Autumn update – the early stages of my new commission

I haven’t uploaded images of my ‘Mother and Daughter’ sculpture, nor my carvings over the summer.  But instead of catching up now I shall leap-frog on and post some photos of the early stages of my next commission – a pair of sculptures for the foyer of a hospice.

Under wraps

Here is tantalising glimpse of one of my maquettes…She’s wrapped in moist cloths as I am having to put her aside while I hold a Stone Carving Workshop in my studio this weekend. And below are samples of the red sandstones that I have been considering.

Sandstone samplesStone sourcing involves a lot of phone calls to quarries and stone suppliers to check the availability and quality of their stone. Quality and availability can change from month to month, depending on the geology of the patch of ground being quarried. A new seam of rock at the same quarry might yield stone  of a radically different appearance – bands of different colours and textures can criss-cross a block, a bed of shells might appear, or dark speckles scattered throughout what was previously pure and uniform.  Yet both stones are from the same quarry and are sold under the same name. So asking the stone supplier for a current sample is essential before deciding which stone to use for a new commission.

Having fallen in love with a particular shade of stone the next step is to find out whether that particular stone is quarried in blocks of sufficient size – sometimes a stone might only be available in shallow strips (whereas a few months previously it might have been available in large blocks).

I was very keen to use a warm-coloured stone, with interesting natural qualities, for my new project. I generally tend to avoid Portland (that star-of-availability, consistent texture and vast bed-height) because it can seem too cold and formal, (too ‘noli me tangere’ for my taste) – though for many reasons it is the perfect choice especially for large, outdoor commissions). I don’t like carving sandstone because the dust is bad for the lungs so one has to wear a dust-mask throughout, and the rough grit blunts tools in the bat of an eye. However, it comes in beautiful shades that just can’t be found in limestone.  I’ve plumped for a warm, rosy red which sparkles in the sunlight…

Watch this space…  :>)

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I was very moved by the New Rhythms exhibition at Kettle’s Yard (Gaudier-Brzeska and co)

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If you possibly can, make every effort to go to Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge this weekend to catch the  New Rhythms exhibition.  It shows the influence of dance and wrestling on artists in London immediately  prior to the First World War.

The Dancer 1913, cast 1965 Henri Gaudier-Brzeska 1891-1915 Presented by Sir Edward Beddington-Behrens 1965 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00762

Gaudier-Brzeska – The Dancer (1913)

The exhibition is brilliantly curated  –  even though I was familiar with the artwork on display I saw it in a dramatically new light. Well-known sculptures by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Jacob Epstein and Alexander Archipenko are shown alongside hastily scribbled sketches of movement and Futurist paintings by a number of their contemporaries.

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Gaudier-Brzeska’s Dancer, study (1914)

However it was the inclusion of a stunning film shot in 1912, ‘La Danse des Apaches’ that (I felt) brought the whole exhibition together.  At one point I put my hand to my chest, concerned because my heart was pounding so hard – it took me a moment to realise that I was just experiencing a rush of pure excitement.

images129315452858047051_58a103e8-2571-4b08-82ba-05839a69dda1_205123alexander-archipenko-dance-1912posthumous-cast-1967-artsy-1387735270_org
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lexander Archipenko’s The Dance (1912-13) needs to be seen in the round to be appreciated fully – the internal space between the figures is as interesting as the forms themselves, and changes with every new viewpoint. It’s worth going to the exhibition for this piece alone.

The grainy, black & white film showed Beatrice Collier and Fred Farren in a dance that was sometimes passionate and rhythmic like an impromptu Tango, and at other times what seemed to be a distressingly brutal fight. Apparently this form of dance was a craze that took Paris by storm in 1908, ‘inspired by the gang culture and sexualized liaisons of the Parisian underworld’.  It made the posturing of Punks such as Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen in the 1970’s look limp and half-hearted.

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The extraordinary dance footage gave a glimpse of the strange energy and sense of unrest in Europe prior to the First World War. It increased my appreciation of the angular forms on display, and also why many artists flocked to experience the drama of war on the front-line. When you look at the work on display it seems utterly inevitable.

See: http://www.kettlesyard.co.uk/events/new-rhythms-henri-gaudier-brzeska-art-dance-movement-london-1911-1915
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My friend Chris Seeley, and the making of her memorial.

Polar Bear in situ with flowers

Chris was an amazing woman whom I was privileged to know as a teenager and young adult. She was boundless in her energy and enthusiasm, and in her skills. From the start Chris always loved soft toys and made many of her own. I admired one that she had with her when we first met (I joined my mum – a teacher- and her pupils on a trip to Germany), and shortly after our return was given one of my own; a Snoopy, beautifully modeled and sewn, dressed in dungarees and a hand painted t-shirt. In the pocket of the dungarees Snoopy had his own hand-made passport. Marvelous craft skills for anyone, let alone a 14 year old.

