Laurence Edwards

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THE WORK OF LAURENCE EDWARDS
BY JOHN SHEERAN

 

1: Standing alone in a Suffolk field in front of Laurence Edwards’s bronze giants can be an unnerving experience. Naked, erect and heavy-limbed, flesh torn and deeply gashed, the figures are primitive and brutish. Their aggressive physicality and threatening nature are unsettling. You sense you are in the presence of a indomitable and unforgiving force. By contrast, the view of the Suffolk coastal landscape from the artist’s studio at Butley Mills is as peaceful and picturesque as it gets in this part of the world. For some, it may be difficult to imagine challenging or uncomfortable work being created in such a rural idyll. The countryside is gentle, the skies open, and the light is characterised by a sharpness and clarity which for centuries has attracted artists. But this is the landscape which gave birth to Constable, one of the great experimental and pioneering painters of his day, whose work expresses deep emotional feelings about place and personal circumstance. The evocative sounds of wind, land, sea, and sky also fed the music of Benjamin Britten. Two of his most compelling characters, Peter Grimes and the Madwoman in Curlew River, both outsiders, inhabit this shore.


'Giants' (Creek Men) Butley Creek 2008

1.1: The panoramic view from Laurence Edwards’s studio window captures perfectly the poetic nature of this timeless coastal scene, but also hints at an elusive identity: natural, historical and cultural. The slight incline in the land in the distance marks a burial mound where hundreds of Saxons lie; the reed beds yards away from the studio are the site of an ancient Saxon port; and in a nearby field a Saxon horde was discovered: tantalising hints of a long-forgotten age when this quiet place teemed with life and activity. The surrounding countryside is also redolent of early English history. Raedwald, King of the East Angles and the most likely incumbent of the Sutton Hoo ship burial, had his court and power base close by at Rendlesham. The famous helmet from Sutton Hoo, terrifying and beautiful, hints at the forbidding presence of marauding warriors from across the North Sea fighting their way up the Suffolk estuaries and rivers centuries ago. There is evidence too of other power struggles and conflict. Henry II’s once great stronghold Orford Castle and the Augustinian Priory at Butley, are nearby. There is much to arouse and inspire the inquisitive and imaginative mind.

1.2: It is in this landscape that Laurence Edwards grew up and to which he returned soon after finishing his art school training; and it is here that he has remained ever since, working on series upon series of sculptures, each a staging post on an artistic journey which can be likened to an apprenticeship in self-discovery which has lasted almost 20 years. The ambitious series of large bronze giants which he is producing today mark the culmination of that journey and the beginning of an exciting new period in the artist’s development. Edwards is not only now producing work of great authority, but also of relevance to the wider world. His art addresses past, present and future and stimulates strong thoughts and ideas about who and what we are, where we belong and the perilous consequences of our dislocation from nature and our roots. His work has a refreshing integrity and honesty about it. You sense that it has come from deep within and that it has resulted from much internal struggle. It may seem confrontational and even disturbing to some, but this is not borne from a superficial desire to shock.

1.3: Edwards’s seriousness of purpose and his craftsmanship have their roots in his experiences and studies in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. This is really where his artistic journey begins. As a postgraduate student at the Royal College of Art, London, Edwards studied casting under the Sri Lankan Master Founder Tissa Ranasinghe. Awarded a Henry Moore Bursary, the Angeloni Prize for Bronze Casting and an Intach Travelling Scholarship, Edwards travelled during the summers of 1989 and 1990 throughout the Indian sub-continent to study traditional methods of bronze casting and to work alongside Indian sculptors. This included studying at the Lalit-Kala Academy in Madras under the Master Founder Vijayavelu. He also visited the Swami Mali Casting Village in South India and the Dhokra Casting Village near Santiniketan, in Bengal. A highlight was working in the casting quarter in Patan, Nepal, under the guidance of Ratna Jyoti Shakya, the inheritor of the ‘knowledge’ from a long dynasty of ‘Newar’ temple casters. Edwards also stayed with Tissa Ranasinghe in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and visited foundries across the country. Returning to England, fired with enthusiasm for all types of bronze casting, he studied the working methods of the celebrated 16th century Italian sculptor, Benvenuto Cellini. For his final year project, he even attempted to recreate the furnace Cellini used to cast Perseus in a field in Snape, Suffolk.

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1.4: On leaving the RCA, Laurence Edwards established his first foundry and studio in a Victorian garden at Clock House, Bruisyard, in the heart of the Suffolk countryside. He divided his time between casting bronzes for sculptors and galleries in London, and doing his own work. He gained invaluable practical experience working alongside sculptors such as Eduardo Paolozzi and from casting bronze editions of figures by Rodin and Degas.

