Situated in a quiet corner of the gardens at Royal Hospital Chelsea and through the sun-dappled entrance of Jardin Blanc, an impressive ‘parliament of hares’ is waiting to meet you. These magnificent wire creations are part of an installation by leading sculptor Emma Stothard. We were fascinated to find out more about her creative process, and the skill, precision and imagination involved…
Growing up in windswept Holderness, Emma was forever drawing the countryside around her and the birds and animals that lived in it. Today, her sculptures always start with a sketch, enabling her to define from the start the character of the animal or bird she’s portraying.
A welder’s mask may not be obvious attire for a sculptor, but it’s crucial for Emma. She starts her larger pieces by making a strong steel armature, or skeleton, to support the woven ‘skin’, which may be of willow, bronze or galvanised mild steel.
Emma uses only the most basic of tools when she reaches the weaving stage of a sculpture: for metal wires, an angle grinder to cut the lengths of wire to size, plus pliers and mallets for shaping; for willow, secateurs. Other than that, it’s all done with her bare hands…
“I just love willow,” says Emma of the material she started her career with. “It’s a completely natural product, it’s very versatile, it has a wonderful smell, and a real energy. Working with it is almost like drawing in wood – each willow withy tapers naturally, as a line in pencil does. It has an ethereal quality, yet still gives solid shape, form and structure.
“The finished product needs a little more care than the metal versions, depending on the environment it’s in, but look after it, and it’ll last beautifully for years.”
Emma buys the willow in bundles from the Somerset Levels. “I enjoy working with this long-standing family business – they know their product inside out, and they know what I need,” she says. She soaks her lengths of willow (known as ‘withies’) in cattle troughs for up to a fortnight, changing the water several times along the way, then allows it to dry naturally overnight. This ‘rests’ the withies, making them more supple when she comes to weave Once completed, she may add detail by threading in a few bronze or steel wires.
Finally, Emma sprays the sculpture with a couple of coats of equal quantities of linseed oil and turps, giving it a rich gloss, feeding the wood and helping to protect it from the elements. Many of Emma’s willow pieces are displayed outside – she suggests that the owner treats them with the linseed oil and turps mixture to prolong their lives – and in some environments, bringing them inside over the winter will make them last longer. With a little love and care, each willow sculpture will last many years.
An alloy primarily of copper with other metals, bronze’s rich finish, strength, and flexibility have made it a sculptor’s favourite for aeons. The metal’s weight means that Emma’s bronze pieces usually have an internal steel armature, or skeleton, to support them. Over the years, the bronze will gently corrode, giving the sculpture a warm patina so that, although permanent, it will blend beautifully into natural surroundings.
Emma sources her drawn phosphor bronze wire (a copper/tin alloy with a trace of phosphorus) from the Midlands. Delivered in coils, the wire comes in different gauges – Emma favours a range from 0.65mm to 3mm. The varying gauges allow her to add shade to a piece, in much the same way she would use several grades of HB pencils when drawing. The wire is cut to length with an angle grinder, then, using her hands, pliers and mallets, Emma shapes the piece. She starts with the heavier gauges to define the form, then adds in finer gauges for the detail. Finally Emma will ‘tighten’ the whole sculpture for a closer knit, using her hands, and pliers to nip, pinch and twist – bronze wire doesn’t have the same ‘grip’ as the natural willow.
Galvanised wire allows for a wider variety of finishes than Emma’s other favoured materials. The mild steel naturally mellows to a subtle silvery-grey, which, Emma says, sings against dark areas of the landscape. A favourite commission which displays the luminous qualities of galvanised wire is that of a mare for the National Trust, located at the glorious Rievaulx Terrace (and inspired by the horse-drawn carriages that used to visit the terrace with its elegant temples). And for those who prefer a burst of colour, galvanised wire also be powder-coated in a variety of colour finishes from pale-pink pointer or a ruby-red racehorse, muted to vibrant.
So whether working with willow or metal, Emma is an expert craftswoman. Don’t miss out on seeing her pieces in all their glory at RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Her work can be seen within Welcome to Yorkshire’s show garden on the main avenue, and of course is furnishing Jardin Blanc with her fabulous hares.