Reg Butler studied architecture and later became an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. A Conscientious Objector during the war, he ran an engineering workshop, repairing and making tools and spare parts for agricultural machinery.
In the spring of 1948 he worked as an assistant to his neighbour Henry Moore and later that same year began to make his own metal sculpture. In 1949, Butler held the first of five solo exhibitions at the Hanover Gallery, London and his work was included at the Venice Biennale in 1952. The following year Butler won first prize in the prestigious international competition for the monument to an ‘Unknown Political Prisoner’. The original model was destroyed by a Hungarian refugee whilst on diplay at the Tate in 1953 and unfortunately was never realised at its full envisaged height of 18m.
Technically skilled, Butler devised his own bronze shell casting method and realised many of his own bronzes, often with the help of his wife Rosemary, at his studio in Hertfordshire.
Throughout his life, Butler’s main preoccupation and the focus of his work was the figure which later became exclusively female. His sculptures often incorporate metal frameworks or cages which hold the figure in space, contrasting with the soft vulnerability of the modelling. Many are doll-like or have a fetishistic quality and Butler himself saw his female nudes as being in the same tradition as the Venuses of Willendorf and Lespugue:
The earlier iron women were forged; that is to say hot-shaped on the anvil, shaped not so differently from the way I had formerly worked wood. This gave me images, if not an actual literal nakedness, at least a bareness and austerity: more so than in the case of the later ones which, although partly forged, were extensively welded, made up of minute particles of metal deposited electrically or by oxyacetylene. Somehow vestiges of clothes seemed to occur; I remember referring to the process rather facetiously as ‘knitting with steel’.
Butler’s work is found in most major public collections worldwide and Tate held a memorial exhibition of his work three years after his death in 1984.