1.5: Edwards began to model in clay and, unable to afford life models, used dead birds and animals instead, including a hare and an unfortunate peacock brought into his studio from the surrounding fields by his Spaniel, Billy. This gave him the idea of producing a nature morte series comprising life-size bronzes of dead creatures from the marshes, which included owls, curlews and waterfowl.


'Icarus' edition of 9 1991


'Barn Owl' bronze 1991


'Peahen' unique bronze 1992

He became fascinated by their forms, textures and colours and how these appeared to relate directly to their natural environment. He set out to model the distinctive ‘landscape’ which he could see and feel in each animal. Developing this idea further, he realised that his art was a metamorphic creative act which could invest dead creatures with new and permanent life. So, after casting, the bronze creatures were turned upright so they appeared to be alive and in movement; and, rather than show them in a gallery, he exhibited them perched on long poles in the coastal marshland around the Old Slaughterhouse on the outskirts of Aldeburgh.


'Hung Hare' bronze editon of 9 1991

When viewed from a distance against a low horizon line, they seemed to be floating in space. A year later, in 1993, some of the dead animal bronzes were shown in the crypt of Hawksmoor’s St George’s Church, Bloomsbury, London. The exhibition was favourably reviewed by the sculptor Nicola Hicks for BBC Radio 4’s Kaleidoscope, but the programme mistakenly concluded that the animals, being so authentic, must have been cast by the artist directly from dead animals, rather than modelled from observation.


hung hare installation shot 'Slaughterhouse marsh' Alseburgh 1993

1.6: By 1992, Edwards was using dead animals killed on the roads and animals parts given by his local abattoir. These included foxes, pigs, and cows’ heads, torsos and haunches. He became fascinated by the extraordinary variety and detail of the animal anatomy available to him and also immersed himself in the study of the anatomical drawings of Stubbs, who taught himself to draw animal anatomy from the carcasses left around by his father, a tanner. Drawing on his own family ancestry of butchers, Edwards explored different techniques of deconstructing carcasses and gained a detailed knowledge of animal anatomy which has informed much of his later figurative work. Tired of ‘rats eating animal parts lying around my studio’, he installed an old chest freezer to store them; and when he took them out, he modelled the shapes and gestures of their frozen, distorted forms.

1.7: At this time Edwards also experimented with a series of totemic works, mixing bronzes of animal body parts with natural forms, such as wood and stone, balancing them, one on top of the other. Sometimes he combined different creatures in the same work, such as a fox head supported by swallows, giving it a ritualistic, pagan quality (Fig. ). Occasionally his clay modelling dried too quickly in the studio and cracks opened up, revealing the metal armature. He started to exploit such accidental happenings in his work for their formal qualities, and left bits of metal protruding ‘like bones out of flesh’.



'Fox & Swallows' unique bronze 1993


1.8: In 1992, Edwards moved from Bruisyard to set up the Yew Tree Farm Studios in a 16th century farmhouse in Laxfield, Suffolk. He built a bronze foundry, created studio spaces and made them available to other artists. A community was soon established and he has preferred to work in a group artistic environment ever since. He organised life modelling classes and began his first rudimentary studies of the human figure, working in soft wax in front of the model, with no preliminary drawing. As his confidence grew, the complexity of the model’s pose was increased. Sometimes the clay figures would get knocked and damaged and parts would fall off. Instead of repairing them, they were cast as spontaneous creative accidents. Having his own foundry enabled him to see the results of his modelling work translated into groups of six-inch bronze maquettes within days. Instead of waxing and polishing the bronzes, he left them in their raw state of earth and iron colours. Some of these figures lack arms and heads.

1.9: In 1993, Edwards started to work on his first large figures: half life-size bronze squatting female figures, based on the small bronze maquettes. The following year, these new bronzes were exhibited in the garden of Christchurch Mansion, a Jacobean house and park in the centre of Ipswich.


'Squatting woman'


'Ardent man'

Letters to the local press complained that the figures were sexually provocative and inappropriate for a public setting. One of these sculptures shows a headless female figure leaning back on her arms with her legs splayed open. Bronze armatures are all that are left of her right ankle and leg. It is a powerful work. She looks like an ancient fertility sculpture pulled from the earth.


'Armrest' bronze 1994

2: Investigating further the possibilities of the figure, Edwards began to carry on working on the small soft-wax figures after his model had left the studio. He twisted and contorted the forms into unnatural, but still aesthetically pleasing, arrangements. He likened what he was doing to a collision between the reality of the figure and his own ambition. This experiment culminated in Walking Man, his first life-size bronze, which was cast in eight sections. It shows a striding figure with impossibly twisted arms and without a head.


