Reg Butler 1913 - 1981


Reg Butler

Anthony Kloman

Private Collection. USA


London, New Burlington Galleries, International Sculpture Competition: The Unknown Political Prisoner, British Preliminary Competition, January 1953, this cast
London, Tate Gallery, International Sculpture Competition: The Unknown Political Prisoner, Institute of Contemporary Arts, March–April 1953, this cast
Venice, The British Pavilion, The British Pavilion: exhibition of works by Nicholson, Bacon, Freud, Venice Biennale XXVII, 1954
New York, Curt Valentin Gallery, Reg Butler, 11 January–5 February 1955, cat no.13, illus b/w, another cast
Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, 50 Ans d’Art Moderne, April–July 1958, cat no.43, p215, another cast
Louisville, J.B. Speed Art Museum, Reg Butler: A Retrospective Exhibition, October–December 1963, cat no.45, Working Model for Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner, 1955 exhibited
London, Tate Gallery, Reg Butler,16 November 1983–15 January 1984, cat no.42, illus b/w, another cast


Jorge Romero Brest, Le Monument au Prisonnier Politique Inconnu Art Aujourd’hui, No.5, July 1953, pp6–11, this cast
Alfred H. Barr Jr, Masters of Modern Art, New York, Doubleday Publishers, 1954, p159
Patrick Heron, The Changing Forms of Art, The Noonday Press, New York, 1955, pp227–9
Hans Egon Holthusen, Gutachten der Akademie der Kunste zum Entwurf eines Denkmals des unbekannten politischen Gefangen, Berlin, 1956

Reg Butler, Zum Entwurf das Denkmal des Unbekannten Politischen Gefangenen, Das Kunstwerk, Heft 2/xi, August 1957, pp34–5
Peter Selz, New Images of Man, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1959, pp41–4, illus b/w, p42
Robert Melville, In Connection with the Sculpture of Reg Butler, Motif 6, Spring 1961, p31 ppl12–13, Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner photomontage, 1953, illus b/w
A.M. Hammacher, Modern English Sculpture, Thames and Hudson, London, 1967, pp32–4, cat no.108, illus b/w, this cast
Robert Goldwater, What is Modern Sculpture? Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1969, p127
Herbert Read, Modern Sculpture A Concise History, Thames and Hudson, London, 1984, cat no.215, illus b/w, this cast
Penelope Curtis, Modern British Sculpture from the Collection, Tate Gallery, Liverpool, p73, another cast
Richard Calvocoressi, Public Sculpture in the 1950s, British Sculpture in the Twentieth Century, Whitechapel exhibition
catalogue, pp134–153, Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner photomontage, 1953 illus
Robert Burstow, Butler’s Competition Project for a Monument to The Unknown Political Prisoner abstraction and Cold War politics, Art History,Vol.12, No.4, December 1989, pp472–96, cat no.32,33, another cast
Robert Burstow, The Geometry of Fear, Herbert Read and British Modern Sculpture after the Second World War, Herbert Read, A British Vision of World Art, ed. Benedict Read and David Thistlewood, Leeds City Art Galleries in association with The Henry Moore Foundation and Lund Humphries, London, 1993, pp121, cat no.137, p123, illus b/w, another cast
Robert Burstow, The Limits of Modernist Art as a ‘Weapon of the Cold War’: Reassessing the Unknown Patron of the Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner, Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 20, No.1, 1997, pp68–60
Axel Lapp, The Freedom of Sculpture: The Sculpture of Freedom, the International Competition for a Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner, London 1951–3, Sculpture Journal, Vol.2, 1998, pp113–22
Margaret Garlake, The Sculpture of Reg Butler, The Henry Moore Foundation in association with Lund Humphries, Hertfordshire, 2006, cat no.115, fig 80, illus b/w


'…generally speaking it (Final Maquette for the Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner) has been thought of as five bobs worth of wire quite devoid of any relationship to human beings or human problems. As I see it, it is anything but that- it is a tower you see, a tower standing on a rock against the open sky and on this rock stand three figures gazing up at the heights of the tower and remembering the political prisoners that died in the concentration camps.

