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Mitzi Cunliffe and the BAFTA Mask

The iconic BAFTA mask was designed in 1955 by US sculptor Mitzi Cunliffe and has become an internationally-recognised symbol of excellence in the art forms of the moving image.

Estate of the Artist/The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery/University of Leeds Art Collection

Born in New York, Mitzi Cunliffe read Fine Arts and Fine Arts Education at Columbia, later working in the studio of a sculptor in Paris, though it was an artistic experience elsewhere in France which set the true course of her career.

Seeing the West front of the cathedral in Chartres for the first time, Cunliffe recalled, was "Love at first sight. I knew then that was the kind of work in which I wanted to be involved." 

Mitzi lived in England from 1949 to 1976 and much of her work was carved or modelled in a small garage at her home in Didsbury, Manchester. 

From the direct carving of stone reliefs in sections for works on public buildings, she later developed methods for producing modular sculpture cast in various materials, including concrete and aluminium, for interiors and exteriors.

In 1955, a trophy mask was commissioned by Andrew Miller-Jones of the [then] Guild of Television Producers. Cunliffe originally modelled the mask in Plasticine, from which the casting moulds were made, and though based on the traditional concept of the theatrical tragicomic mask, it is more complex than its immediate front facial appearance suggests. The hollow reverse of the mask bears an electronic symbol around one eye and a screen symbol around the other, linking dramatic production and television technology, and the full intention of Mitzi's original design included a revolving support to allow the mask to be turned and viewed easily from either side.

Event: Mitzi Cunliffe Special Award PresentationDate: Winter 1992BAFTA

The mask is more complex than its immediate front facial appearance suggests...

The Guild of Television Producers and Directors merged with the British Film Academy in 1958 to become the Society of Film and Television Arts. The SFTA later became the British Academy of Film and Television Arts in 1976. At the royal opening of its new premises the first BAFTA mask, cast in bronze, was presented to Sir Charles Chaplin who was honoured as an Academy Fellow by the Academy's President HRH Princess Anne. Cunliffe's distinct design is now a symbol recognised worldwide.

Mitzi Cunliffe passed away on 30 December 2006 in Oxford, England.

BAFTA has supported research at Manchester Metropolitan University for the publication of a new book by leading art historian, Professor Ann Sumner. Mitzi Cunliffe: an American in Manchester tells the story of the BAFTA mask design and commission within the context of Mitzi’s extraordinary life and career during her most prolific years. Copies can be purchased directly from The Modernist.

More on Mitzi Cunliffe's life and work
Mitzi Cunliffe on Wikipedia
Obituary, 18 Jan 2007, The Independent
Obituary, 12 Feb 2007, The Guardian