'Walking Man' unique bronze 160x110x50cms 1994

Edwards says: ‘I tried to evoke landscape in the contours of the neck and shoulders.’ This period of work culminated in his first large exhibition, held in 1995 at the Delfina Gallery, London. It included his squatting figures, Walking Man, and a new series of stick-like figures.


Installation shot at 'Delfina Studios Gallery' London 1995

2.1: Edwards’s appointment as sculptor-in-residence at St Edmundsbury Cathedral, Bury St Edmunds, as part of the 1998 Bury Festival Resurrection and Afterlife art project, led to a new direction for his art. He produced an ambitious series of large multi-figure sculptures in a variety of arrangements, which were displayed around the Cathedral. These included Projection, which he described as: ‘an astral projection of bodies leaving bodies’. It shows two weightless and anonymous figures linked by their heads, one balanced on top of the other.


'Projection 1 (Maquette)' edition of 12 bronze 1998


'Projection 1 bronze unique 2030x 80x46cms 1998

The cloth texture of the work is reminiscent of Egyptian mummification and the leathery feel of the bodies of the Bog People found in Ireland and Denmark. Another sculpture, Projection 2, shows the same figures with arms outstretched. The artist explains: ‘I was trying to work in a way that dealt with spirituality and the notion of otherness, without resorting to a Christian iconography. I was interested in the impact of such sculptures in the overtly Christian context of a cathedral, and wondered whether it would match that of an established language and orthodoxy. I was pleasantly surprised by the reception, and how my work somehow managed to achieve a different kind of spirituality in the cathedral setting.’

2.2: On daily walks in the countryside surrounding Laxfield, Edwards became fascinated by the rhythmic cycle of nature through the seasons and the relationship between organic nature and human form. He started to experiment with natural materials from the landscape in his sculptures, impregnating his small wax models with mashed up sticks, leaves, grasses, seeds, and grit. These strange spectral figures have a striking physicality and raw emotional energy. To the artist’s surprise, they also seemed to echo the times of year in which they were made. This intuitive, less conscious, aesthetic response to the natural world intrigued him.


'Winter figure' 35cms high 1999

2.3: More maquettes featured protruding armatures, which were now treated as an exoskeleton, or scaffold, for bodies to exist within. A series of seven small bronzes, made on consecutive days, called Snap, feature a diminutive figure breaking sticks over his shoulders in a sequence from a near-straight stick, to one completely broken round the neck.


'Snap 1 2 3 4 5 6 & 7' editon of 9

The internal structure of the body is again brought outside the figure, and, in this series, is utilised as a means to examine a state of mind. The series appears to illustrate aspects of the sub-conscious and, as such, represents a new phase in Edwards’s work: ‘I am my own subject matter,’ he comments. Some maquettes were developed into life-size bronzes, including Predicament and On the Edge.


'Predicament' edition of 6 bronze 2005
(development of predicament 1995) 260x140x100cms



'On the edge' bronze 185cms high 1997


2.4: Another intensely personal sculpture series from this period, called Keeping it Together, features figures hopelessly trying to grasp large bundles of sticks, or to keep impossible scaffolds together around themselves.


'Keeping it together' bronze edition of 9 28x39x10cms 2001

The series concerns the precariousness of life. Some figures appear to be teetering on the edge, while others seem to be paralysed by their circumstances. The pieces are about the balancing-act of life, and came at a time when Edwards was beginning to question the relevance of his life and his art. ‘Self-knowledge can be self-crippling,’ he says. Tellingly, Edwards emphasised the formal strength of the works, as if to argue that, despite doubt and anxiety, there is underlying resilience and resolve. Each sculpture creates exciting relationships of form and line which change as the viewpoint shifts. The armatures have enabled a greater appreciation of the spaces around each figure. The more one views an idea or situation from different angles, the more an understanding is reached.

2.5: In 2000, shows like Spectacular Bodies: The Art and Science of the Human Body from Leonardo to Now at the Hayward Gallery, London augmented Edwards’s growing interest in the way the human figure has been studied and represented by doctors, surgeons, scientists and engineers through the centuries. Collecting and studying imagery of anatomy, physiognomy and anthropology stimulated a series of drawings. He comments: ‘I wanted to broaden my visual language and discovered a treasure trove of material in books like Gray’s Anatomy. I started to draw the figure with real curiosity for the first time.’

