THE sculptor Sir Eduardo Paolozzi was a son of Edinburgh, born in 1924 to an Italian confectioner and his wife, Alfonso and Carmela. The couple migrated to Scotland in the early 20th century and after their marriage set up a sweet shop off Leith Walk, with the family living in the flat above.

The years before the Second World War were worrying ones for the Italian community in the UK.

It was Eduardo’s last year at school in 1939 and his father, fearing the worst for Europe, tried but failed to get him a secure job in an engineering works. When Italy declared war on the UK in 1940 the family shop was one of several smashed and looted.

The young Paolozzi, his father, grandfather and other male kin were interned in Saughton jail. His father and grandfather died with 800 Italians and Germans when the ship transporting them to Canada was sunk by a U-boat.

After his release, Paolozzi took casual jobs. It was a hard time but in 1941 he joined an evening class at Edinburgh College of Art, a craft-based course that included “designs for all commercial purposes with special reference to the processes of reproduction”.

That meant not pornography but artistic skills that could be to make a living from private and public decoration.

Paolozzi showed he needed not so much instruction as the inspiration of his burgeoning talent. The problem of his presumed enemy nationality dropped away once Italy surrendered to the Allies.

He was then able to sign on at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, but within a year he knew he “wanted to make things”. In 1945 he switched to the Slade School of Fine Art in London to study sculpture.

He embraced an abstract aesthetic, above all European modernism, especially the art of Pablo Picasso and the surrealists. It was Paolozzi’s teachers who tried to set his artistic limits, including the Slade sculpture master, AH Gerrard.

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The teacher and the student clashed.

Paolozzi’s first successes led him to abandon the Slade. In June 1946 he left for Paris.

He befriended the French painters Georges Braque, Jean Dubuffet, Jean Helion and Fernand Leger; the Alsatian sculptor, Jean Arp; the French-Romanian poet and painter Tristan Tzara; and the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi. The Parisian figure who impressed him most was Alberto Giacometti, the Swiss sculptor.

Returning in 1952 to London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, Paolozzi gave a lecture illustrated with his own collages, with magazine advertisements and images from the cinema and science fiction but provided little or no commentary.

Their sources were almost entirely American. The collection was overlooked till 1972, when the items were published as facsimile prints. Paolozzi was winning recognition as a formative influence on pop art.

In 1959 he said he was interested, “above all, in investigating the golden ability of the artist to achieve a metamorphosis of quite ordinary things into something wonderful and extraordinary that is neither nonsensical nor morally edifying”.

In 1960 he met the wealthy heiress Gabrielle Keiller who acquired a large collection of his work. Some of it is now in the Dean Gallery, Edinburgh, together with examples of her wider interests in Dada and surrealist art, which Paolozzi helped to form.

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So free of nationalism was his outlook that he readily took the mood of post-war German industry as the inspiration for his machine-age sculptures. With the collages he made in Hamburg in 1962 for the film The History of Nothing, he poetically evoked the city’s pre-war past.

In 1964-5 he made As Is When, a set of 10 screen prints based on the life and thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Paolozzi identified with the philosopher’s love of low culture and his unhappy experience of living in a foreign land.

Yet in 1972 Paolozzi was commissioned by Scottish architect and diplomat Michael Spens to design tapestries and ceiling panels (now in the Dean Gallery) for a residence at Cleish Castle near Kinross.

It led to a commission from Glasgow University for aluminium doors at the new Hunterian Art Gallery, installed in 1980.

Paolozzi gave to St Andrews University part of his personal collection of popular culture, The Krazy Kat Arkive.

By the mid-1980s Paolozzi’s fragmented imagery began to reflect the ecological and global issues that were of increasing concern to him. In 1984 he mounted a large exhibition, Recurring Themes, at the Edinburgh Festival.

The National: Sir Eduardo PaolozziSir Eduardo Paolozzi (Image: SMN archive)

Paolozzi was appointed Her Majesty’s sculptor in ordinary for Scotland in 1986. In 1991 The Manuscript of Monte Cassino, a large three-part bronze sculpture to commemorate the Italian community in Scotland, was placed outside St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh.

In 1993, the Queen unveiled Paolozzi’s The Wealth of Nations, sited at an odd cul-de-sac in front of the Royal Bank of Scotland in Redheughs Avenue, Edinburgh.

He gave a large collection of his work to the National Galleries of Scotland, for exhibition in the Dean Gallery after it opened in 1999. Included in the permanent displays are his Vulcan, a 27-foot tall stainless steel figure, and a reconstruction of his studio.

Though by now in poor health, he made an effort to visit Edinburgh in 2002 for the inauguration of his three stained-glass Millennium Windows in St Mary’s Cathedral, and again in 2004 for a party in honour of his 80th birthday. By the time of his death in 2005, Paolozzi had come home to Scotland.

From his teenage experience of that still in part-alien country, Paolozzi had come to understand the dynamism of popular culture as innately superior to much fine art. It was a belief he continued to uphold inside the salons of the British establishment.

There was a paradox of his own humble beginnings and his later social and professional life, but he thought it could be resolved.

It gave him also an equivocal attitude to the intensely capitalised commodity known as pop art. Even as one of its founding fathers, he felt uneasy about it: “I don’t want to go down in history as a pop artist. I would much rather go down, perhaps [as] an observer about something that, I would have thought, had much deeper European roots”.