Visual Complexity, Redemption and Bronze Friezes

Paul Day has long been one of my favourite sculptors and is such a self-depreciating character that he says he isn’t even worthy of such a job title. He produces bronze friezes and sculptural works that have such style and imagination that I have found myself lost in the stories they tell for many hours. He has won several competitions and prizes, many of his works you will know like, The Meeting Place, in St Pancras Station where two lovers tower above the public in a clinch that makes everyone long for such a lover. Other commissons include The Battle of Britain, a magnificent war memorial on London Embankment, The Queen Mother Memorial in London and The Urban Comedy in Brussels.

Today I began our discussion by asking him, my favourite question, have you always been creative?

Lucy: Have you always been creative?

Paul: As far as I can remember, as a child, I enjoyed from the very beginning drawing, colouring in, painting pictures, and cutting things out with scissors, and I had a mother who was, and is still, very encouraging in arty and crafty things. But also, I was number two to an elder brother who, at three years of age when I turned up, already occupied the main stage in all the family gatherings. He was a natural imitator, raconteur, and loved the limelight.

Lucy: Tough act to follow.

Paul: Well, quite. I was the younger brother who, obviously, with three years less in development of language and everything else, could never keep up with or overshadow this strong and powerful figure in my life. And I think that drawing was the one way I discovered quite early on, to draw some of that limelight and attention onto myself, and to be able to make, for example, members of the family laugh and smile with my pictures, whereas I wasn’t able to do that with my oratory or my ability to tell jokes, of which I don’t really have an ability to tell jokes.

Lucy: But the thing is, that sounds like the pencil did the job.

Paul: Well, it was also a bit of a cop out, probably, because enjoying drawing, and painting, and art as a child, it possibly led me to not, perhaps, work as hard as I should have done at school on other subjects. I mean, I did manage to become head boy of my primary school, but what really, sort of, floated my boat was to be able to be top in art. And I remember when, towards the end of my years at primary school, we went on a youth hosteling holiday to Canterbury for a week. And each day, we did organised trips. Obviously, we delved into the history of the Canterbury Way, and pilgrims, and the Cathedral, and so on. And when I came back, I did a series of drawings on, I think it must have been an A3 format or perhaps A2, of cartoons, of caricatures for each day of our holiday where I put my classmates and teachers into comic situations. And I remember in particular, that my teacher at the time who taught me to swim, actually, she ended up with a swastika armband and a whip at the side of the swimming pool, shark infested swimming pool, full of children. And, of course, the headmaster was very tickled by it when he saw these drawings and they went up on the wall in the school assembly hall. And so I suppose I realised that, although I wasn’t very good at, sort of, narration or writing as it were, stories, I could tell stories to make people giggle at silly things through the drawing, and that probably set me on my way to, eventually, working to where I am now.


Pendant 2011 by Paul Day ©

Lucy: And so when did sculpture start to feature?

Paul: At the age of eighteen when I’d done A-levels. And I did do Art at A-level, of which I passed, thank the Lord, because I got Ds in Maths and Physics. But once the A-levels were through and my then girlfriend had dumped me to go off to university, I had to get a job, quite simply, to put a roof over my head. And that involved looking in the local paper, finding the column of job vacancies, making a phone call, and it was with the Midland Bank looking for an apprentice bank manager.

Lucy: It sounds like an excellent, very sensible job to me.

Paul: Indeed, indeed. Oh, totally. It was either that or the Civil Service, I think, those were the two options that opened up for me. So just about 18, I started work as a trainee bank manager with the Midland Bank in creepy Crawley of West Sussex.

So, yeah, on the very first day of my banking financial career, I realised that working for a bank was a huge mistake.

Just going into an office in a suit felt so uncomfortable and wrong that I knew I had to get myself out of there quickly. And, of course, the one thing that I’d shown some sort of moderate aptitude for was art, and another thing that had been a constant throughout my childhood was an interest in birds and animals. So my theory was, and my thinking was, at the time, “Well, if I can get myself out of the bank, I might be able to, one day, do some illustration, make some money.” The bank was an interesting place to learn about human nature, about the working world, about the relationships between grown-up people at work. It was all very interesting.

Lucy: Just not for you?

Paul: Well, you know, no, because I was an outdoorsy sort of person. I used to go bird watching. I liked, you know, nature, I wanted to have the sky above my head, and sitting in an office looking at computers or counting and trying to add up cheques and so on was absolutely anathema to me. But I eventually worked out that art school or a foundation course at art school might be something I could do. Now, the question was, how to finance it, and not having any money, and having a father who wasn’t interested, I turned to my mum and stepfather who had moved to the county of Essex, and asked them if by any chance, were I to find financing to do a foundation course, if they’d happily have me to stay for a year? Which they agreed to very willingly and I eventually managed to obtain a grant from Essex County Council, not that I’d ever lived in Essex, and to go and study for a year at the Colchester Institute College, to study an art foundation course, which turned out an incredibly significant move for me.

Lucy: It just shows you, doesn’t it, actually, we’re so ill equipped at like 16, 17, to make decisions about what we’re going to do with our lives. How, you know, it can be the complete opposite. I mean, I studied Maths and Sciences, and totally ruled out Arts because of the fact that it was around me all the time. And so it was so familiar to me that I was like, “No, no, no.” The thing is that, completely within a very short amount of time, a couple of years, I’m thinking, “But that’s naturally the most obvious thing I’m interested in, arts, what on earth am I thinking?” It’s actually been useful for me to have done Chemistry, particularly. But the thing is that you do think to yourself, “Why do we ask these big questions of these kids?” My son is picking his A-levels at the moment and, you know, I’m sure he’s not going to do anything to do with the A-levels that he ends up taking.