2.6:Meanwhile, Edwards had started work on a new series of life-size bronze figures called Surrender to the Gaze, which were an attempt to be as honest as possible in expressing feelings about human degradation, the stripping of dignity, vulnerability, and the destruction of confidence. The figures relate strongly to Edwards’s interest in the presentation of indigenous peoples in early 20th century anatomy and ethnography text books. A photograph of a naked Inuit man taken by anthropologists in the 1940s, labelled as a ‘Mongolform whose body shape was designed to retain heat,’ was a catalyst for the series. Edwards remarks: ‘He had lived in tune with his own world. Not only did I feel empathy on a human level, but the images chimed with the exhibiting process; people were presented like trophies or sculptures on plinths. The objective response in a gallery situation from an audience can also reduce one.’ The Surrender to the Gaze bronze figures stand naked, eyes closed or gaze averted, allowing the viewer to scrutinize them. The fourth in the series, called As I Am,


'Surrender to the gaze 1,2 & 3' life size bronzes 1999-2000

shows a man with arms raised above his head in preparation for examination. This notion of the art audience and how sculptures are perceived has become a recurring theme in Edwards’s work. The first three Surrender to the Gaze figures are now permanently sited on private land in Suffolk, overlooking the River Alde at Iken looking towards Aldeburgh and Snape.


Mongolform body designed to retain heat

2.7 In the next series, Standing up to Scrutiny, Edwards explored the theme further, and this time the audience is included in the sculpture itself. In each work, small figures are shown moving around a larger figure, inspecting and studying it via fine bronze lines which also serve a practical purpose as vents and pouring channels in the bronze-making process.


This imagery was partly inspired by a drawing of Lucifer which caught Edwards’ eye in the 2001 Royal Academy exhibition Botticelli's Dante: The Drawings for the Divine Comedy. It shows Virgil and Dante crawling through the fur of Lucifer into the next world. Edwards was also influenced by Renaissance illustrations of students learning about perspective. Holding chords to their eyes, the other ends of which are connected to grids on the floor, they move about to view the changing relationship of string to shape. This observational theme and the discovery of a compositional device which physically linked different elements in the same sculptural narrative opened up new artistic possibilities. Using computer graphics software, Edwards also explored connections between different phases of his work, by collaging images of old sculptures on to new ones, on screen. He saw the filing and storing of visual data relating to his work on a desktop as the digital equivalent of the storing of sculpture moulds in his studio, and started to use his computer to create ‘impossible’ works, forcing his imagination away from the conventional towards the unimaginable.


Perspectival drawing

2.8: In an effort to control the context in which figures could be viewed, Edwards began to set them in specific environments, beginning with transcriptions of great artworks of the past. Studying Greek and Roman sculptures and Old Master paintings and created sculptural transcriptions inspired by them. These included interpretations of the Laocoon; El Grecos’s The Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse and Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne,


'The feeling at the time' bronze 120x60x60cms 2001
Afte Titians 'Bacchus & Ariadne' 1523, National Gallery London

all of which featured external armatures as directional compositional devices. He developed further the visual language of the air vents and pouring bars to enhance the sculptural composition, providing sight lines which would help a viewer navigate a scene, taking the lead from the painting’s own compositional logic. The fusion of original narratives in the paintings with personalised interpretations of those narratives provided a rich stew for subjective and formal consideration, adding layers of content and meaning.

2.9: In 2000, Edwards was commissioned, with the artist Les Bicknell, by Louth Town Council and Lincolnshire County Council, to create a Millennium artwork to go along the Meridian Line in Louth, Lincolnshire. The commission was organised by Commissions East and part-funded by the National Lottery through the Arts Council of England and the European Regional Development Fund. Edwards produced three life-size bronze figures, each of which, in different places, individually manipulates a steel line travelling along the Meridian IMAGE. The first tries to make sense of a tangle of line, and words and phrases (submitted by members of the public thorough workshops and press) which are etched on it. The line disappears into the ground and resurfaces at various points in pavements and roads. The second figure begins to piece together the line, like a puzzle. The steel line continues through the town, surfacing again at various points. The third figure holds it in a loop, alluding to the line of time around the planet. It then disappears into the earth and, in the artist’s imagination, travels the circumference of the globe to return to the man who puzzles at its meaning again.

