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26th February 2010
Raymond Mason was one of only a handful of Birmingham-born artists to enjoy an international reputation. Although best known in his native city for a sculpture which was controversial and ultimately ill-fated.
Based in Paris for more than 60 years, he was a well known figure in his adopted city, with sculptures in the collection of the Musee d'Art Moderne and in several public locations including the Tuileries gardens.
In later years he also enjoyed success on the other side of the Atlantic, with public sculptures installed in Montreal, New York and Washington. Yet he was practically unknown in Britain until his work was discovered in the 1980s, initially through a television documentary and an exhibition in London. A reconnection with Birmingham came about when he was given a highly successful retrospective at the Museum & Art Gallery in 1989 as part of the celebrations of the city's centenary.
The museum subsequently acquired a major work, A Tragedy in the North (1977), while the civic sculpture Forward was commissioned as the centrepiece of Centenary Square, opened in 1991.
Mason was born in 1922 and grew up in Wheeleys Lane on what he later described as "the poor edge of stately Edgbaston". His Scottish father was a taxi driver while his mother, who came from a family of publicans, continued to urge him to return to run a pub in Birmingham even after he was established as an artist in Paris.
After attending George Dixon School he became a student at the Birmingham School of Art just before the outbreak of the Second World War, resuming his studies when he was invalided out of the Navy in 1942 and moving on to the Slade School of Fine Art in London. Mason arrived in Paris in 1946, just as the city was losing its long unchallenged status as the western world's leading art centre to New York.
But it was still home to many renowned artists including Giacometti, Duchamp, Cocteau and Picasso (who praised Mason's 1953 relief, Barcelona Tram). Mason's reminiscences of these and other figures in the Paris art scene were published under the title At Work in Paris in 2003.
Although a French artist by adoption – he calculated that there was one 21-year period when he spent no more than 48 hours in England – Mason accepted Picasso's description of him as "an English artist", placing himself in the narrative tradition of Hogarth.
He remarked that in later life he had come to realise how many of the paintings he most admired were in the collection of Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, among which he singled out in particular Ford Madox Brown's The Last of England – another classic of English narrative art.
Raymond Mason was awarded the title Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres by the French state in 1978 and an OBE for services to sculpture and Anglo-French relations in 2002.
Raymond Grieg Mason (March 2, 1922, in Birmingham, England – February 13, 2010 in Paris, France).
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