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Giant tortoises “found” on campus

Nicholas Skeaping with one of the tortoises made by his father, John Skeaping RA

Tortoises at the Isle of Thorns in 1950 (Copyright The Francis Frith Collection –

John Skeaping and stone masons with one of the tortoises commissioned for a children's camp in East Sussex. The tortoise, along with its twin, is now on the University of Sussex campus outside Arts A.

John Skeaping with his granite Torso, 1951

After decades of believing two substantial works of art by his father were lost, Nicholas Skeaping has finally met them at the University of Sussex.

A pair of giant tortoises carved from granite have guarded the pond outside Arts A since 2005. They were brought to campus from a conference and activities centre once owned by the University, but at the time their provenance was unknown.

It was only through a chance sighting of a letter to the Daily Telegraph from Nicholas Skeaping, in which he mentioned that tortoises made by his father John Skeaping RA were “now sadly lost somewhere in the Ashdown Forest”, that Sussex staff were able to identify the pieces and contact him.

This year for the first time, Nicholas was united with the works carved in 1938 by his father, a prize-winning sculptor who was a contemporary of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth (who was his first wife).

"I feared they had become landfill"

“They are everything I expected them to be,” said Nicholas. “I’d been looking for them since the 1990s, but details had been lost and dates were incorrect, and I feared they had become landfill.”

John Skeaping (1901-1980) was originally commissioned to make the two-and-a-half tonne tortoises for a children’s adventure camp, known as the Isle of Thorns, on the edge of the Ashdown Forest near the Kent/Sussex border.

The area of some four hundred acres had been given to the Manor Charitable Trusts, which later became known as the National Holiday Camp Association.

The camp, designed by architect Louis Osman, included a large paddling pool. The tortoises were located next to the pool, with the intention that children should be able to climb and play on them.

The University acquired the sculptures after buying the freehold of the property, by then a training course and conference centre, in 1992.

Although the property was sold in 2002, the tortoises were not part of the sale. Instead they were brought to campus as a memento of the University’s connection with the Isle of Thorns, and in recognition that, whatever their provenance, they should be preserved.

Nicholas, who lives in Devon, has spent nearly 30 years tracking down various piece of his father’s body of work and encouraging a celebration of it.


“My father wasn’t interested in posterity,” he said. “He is probably wondering why I am bothering. When he was alive, he never wanted to talk about his art.  He did each piece with a passion, but then he just wanted to move on.

“It’s only since his death that I have realised his importance.  I think he deserves better recognition.”

Born in an unconventional family in Essex (his father was a painter, his mother a musician) John Skeaping showed an early aptitude for art and enrolled in the Blackheath School of Art at thirteen.

He went on to Goldsmiths College in 1915, the Central School of Arts and Crafts in 1917, and joined The Royal Academy School for Sculpture in 1919, where he won the 1920 Gold Medal and the Travelling Scholarship. This he took in Italy, returning to exhibit at the RA in 1922.  He won the Prix de Rome in 1924 and, shortly after, married Barbara Hepworth in Florence. 

Although Skeaping and Hepworth exhibited together, their marriage was over by 1931.  Skeaping married Nicholas’s mother, a dancer called Morwenna. Nicholas was born in 1947, while his father continued to work, travel and teach at the Royal College of Art.

The tortoises, as Nicholas has discovered, were carved from stone from Blackingstone Quarry in Moretonhampstead, Devon. “My father remembered the works he carved in granite over and above those in other stones because of the sheer hard work that went into creating them in an age before modern power tools.”

Skeaping wrote about the tortoises in his 1977 autobiography, Drawn from Life.  He had bought two pet tortoises to study their form, and listed the equipment he would need to work with granite as “two three-pound steel hammers, a dozen steel punches and a pair of granite axes, one coarse, one fine”.

He wrote: “Eventually I got the tortoises finished.  I was justly proud of the accomplishment.  Although they would never be on public display, I had satisfied myself that I could carve granite, something no other living sculptor could do.”

Commissioned for children to climb on

The letter that Nicholas wrote to the Daily Telegraph in 2014 was in response to an article about how children should be encouraged to interact with art in museums. “My father was commissioned to carve works that he actively encouraged children to climb on.

“Whilst now we frown upon touching let alone climbing on works of art, I believe the tortoises were commissioned precisely for that purpose.”

At their new home at Sussex, however, Nicholas feels that the tortoises deserve, and are receiving, more careful treatment. “They are in fine fettle, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to let people climb on them. The granite will scratch and weather, and lichen will grow on it if it’s not washed every now and again.

“However, I’m sure my father would be very pleased to see them in a place full of young people, having been a champion of youth all his life.”

By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Thursday, 1 November 2018