3: Another significant development at this time was Edwards’s work with the photographer Mark Limbrick on the Panocamera Project at the Yew Tree Farm studio. Limbrick created a series of ‘cameras’ comprising small rooms - or booths - arranged in a circle, each lined with eight-foot lengths of photographic paper. These surrounded Edwards while he was working in the middle of the studio on a life-size clay figure. At random moments, Limbrick would open a shutter and expose a small area showing Edwards working on the figure, or just views of the figure, on to the paper. He would then move on to another booth to repeat the process, building up a mosaic of activity, which would eventually be developed and presented as the only evidence of the life-size figure, which would be destroyed. Edwards was questioning the very idea of casting an object and used the project to see whether in recording its making he could achieve an equivalent to the casting process. The result was a remarkably atmospheric exhibition of large semi-transparent photographs arranged in a circle in the nave of the St Peter’s, a medieval church by the docks in Ipswich. Placed in a historical setting and close to the church’s famous Norman Tournai font (sculpted in black marble), the installation juxtaposed past and present; real and reproduction; stone, clay and image. ‘I realised that the true excitement and fun in sculpture comes with the physical act of making,’ says Edwards. ‘But when you’re frantically working on a life-size clay model over a couple of days before it starts to dry and crumble, there’s no time to pause to record the process. Mark’s Panocamera time-lapse photography revealed the working process in a wonderful way - a flurry of heads, hands and bodies. The photographs just triggered off more ideas for sculptures, including the imagery of a figure trapped in a confined space, being worked on by smaller satellite figures who are trying to fix it.’


'Panocamera' installation shot St Peters church, Ipswich

3.1: During the early 2000s, Edwards experimented with numerous ideas for sculpture and, exploiting the luxury of his studio foundry, was able to cast in bronze anything that took his interest. During this fertile period he moved from one series of sculptures to another, with an appetite clearly fuelled by his excitement at what was happening in contemporary art, art students, whom he taught at Norwich School of Art, and his own young children. In 2003-4, he created an installation at Wingfield College, Suffolk called Casting the Shadow which comprised bronze casts of organic and wrapped forms laid out in sequence, reminiscent of an ancient pagan site.

His Stalk series of 2003 comprised several stage-like, surreal narrative ‘sculptural collages in bronze’ which mixed natural and man-made objects, including flower stalks and seeds, and bits of model dinosaurs left around by his children.

Although they appear amusing and playful, there are sinister undertones of stalking and murder. In his Tools for Life series, he cast his own power tools, rendering them useless, mirroring the casting of tools during his caster’s apprenticeship, which were intended to equip him for life. In the Detritus series, he cast his own studio detritus in bronze. Considering his studio as a landscape, as well as a place to make work, the pieces describe the unique climate and ‘ecology of the interior’ of his creative workplace. He monitored the drips of wax collecting under his work-bench in an equivalence of a diary of his studio activities. He cast in bronze the stalagmite accumulations of wax and titled them with the names of the sculptures that had caused their production. It was an interesting experiment and helped him to see that anything, even collections of used wax, could be transformed into something which could become pregnant with meaning, when viewed with an open mind and filtered through the imagination. Edwards also worked on a group of narrative still-life bronze sculptures which considered the studio space as a metaphor for the global environment. These juxtaposed everyday materials and objects, including a variety of containers. Balance of Power, for example, comprises a cigarette lighter alongside a leaking bottle of white spirit, an unusual representation of the fragility of the planet and the self-destructive nature of man.

Finally, in 2006, he created the Arts Council-funded project Shopped , working with a local school and shop. He cast objects from the shop and placed them back on the shelves in bronze, and exhibited genuine produce, such as boxes of eggs, chocolate bars, and packets of crisps, in a gallery in the same street. This period of explorative conceptual work reflects a confident but restless aesthetic picking up ideas, experimenting with them, and moving on. It was both exhilarating and frustrating. Despite the voluminous output of art, he felt that he was skimming the surface rather than exploring the depths.

3.2: This was also a time of upheaval and consolidation as Edwards moved studios from Yew Tree Farm to Butley Creek, near Orford, on the Suffolk coast. Here, he converted mill buildings into a remarkable studio complex for 12 artists, which includes a larger foundry, accommodation, an office, classrooms and even a studio camera obscura. As ever, he was also busy participating in international cultural exchanges, exhibiting widely, and working on new commissions. The latter included Against the Tide, a life-size bronze sculpture of a figure rowing a boat, which was cast from natural materials such as wood, bracken and reeds. Commissioned by Ipswich Borough Council to represent the town’s ancient connection with the River Gipping, it is sited at the start of the river and a canal path which runs over 15 miles through the Suffolk countryside to Stowmarket. Commercial interest in Edwards’ work was also growing. Messum’s Gallery, London, began to represent him and commissioned three new works: Kite, Hover and In the Balance, which sold well to new buyers and collectors.

 

Each comprises a two-thirds life-size figure balancing precariously on a stone plinth. Edwards also began for the first time to receive some national recognition. In 2006, he won The Society of Portrait Sculptors’ Freakley Prize for Most Outstanding Work for Grin and Bare, a head with attending satellite figures which grew out of the Standing up to Scrutiny series.