I met up again with Chris when I went to do A’levels at the High School.   I felt a bit intimidated anyway, coming as I did from the local Secondary Modern.  Chris was the star of the school, a real all-rounder, who even the teachers spoke of with moist eyes and hushed tones. I felt shy and kept my distance, but our friendship was re-ignited on a school trip to Amsterdam. Chris’s boundless energy and voracious interest in all things made her a perfect traveling companion. At the end of the trip we were inseparable, laughing, laughing, laughing so hard on the bus home – In retrospect I wonder whether the teachers suspected us of smoking grass, but we were just heady with the joy of life.

Chris Seeley Amsterdam

Sunshine and laughter in Amsterdam. Chris kneels above me as I sit on the ground.

After Sixth Form we spent a year together on an Art Foundation course in High Wycombe, which was a great release from the constraints of school, and much fun. However Chris and I lost touch when she went to Bristol to study Graphics, and I to London for a Three-Dimensional Design degree.  The truth is, I took on the mantle of an 80’s feminist and didn’t approve of her boyfriend at the time.  He was a biker, who (I felt) treated her just like ‘a blonde on the back of his bike’. Now I think back on it, I realise that that was just what Chris wanted, or even needed, at that point. After years of people marveling at brain, she just wanted to live life for a while with the wind in her hair.

Chris got in touch with me again several years ago, having seen me carving on an episode of Time Team. It was great to see the woman that she had become. Her work was an intriguing blend of art and business,  using art to resolve problems in the workplace.  My reaction was to think ‘This sounds bloody mad….but knowing Chris, it’s brilliant’. And it was.

Our next encounter was much sadder and stranger; An unexpected email to say that she had a brain tumour and wanted to commission a memorial for herself.  It was a big shock, and a very curious experience. I have carved many memorials   (that’s my bread-and-butter) but never made one with and for a friend -still very much alive, and yet dying.

When I carve memorials I focus very much on the person; the person who is being commemorated,  and also the person who has commissioned the piece. There is much dialogue between the commissioner and myself so that the final artwork is the distillation of their memories, a simple statement of their love. On this occasion it was Chris who wished to leave a statement to those she left behind, and I think to have done so is a wonderful  and powerful gesture.

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Although we initially discussed installing the memorial in her local cemetery, Chris soon concluded that a conventional headstone would be ‘too Munster-like’ to suit her taste and character.  The conventional rectangle of stone wasn’t the parting gesture that she was after.  She considered her own cottage garden  (an increasingly popular choice which allows the memorial to be part of family life), but in the end chose a lovely site, a short distance from the home she shared with her husband; The Matara Center, a place of retreat and celebration in the grounds of an 18th century manor house, where Chris and Geoff had recently celebrated their own wedding.

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Chris had a lifelong passion for bears so it was obvious that a bear would feature somehow within the design. She sent me a photo of a small greenstone ornament of a polar bear, given to her by her husband. The small carving had great presence – striding forward, it looked like a strong, sassy mama-bear going purposefully about her business. It was such a great emblem for Chris that we decided to let this bear do the talking, and keep the rest of the memorial simple and uncluttered. On one side of the block of stone was written ‘CHRISTINE SEELEY – artist’, and on the other her dates, as in my layout below.

Sassy bear Dave Crowe's lettered backSassy bear front view with lettering scan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I suggested that my colleague Dave Crowe should undertake the lettering. As a graphic designer Chris had always admired the work of Eric Gill and Dave was apprenticed to Gill’s apprentice David Kindersley.  Christine loved this connection.

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In the end Dave Crowe carved the bear too – Chris wanted to see the memorial before she died and I, unable to put aside other commissions, asked Dave to push ahead. Having worked with him for many years I knew the memorial would be in expert hands, and he skilfully translated the design into stone. All that was left for me was to soften the edges of the base and to whittle some of the features.

Unfortunately we were too late and Chris died without seeing her memorial.  I am very happy that it is now in situ, ready for the ceremony that will be held later this month.  This will be a two day event attended by two hundred people who will celebrate Chris’s life with art, storytelling, music and dance (- and mayonnaise making).

Chris was, and always will be, an original and inspirational figure.

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To see the full glory:
Chris’s professional website: www.Wildmargins.com
The Matara Center: http://www.matara.co.uk

And read the story of breakage and resolution

Work in progress on my next commission: Mother and Daughter sculpture

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Here are some photos of the maquette I’m working on for my next commission –  a commemorative sculpture based on a photograph of a mother and daughter hugging.

