Phyllida Barlow, British sculptor, dies aged 78

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Dame Phyllida Barlow, described by the Guardian as “one of the art world’s most famous late starters”, has died aged 78.

The artist was best known for her large-scale sculptures and installations, often made from simple materials such as cardboard, plywood, or polystyrene. In 2017 she represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale.

Related: Obituary for Dame Phyllida Barlow

Her biography was almost as remarkable as her works of art. Barlow only gained international fame as a sculptor after retiring in 2009 after four decades of teaching art. Her career spanned 20 years as a professor at the Slade School of Fine Art, where her students included Rachel Whiteread, Tacita Dean and Monster Chetwynd.

Although she had created her own art throughout her teaching career, Barlow’s first major public gallery exhibition was not at the Serpentine until the following year. This was followed by presentations at the New Museum in New York and the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, and in 2014 she was commissioned to design the site-specific exhibition ‘dock’ for Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries. Barlow became a Royal Academician in 2011 and was made a Dame in 2021.

In 2017, Barlow said of her late recognition, “To be blunt, I think the timing was perfect for me. I’m ready for it and the work is ready for it. It is ready to fulfill any possible ambition I wish for the work. Not for myself – I don’t particularly care about myself – but I’m interested in what the work can make a difference… I can now be sure things can go wrong, but they can also be recovered.”

Born in Newcastle in 1944, Barlow was the daughter of Erasmus Darwin Barlow, a psychiatrist who was a great-grandson of Charles Darwin, and Brigit Ursula Hope Black, a writer. The family moved to Richmond, west London, after the war, and their childhood experiences of bomb damage were to inspire much of their lifelong work.

“I have many references about damage, recovery and regeneration,” she said. “A kind of cycle of decay and regeneration. That fascinates me because that’s what my generation witnessed, seeing London in ruins and then seeing it emerge and then collapse again.”

In 1966, Barlow married another artist, Fabian Peake, son of writer and illustrator Mervyn Peake, creator of the Gormenghast books. They had five children.

She displays her medal after being made a Dame at an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace in 2016. Photo: John Stillwell/AFP/Getty Images

Barlow’s latest exhibition, entitled Hurly-Burly and in collaboration with Whiteread and Alison Wilding, opened at the Gagosian Paris in January. Before launching, Whiteread said: “Phyllida was a really, really inspiring teacher. She has taught hundreds and hundreds of students who just think she is the best.”

Iwan Wirth, the president of Barlow’s gallery Hauser & Wirth, described her as “a valued friend and a visionary artist”.

He said: “Her ideas, knowledge, experience and wry humor have always been shared with the most extraordinary cordiality. Her generosity of spirit extended through her art, her writings, and her many years of teaching and mentorship.

“Phyllida was a truly thoughtful and companionable person who was a guiding light and inspiration to so many. Her loss is deeply felt by all who knew and worked with her in the art community and beyond. Our thoughts are with Fabian and the wonderful family they have created together.”

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