in Majesty (1962) in carved pine, at Christ Church, Mitcham, represented a major achievement.

Last had been a council member (1952–66) of the Victorian Sculptors’ Society but resigned in 1967 over differences in style and approach, together with other members of the Centre Five group. He was a member of the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board (1970–73) and from 1973 the acquisitions committee of the Australian National Gallery. He was appointed OBE in 1976. In 1989 the NGV mounted a full-scale retrospective exhibition of his sculpture that also included a new series of bronzes cast from the foundry patterns. The titles of many of his later sculptures testify to his interest in Eastern religions and philosophies, beliefs that sustained him spiritually until his death. Even in his final years, he was ever the cravat-wearing, quietly spoken, urbane presence at gallery openings and other social occasions. He died of lymphoma on 20 October 1991 at Prahran and was cremated.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Dimmack, Max. Clifford Last. Melbourne: Hawthorn Press, 1972
  • Eckett, Jane. ‘Centre Five Sculptors: The Formation of an Alternative Professional Avant-garde.’ PhD thesis, University of Melbourne, 2016
  • Edwards, Geoffrey. Clifford Last Sculpture: A Retrospective Exhibition. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1989
  • Last, Clifford. Interview by Hazel de Berg, 3 December 1965. National Library of Australia
  • Last, Clifford. Interview by Barbara Blackman, 19 July 1988. National Library of Australia
  • Last, Clifford. Interview by James Gleeson, 27 November 1979. National Gallery of Australia

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Geoffrey Edwards, 'Last, Frank Clifford (1918–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/last-frank-clifford-29639/text36604, published online 2020, accessed online 29 November 2020.

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