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This model shows the work in progress.  As it’s in clay I have the chance to try out ideas and work out proportions before I cut into a block of stone. I still need to sort out the left arm, but as a whole the sculpture is more or less in place. The hair is smooth like a hood here but I’ll add texture to it in stone – it’s not helpful to try and show such intricate details at this stage because clay handles so differently to stone.  From experience I know that features like this resolve themselves in the carving, and that it’s important to leave some room to play – this stops the final sculpture from looking like a mere reproduction and gives it a life of it’s own.

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This maquette shows the top half of my sculpture. I’ll use a tall block of stone and leave the lower half uncarved so the square base will work as a plinth. Proportionally this will mirror the size of the carved area and accord with the natural size of the figures.

My next step is to make a mould of this maquette and cast it in plaster giving me a more durable copy to work from. And then onward in stone  :>)

Historical recreation – creating new artwork rooted in the past

My latest commission was initially to make an exact copy of a stone lion that had guarded a 15th century doorway in Italy.  However the project soon turned into a more creative challenge – to carve a newly designed lion in a specifically medieval style.

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Not making an exact copy of an existing carving has its benefits – I was able to take into account the client’s individual preferences, and the room in which the sculpture will be placed;  The lion is to sit in a bay window at the front of the client’s house so I placed his tail where it will be seen through the window and turned his head to greet people as they enter the room.

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Though one specific lion prompted the commission, the new design was influenced by several other 15th century examples. My client had seen the Italian antique in an auction catalogue but the carving was weather-damaged with many features worn away. (See the original below, and others further down).

15th century Italian door supportIt wasn’t hard to find similar carvings whose features remain clearly visible.  Lions symbolised courage and nobility so can often be seen on medieval tombs supporting the feet of armoured knights.  Sheltered inside churches their details are often well preserved and a great resource for study.

1bAbove: The tomb of Sir Richard de Vere, St Stephen’s Chapel, Bures, Essex
Below, left to right: St Stephen’s Chapel, Bures, Essex, All Saint’s Church, Leeds, Gloucester Cathedral, V&A Medieval Sculpture

1AAll Saint's Church, LeedsTomb lion Gloucester11Lion in V&A collection

These lions are fantastical.  Few Medieval travellers would have seen a real lion so the sculpted features are based on hearsay, the work of other artists, the stonecarver’s personal taste and the extent of his skill.

When it came to creating a new sculpture based on these medieval carvings my client specified which particular elements he liked or disliked, stipulating that his lion should look thoughtful and definitely NOT CUTE’.  As many of these medieval carvings looked a bit like cats or dogs wearing wigs this was a narrow path to tread.

Creating a completely new artwork that was rooted in a specific historic style raised some subtle issues.  The tomb lions (whose body shape I took for inspiration) stoop under the weight of their knight’s feet.  However raising the head and straightening the body posture had interesting stylistic repercussions; I had to guard against making my upright lion look Victorian, like the proud beasts in Trafalgar Square (below).  It also hindered me to look images of real lions – too many anatomically correct details gave the sculpture an excessively modern appearance.
Trafalgar Sq lion

I came across a similar issue several years ago when reconstructing a damaged low-relief image of Anne Boleyn (see below).  Known as ‘The Moost Happi’ medal it was made in 1534, and is now held in The British Museum. This portrait is the subject worldwide fascination because it bears the only surviving, uncontested contemporary depiction of Anne Boleyn’s appearance.  Knowing the intense scrutiny that my reconstruction would come under I made several attempts to capture her image, each more carefully defined than the last. However, refining her features took away the 16th century style of the medallion and gave Anne’s face a Classical appearance. This version would have pleased legions of fans who wish to believe that Anne Boleyn fitted within modern standards of beauty. However, it would have diminished the authenticity of the reconstruction.

1 High resolution Anne Boleyn The Moost Happi medal from British Museum1
(Left, the original medal in the British Museum. Right, my reconstruction)

As a stonecarver I often look at old buildings and like to think that I can spot and date restored carvings.  Victorian restoration work gives itself away by being too neat, and animals carved in the 20th and 21st century often look unintentionally cartoon-like.  We view animals more often on YouTube than in person, whereas medieval carvers showed a close familiarity with nature.  Their mythical beasts might have been fantastical creations but their features look real. There is an attention to detail, such as the bones and sinews indicated below the surface of the skin, that comes from a daily contact with nature ‘red in tooth and claw’. Contemporary culture is no longer imbued with the life-and-death struggle that pre-occupied our predecessors, and we have swopped a knowledge of natural forms for clean lines and a more sophisticated awareness of style.