People often say that it is inhuman, there is an inhuman element in it emphasised, I think, by the tower but the really human part of it is the three women that stand and gaze in their position on the rock. It is a kind of stage set, high up and overlooking the world around and now at last this model is going become a reality and it will stand like this on its rock overlooking the East/West front in Berlin, I am very excited.'

Transcribed from, Reg Butler, British Sculptors Collection, BBC, 21 September, 1958

In 1951 the ICA, London, announced the launch of the sculpture competition 'Monument to an Unknown Political Prisoner' which was conceived in the United States and funded and organised by an independent body headed by Anthony Kloman, the former US Cultural Attache in Stockholm. (This competition later turned out to be financed by the U.S. State Department via the "benefactor" John (Jock) Whitney as a front).

The aim of this international competition was to find a work that would commemorate 'all those men and women who in our times have given their lives or their liberty to the cause of human freedom.' The intention was that the winning entry would be installed on 'some site of international importance,' which was later decided to be the East/West wall in West Berlin. The competition was highly publicised, attracting around 3,500 entries from fifty-seven countries and of the major world nations only the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites declined to participate.

Final Maquette for the Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner, is Butler's entry to this competition which, after being judged at the Preliminary National Competition, went onto win the whole International competition following the decision of a ten-man jury, manned by, amongst others, Alfred Barr Jnr and Herbert Read.

The decision to name this sculpture as the winning entry was a controversial one, with the British press and art critics criticising the sculpture as lacking in the popular appeal necessary for a monument and for being too 'abstract.' Nowhere is this opinion more clearly expressed that in the actions of a Hungarian artist Lazlo Szilvassy, who visited the exhibition at the Tate Gallery a day after it opened on 15th March 1953 and severely damaged the maquette. Szilvassy outlined his attack with the accompanying statement,'

'Those unknown political prisoners have been and still are human beings. To reduce them- the memory of the dead and suffering of the living- into scrap metal is just as much a crime as it was to reduce them into ashes or scrap. It is an absolute lack of humanism.'

This maquette was subsequently removed and replaced by the first of two replicas made by the artist. (These are now in MoMA's permanent collection and on loan to the Tate Gallery, London, respectively. In 1956, Butler went on to produce a larger Working Model for the Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner, now in the Tate Gallery's permanent collection.)

Considering the controversy surrounding this work, Butler was keen to explain its importance and to emphasis that this maquette was a study for a much larger and more monumental piece (he hoped that the final work would reach between 300-400 ft), a vision that he illustrated in his photomontage, Working Model for the Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner, 1956.

During the competition Butler provided a written commentary for the public which countered attacks of abstraction and imbued the work with symbolic relevance- the rock base was to provide a 'natural' setting for the three women who stand staring up at a large tower. These women 'as watchers' were intended to embody the concept of remembrance and set the dramatic context of the work, 'All three figures are intended both to establish and resolve the situation, and by their reference to human scale to develop in the living spectator a sense of participation.' The steel tower itself was intended to provide a simple and universal symbol of tyranny and persecution- with references to cages, the cross and watch towers amongst others. Butler opposed the criticism that the work reduced the 'prisoner' or human element by arguing that the implication of the prisoner can be found in the mind of the watchers, and that he (the prisoner) must be implied and not stated,

'As with his physical characteristics the nature of his sacrifice must be universally applicable.'

The large scale monument for this maquette was never actually realised, with Cold War politics essentially putting an end to the idea of a public monument in West Berlin but, had it been erected "'Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner' would have been the most significant work of public art made in western Europe after the war." The importance of this work as the original maquette, 'the only truly public thing' that Butler ever conceived, is paramount not only within the artist's career but as subject of debate within the political, historical and cultural discourse of post-War Europe.