3.3: After settling in at Butley, Edwards began to engage fully with the surrounding landscape: walking through it, studying it, and sketching it; trying to understand and appreciate what gave this particular area of woodland, marshland and river its distinctive character and atmosphere. Over the months, he got to know the landscape’s temperament through the seasons and at all times of day: its light, shapes, forms and colours; its trees, roots and fungi; its swirling tidal waters and fluvial courses through the mud. There is an ancient wood nearby, which has existed a thousand years. To walk in it and to touch it was, for Edwards, to return to a primeval, elemental time of the ancient Briton. He has likened it to having an extraordinary resource like a museum on his doorstep, which is open to limitless interpretation, and which he can visit whenever he wants. And locally, Edwards discovered fascinating sculptural evidence of man represented as nature, and nature as man. Carved stone woodwoses, those hairy club-carrying wild men of the woods, decorate the shaft of the 15th century font in St Bartholomew Church, Orford. A stone corbel showing a Green Man, oak leaves issuing from his mouth, can be seen high up in the nave of St Gregory the Great Church, Rendlesham. For the artist, this Christian and pagan imagery, civilised and wild, is both comforting and alarming. It reaffirms man’s roots in nature, our rebirth and regeneration, but also confirms the uncomfortable truth of the animal in all of us. Just as intriguing for Edwards was the local legend of the Merman, a strange, hairy, man-like creature caught in the sea off Orford by fisherman in the 12th century and tortured in the castle dungeon.

3.4: The resulting work, Creek,


'Creek' unique bronze 135x120x90cms 2004

was Edwards most ambitious, suggestive and convincing to date. Wandering the marsh and woodland, he would return to the studio laden with grasses, sticks, rotting organic matter and mud. Intuitively, he made a figure with wing forms and an extruded head, and was forced to develop new methods of casting direct from organic material. He felt a strange sensation too, as if his work was somehow emerging naturally from the landscape. Edwards explains: ‘Creek is a winged creature drenched in the marshland landscape. It is a visceral presence too, an animal representation of the mysterious truth and reality of nature, of which we are all evidence.’ Excited by the possibilities, his next works, Creek Heads,

were made on a scale three times bigger than anything he had attempted before. Armfuls of grasses and reeds collected from the marsh were meshed with wax and formed into two heads. ‘I used a blow torch to melt the wax and the heads caught fire,’ say Edwards, ‘and it was like some pagan ritual bringing these two marsh beings into existence.’ The heads appear like camouflaged primeval warriors dredged from a swamp. These works represent a significant turning point in Edwards’s art. And they became the catalyst for a remarkable creative surge, as the artist poured everything he had discovered from his art over the past two decades into an ambitious new venture.

3.5: In May 2007, after months of preparation, Edwards started work on Giants, his largest sculpture project to date. He gave himself just a year to complete the first phase, so that the series would be ready in time for a major exhibition of his work at Snape Maltings during the 2008 Aldeburgh Festival. Unusually, for such a well-researched, costly and physically demanding project, he had no clear idea either at the beginning, or even halfway through, just what the end result would be. It was a case of seemingly disparate elements of previous work coming together and moving in one direction. Edwards’s developing relationship with the landscape in all its aspects, and through this, his awareness that he could use the local and particular to express the universal and fundamental, encouraged a boldness of approach. He would not shy away from the big subjects in art, such as the nature of his own being and the exploration of the human condition, but meet them head on. An important artist for Edwards in recent years has been Germaine Richier, whose late-1940s works Hurricane Woman and Storm Man at the Tate, the artist knows well. Richier’s powerfully expressive figures have pitted and scarred bodies and mutilated faces. They represent a female and male testament to the endurance of human suffering and survival after conflict and war. These figures, though visually disturbing, arouse sympathy and, though worn and decaying, remain standing despite everything they have experienced. Their casting in bronze in 1995 and acquisition by the Tate, seem to reinforce their meaning and potency, and their significance and longevity. There are also interesting parallels between Edwards and Richier’s best known student at Chelsea School of Art, the Suffolk-born sculptor, Elisabeth Frink. Her bronzes of dead animals, spinning birdmen, fallen warriors, standards, and soldiers’ heads were early evidence of her innate understanding of nature, animals and man, and the profound relationship between them. In Riace Warriors (Fig. ), her memorable late figure series, Frink created an imposing group of naked thugs, celebrating their masculine beauty and suggesting their sinister presence and intentions.