Trying to authentically recreate the past is a subtle and subjective art. Artists, writers and film directors face the same challenge when creating new work based on historic events. That is, to try and identify the essential elements, and truthfully convey them to a modern audience. How much leeway is given to engage the viewer or reader is up to the artist or writer. But even with the best intention to represent the past accurately, one cannot help but look at the surviving evidence and focus on that which appeals to our current taste.  Cultural philosopher Susan Bordo has written an interesting examination of how history is reinterpreted and represented according to our own preferences and the age we live in.  In her book, ‘The Creation of Anne Boleyn’ she interviews Hilary Mantel, author of the novel Wolf Hall.  Like all historical fiction the book, and its recent dramatisation, has been the subject of much debate regarding its interpretation and delivery of the past.
Mantel observes; ‘All historical fiction is really contemporary fiction.  We always write from our own time’.
I wonder whether people will look back at my historically based sculpture and date it to the early 21st century?

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You can see a short video showing this lion here
Read about my reconstruction of Anne Boleyn’s Moost Happi medal here

Much ado about nothing – or ‘a storm in a Tudor tankard’.

Another media frenzy regarding Anne Boleyn’s facial features.

I picked the wrong day to be away from my desk and out of contact yesterday. If not when the worlds media ignited once again over Anne Boleyn I might have been able to set the record straight, or at least been credited for my work.

Professors Amit Roy Chowdhury and Conrad Rudolf of University of California in Riverside have in recent years used facial recognition technology to identify historical portraits, with some interesting results. I read about their work in May 2012 and wrote to Conrad Rudolf suggesting that it might be interesting to examine the many portraits that are claimed to be of Anne Boleyn.

I had just completed, with the permission of The British Museum, my study of what is the only surviving and undisputed contemporary portrait of Anne Boleyn – the Moost Happi Anno 1534 medal, and had concluded that it contained much more data than had previously supposed. The medal is made from lead and though there is no sign of willful damage careless storage in the past had resulted in some compression of the features.  This lead historians to dismiss the value of this image as a tool for comparison.

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However, on close examination I saw that it was only Anne’s left eye and her nose that had been displaced and that all other details could be viewed in great and precise detail. The quality of craftsmanship was so high that even the weave of the fabric on her headdress, the jeweled billiment and the necklace could be identified as that worn by Jane Seymour in a portrait by Holbein.

4a JaneSeymour Holbein portrait with pearl and jewel necklace

In fact, elements of the costume and jewelery worn in the Moost Happi medal can be found in a number of portraits of Henry’s other wives.  The necklace is the same (different pendant) but the Gable Hood differs in the disputed Nidd Hall portrait.  Though the sitter in this painting wears a brooch with the initials AB some historians believe that this is actually a portrait of Jane Seymour – amended and embellished during Elizabeth I’s reign during a renewed appetite for portraits of the queen’s mother, Anne Boleyn.

5aAnn Boleyn Nidd Hall portrait with pearl and jewel necklace

I wondered whether a facial recognition technology might throw some light on the alignment of the sitter’s features in the Nidd Hall portrait, and Conrad Rudolf was happy to Include these images, and those of other members of the Tudor family, in his latest study.

Alas, by early 2014 it was clear that the results were inconclusive;  this particular method does not work so well when the subject is in a three-quarter position (as opposed to full-faced or side profile). As many of the Tudor portraits were shown from this angle the results were negligible. As a result, according to Conrad Rudolf, the data concerning Anne Boleyn will not be included in the final FACES project report, which is due to be published shortly.

Nevertheless the mere unofficial mention of Anne Boleyn was enough to send the worlds media into a frenzy. When speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in San Jose earlier this month a reporter asked Professor Roy-Chowdhury for some samples of their data.  His assistant provided the reporter with a full file of research results – including the study of Anne Boleyn. Despite the results had been rejected by the research team as being inconclusive, the journalist was able to concoct a story out of the slim data, and this went on to be reported in newspapers across the world.

To demonstrate their point The Sydney Morning Herald featured my reconstruction of the Moost Happi medal spliced with an image of the Nidd Hall portrait .  This was repeated in other Australian other newspapers, again without citing me as the sculptor of this image. Alison Weir and Susan Bordo were contacted by reporters and both kindly directed them to me with regards to the featured medal. However I was away from my computer yesterday and without phone coverage and so missed the opportunity to set the record straight.

If you would like to know more about the Moost Happi medal and my reconstruction of Anne’s features can read my report here: https://lucychurchill.wordpress.com/2012/05/14/the-moost-happi-portrait-of-anne-boleyn-a-rec/

To see the article in The Sydney Morning Herald featuring the spliced image of my Moost Happi medal reconstruction and the Nidd Hall portrait see: http://www.smh.com.au/world/anne-boleyn-portrait-facial-recognition-technology-verifies-nidd-hall-image-20150216-13ftef.html