We are delighted to be offering in our Antiques & Collectors auction on 3rd November, the contents of home and studio of the Leicester artist, Mary Milner Dickens. Although not as high profile as some of her male contemporaries, her talent as an artist and sculptor certainly matched them. That being said, it is true to say that her work has passed through the hands of nearly all British adults in the 1990s and early 2000s as she won success, if not mainstream notoriety, as a numismatic artist for the Royal Mint. She and her husband created a truly artistic home, full of light and space, and showcasing her works to her dearest friends and family.
Born in Loughborough, 1932, Mary Milner began her art education at the Leicester College of Art, studying under Albert Pountney. After four years studying in Leicester, she obtained a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, London. Here she was exposed to the work and guidance of sculptors and artists such as John Skeaping, whose influence you can see in her sketches from the time, as well as later sculptural work. Whilst obtaining her A.R.C.A in 1956, she was awarded the Royal Society of British Sculptors Countess Feodora Gleichen prize for best female sculptor graduating that year. During this time, in two subsequent years (1955-56) she won first prize in the national competition to design the Topham Trophy – the first woman recipient in its history.
Her artistic opportunities continued being awarded the Rome Scholarship for Sculpture in 1957, and here she studied for the next two years at the British School in Rome, being awarded the prestigious Prix de Rome - following in the footsteps of her fellow Leicestershire sculptors Pountney and Ken Ford. Her Prix de Rome winning sculpture, offered here as lot 351, was modelled on her husband, David Dickens. Following their years in Italy, further opportunities unfolded when she won the prestigious Fulbright scholarship from Cornell University, New York, where she completed her Masters in Fine Arts in 1961. She returned to England, firstly in Oxford, before relocating back to Leicester in 1964 where she settled with David and her young family in their Stoneygate home where she lived for the rest of her life.
A studio was added to the house for Mary to continue her artistic work, creating many pictures, drawings, and ultimately sculpture, experimenting with a vast range of materials including marble, terracotta, acrylic, Perspex, wood, plaster, and so on. She exhibited locally throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
It was towards the end of her career that she perhaps found her most success as a sculptor and designer of medals and coins as a Royal Mint artist. Her first design that was commissioned was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, which she won via a public competition with her design featuring a Spitfire, Hurricane, and Messerschmitt on the obverse, and vapour trails on the reverse. Then followed a number of successful designs for the Royal Mint, used for 50p pieces, medals, and a £5 coin into the early 2000s. In 1997, her entry of designs for the new Euro coinage won great public acclaim, however, she missed out to a Belgian artist, but held high praise in second place.
Throughout the many drawings, sketches, and sculptures in various mediums offered here, it is clear Mary Milner Dickens had exceptional talent as artist and sculptor. It is perhaps a story of many female artists who find themselves at a junction in life – family life or artist. In her own words, Mary said this of the conflict she faced:
‘To survive as a sculptor requires unerring devotion, tenacity, talent, utter conviction, space, and above all time. If one tries to add these to the responsibilities of bringing up a family, and running a home without any domestic help, the situation would seem well-nigh impossible. As a sculptor finding myself in this situation I would add that it is’… ‘I have within me this internal war between family, and what I know I must do, and my art, which I must do or sink into eternal lethargy, or limbo. The family must always take precedence. Can one reconcile with the latter? When the simple truth is that each requires unerring devoting of time and energy – oneself.’
The auction catalogue is online, with the Artist's works and studio lots 306 - 397.