3.6: As well as finding such contemporary work inspirational, Edwards also sought out ancient sculptures and artefacts associated with the early history of Suffolk, reading widely around the subject. Visits to the British Museum, for example, revealed a wealth of material, including the stunning Sutton Hoo, Mildenhall, and Hoxne treasures. A 1st century AD bronze head of the Emperor Claudius also made a deep impression. Probably hacked off a life-size equestrian statue during the sacking of Colchester by the Iceni, it was thrown into the river at Rendham, perhaps as an offering to the gods, only to be discovered in 1907 by a boy fishing. Gradually, Edwards developed ideas for his new work: to consider what it is to be human, male, living where he is, when he is, and connecting with the landscape in all its guises – its geology, geography, biology and history.

3.7: Edwards’s new work also investigates ideas of defiance and survival which draw upon his study of the Sutton Hoo and Snape Ship Burials, sited not far from his studio. He discovered synergies between the peoples of the ship burials and himself. A stone found in the grave of the king at Sutton Hoo was adorned with a bronze stag. It doubled as a royal sceptre and as a ‘whetstone’ knife sharpener. The accoutrements of royalty and power were defined by the ability to sharpen tools and swords. Edwards feels an empathy with a people who invested such practical, aesthetic and symbolic value to man-made objects. He is also fascinated by the Saxon ‘sand bodies’ found at Snape, where natural casts of human remains lie shadow-marked in the sand, the outline of their weapons merged into their bodies. The last Saxon community of East Anglia held out on this remote tract of land for a generation against the new wave of Christianity. Edwards sees this notion of survival, and of holding out for a belief, as somehow paralleling his own choices and circumstances. He explains: ‘To be a man and to work figuratively in bronze in a post modern context puts me in an awkward place. That awkward place is mirrored in my landscape, a landscape altered twice daily by water - a tide that floods to create great distance, and ebbs drawing the world in again, cleaning the view as it goes. To the right, the river speaks of ancient instinct ? of dependence on the waters cycle ? a tide that brought the outside world of riches to the Saxon door, fanning the flames of a civilized society. To the left, the water brought Benjamin Britten, an innovative mind, a composer challenging orthodoxy and attracting the world’s avant garde. These worlds inhabit the same geography, one that can only really be viewed from the top of an ancient wood nearby. It is a truly dark wood. Its oaks are contorted giants. Giant comes from the Old English word for tree, Ent. If I were to climb these trees, I would see these rivers. They are rivers only giants can see.’

3.8: Edwards’s identification with, and use of, old English local, historical and cultural sources, might, as he suggests, appear to push his work away from the post-modern frame of reference. Sadly, the supposedly ‘outmoded’ practices of working in clay and bronze, or with the figure, have long had superficial, misplaced connotations of tradition, conservatism and conformity. Edwards feels a strength in belonging to a bronze casting line which stretches back to the Italian Renaissance, to extraordinary talents like Donatello, and beyond. Characteristically, he also remains steadfast in his conviction that his closeness to the land and its culture and his developing artistic engagement with the natural environment and its cycles and rhythms, lie at the heart of his sensibility. And far from denoting a reactionary, it is clear that these qualities complement progressive, contemporary thinking and understanding of the natural world and our place in it, and the importance of our cultural identity.

3.9: Edwards’s new work further develops the ideas behind the Creek sculptures, in which mineral and vegetable matter rise up and are given animal or human form. Edwards filled his studio with large bags of clay, gathered dead Stag oak branches and other vegetable matter, including large fungi, from the ancient wood nearby and set to work. Within a year he had modelled, cast and sited three eight-foot high bronze figures of giants among the reeds in the Butley Creek landscape; a phenomenal creative, physical and practical achievement which pushed his modest studio practice and foundry to the limits. The first clay giant was kept after the plaster mould had been taken, to be repaired and worked on to create the next giant. Each giant would be produced in this way and so be ‘related’ to its forebears. Edwards sees this creative process as potentially never-ending and believes the clay giant, which occupies centre stage in his studio, will be his companion for many years to come, perhaps for the rest of his life. He can also envisage a day when the figure may even evolve or morph into a totally organic form, like a giant tree or stone.

4: The first bronze giant

has fungal growths protruding from him. These are the Leather Strop fungus, which the artist found in the wood, living off birch trees. He was struck by the contrast between the beautiful organic growth, shape and texture of the fungus, and its parasitic nature. Researching fungi, he discovered that the relationship between fungus and tree can, in some cases, be mutually beneficial, and also that the Leather Strop, was used by various cultures to sharpen knives and light fires. For Edwards, this suggested a fascinating link with the royal sceptre from the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, with its dual purpose of symbol of power and whetstone, and to the people who inhabited this land, and no doubt this wood, centuries ago. The Leather Strop also suggested a visual metaphor for survival against all odds, and, as a natural knife-sharpener, for manhood and aggressive instinct. So Edwards’s first giant was conceived as neither a dead nor a spent force from the past, but as a survivor, and as a man redefining himself for a new purpose and era. This is a figure which has turned the tide of events and used them to survive a particular set of challenges.

4.1: The second giant,

like the first, has the same earth colours as the surrounding landscape and as the deer, hare, bittern, and curlew which are found there. He stands threateningly and steadfast, making you feel as though you are faced with the raw energy of nature incarnate. Edwards describes the giants as like: ‘men who have emerged from the reed beds’. This one certainly has an animal intensity and instinct. He rises above the reeds like a startled beast; looking out, ready to defend or attack; dignified and unpredictable. His face and body is gashed like a great oak, with sharp weapon-like branches for arms. Edwards climbed to the top of oaks in the wood to get the best-shaped dead branches, which he then pushed into the original clay model and cast in bronze. The wound slits in the face make reference to the scent glands of deer in the woods. The figure’s arms are formed from fronds of hemlock, all of whose parts are poisonous to man.

4.2: The third giant,

the most expressive and accomplished to date, stands like a sentinel waiting, ravaged and battered, broken but erect. He appears like the weary, old leader of a marsh tribe. His heavily bruised face and bulging eyes are like those of a boxer after a damaging bout. The imagery was initially triggered by the appearance of his young son Simeon’s face following a minor accident while playing at home. Edwards says he was also thinking of Francis Bacon’s grotesque, contorted heads when he was modelling it. The appearance of the head is alarming at first, but you soon detect a meditative silence and calm. It has a tragic poetry, like looking at ‘a bruised corpse and recognising that the figure is finally at peace’. The face has a remarkable feeling of a dignified acceptance of his fate. The giant also appears burnt and charred. Its smokey colour references the ancient practice of pollarding oaks for charcoal production. A carapace of skin is peeling off, like bark curling from an oak. Elsewhere, there are gaping wounds where broken branch dowels have been pushed deep into the body. The branch ends look like snapped antler bones inside the figure, helping to keep it together. It is as if the traumatic injuries experienced by the giant have in some way strengthened it. While Richier’s Hurricane Woman and Storm Man stand as powerful symbols for the survival of humanity torn by war, Edwards’s third arboreal giant can be seen as an authoritative symbol of nature torn by humanity – or of the effects of humanity disregarding nature. The Promethean hook-nosed bird of prey nestling inside the right flank of the giant suggests that the impact will be everlasting. Edwards also cleverly, and amusingly, uses the myth of Prometheus for its multiplicity of interpretation. For it was Prometheus, a symbol of the free, creative spirit, who cast the first man in clay and sought to rescue man from ignorance, but who suffers for this every day. The lot of the artist is seen as a perpetual punishment.

4.3: A successful duality of figure – of man as oak, and oak as man - clearly emerges in the third giant. Edwards’s studio is now filled with large plaster maquettes which explore other potential figures in the series. One refers to St Sebastian tied to a tree and martyred. Another looks like an African fetishist figure, with bulging abdomen. There are also several small-scale half-human, half-vegetal Earthed figures, which experiment with the idea of man as a conduit between earth and sky, linked by a lightning strike of hemlock. Their stark, raw imagery shows man reconnected to the natural world (Fig. ). These impressive figures are like contemporary equivalents of the medieval stone and wood sculptures of the Woodwose and the Green Man which can be found in churches nearby and they have a similar totemic message.

4.4: Edwards is busy planning to take his the first three bronze giants, each weighing half a ton, on their first journey – on a raft up the River Alde to Snape Maltings for the 2008 Aldeburgh Festival. They will be sited on the tidal mudflats, among the reed beds, where they will with rise and lower with the tide. He is also developing plans to take them to London, and from there to locations around the world. His ideas and his art, which have evolved over 20 years in Suffolk, will find new audiences receptive to sculpture which imaginatively addresses some of the fundamental concerns of the individual living in our times.

© 2008 John Sheeran, Sheeran Lock Ltd


John Sheeran worked for a decade in museums, including for seven years as Curator of the Dulwich Picture Gallery. In 1990, he set up the creative art consultancy Sheeran Lock. He has curated numerous exhibitions since then, including ‘Our World in the Year 2000: The United Nations Millennium Art Exhibition’ at UN Headquarters, New York. He also curates the Sheeran Lock Online Art Gallery (www.sheeranlockartgallery.com).