Paul: Lucy, it’s funny you should say that because my own children who obviously grew up around art, my son decided to go off and study law. He lasted six months and then he went off to do something else. My daughter studied business and international management, and both of them are now showing, at long last, a desire to do something creative having rejected what they knew as children. So, yeah.

Lucy: I know. I spend my life saying, “Just keep your mind open. Don’t close your mind to anything.” I was like, you know, “Learn as much as you can in everything.” You know, I think they should give kids a good few years off to go and volunteer or something for a few years until they get their head sorted before they have to start concentrating on exactly where life is taking them.

Paul: Well, I think there is a universal law which says that parents are always wrong.

Lucy: Yes.

Paul: So therefore, you know, the children, as it were, need, I think, to discover for themselves, you know, rejecting what the parents do. Apparently, because I didn’t really have a teenage rebellion, but for most children, you know, that rejecting of what they know is part of the growing up, sort of, rite of passage. So, yeah.

Paul Day ©

Lucy: When did you fall in love with sculpture?

Paul: Well, that’s an interesting… I love the phraseology, actually, of that question because on my very first day at this new, sort of, weird place called Colchester Institute College, and I’d never done any sculpture other than a bit of pottery,

I fell in love, but not with sculpture …

with a young lady who happened to be on the same course as me and who had just come from finishing A-levels at Roedean. And she was a beautiful brunette young lady with dark brown eyes, and obviously inquisitive and extremely cultivated. And that lady went on to become the lady with whom I share my life even now. So I met Catherine on that very first day at art school. So that was the, sort of, love of my life as it were.

Lucy: And she was on the foundation course?

Paul: She was on the foundation course, yeah. She had come from a very well-prepared background. I mean, the Art departments in Roedean had obviously given them opportunities to do live drawing, taking them off to Amsterdam, visited museums. I mean, you know, they have had a proper art education so Catherine came to the foundation open, understanding materials with an eye for composition and I came just with an HB pencil, a pencil sharpener, and a desire to draw things in the most accurate and detailed way that I could because that, for me, my understanding of art meant it had to be basically almost photo realism, otherwise it wasn’t any good. I had no idea about art, I mean, none whatsoever.

So the foundation course was a bit of an eye opener, actually, because all these, sort of, trendy young things who were coming to art school, they seemed open to these strange ideas, you know, like drawing with thick clumps of charcoal on the end of a broom handle or, you know, painting abstract compositions. I mean,

I didn’t even know the name “abstract” let alone know what it was.

I was two years older than the majority of my peers and very conservative, very wet behind the ears, I just thought I wanted to illustrate books on birds, basically. But art school forced me to look at the creative process a bit differently and it was quite uncomfortable, because by that stage lots of young people didn’t seem to be interested in what it was that had motivated them about art in the first place, which was making pretty pictures. They seemed to have this appetite for politics, and for, you know, delving into the psychology of art whereas I hadn’t got there yet, I was just wanting to make pretty pictures.

But foundation did allow us to play around a little bit with materials, you had to do printmaking, photography, video, painting, a little bit of sculpture, but it wasn’t clay, it was, sort of, making things out of bits of wood and gluing them together and, you know, not what I call sculpture, it was sort of like industrial assembly. But throughout the period, my friendship with Catherine and another good girlfriend, the three of us became studio mates for that year, led me to learn a bit about painting and a bit about charcoal drawing so that when the year was over, the logical step was to apply to do a fine art degree in painting. I still hadn’t really any concept of sculpture and I liked to tell stories, I wanted to make, sort of, illustrations, really.

Lucy: You can see that in all your work.

Paul: Well, it’s just…

Lucy: It’s all over it.

Why fight your nature, you know, if that’s where you feel comfortable?

Paul: I mean, one of the first artists to ever interest me was Pieter Bruegel the Elder. I was 11 when my mum took me to the National Gallery in London for the first time. We looked around at various paintings and then at the end of the visit, she allowed me to buy a little book in the bookshop. And the book I found and fell in love with was a small Dolphin book on Pieter Bruegel the Elder with “The Fall of The Rebel Angels,” and with “Mad Meg,” and with “The Triumph of Death.” And these reproductions were only the size of a postcard but I was drawn into the visual complexity and…

Lucy: Drama.

Paul: Drama, and the, sort of, nightmarish, imaginary world that Bruegel so beautifully portrays without understanding, also, the absolute complex beauty of his compositions at that state. And all I could see was the profusion of fascinating details. So while at foundation I was trying to find subjects for my work because apparently you had to have a subject, you know? As a young artist, you needed to have something to paint about. Well, I’d never even thought about that. As a concept, I just liked… if I saw a bird of prey, I thought, “well, I’ll do a picture of a kestrel,” if I saw a mouse, “I’ll do a mouse on a stalk of wheat”. I mean, my thinking was pretty shoddy. But because the tutor said, you know, “If you want to paint figurative pictures,” which was already an anachronism as far as the teachers were concerned, “then it had to be about something, why not work?” So not having really done any work in my life other than a bit of gardening and sitting in a bank, I started to paint pictures of people on building sites. And that became the sort of backbone, I think, of my portfolio for an application to, firstly, Cheltenham, then Exeter, then Dartington, because each time I went for an interview, I failed to get in. So failed to get in at Cheltenham, failed to get in at Exeter, scraped into the Art in a Social Context course at Dartington because they said, “Well, you’re Christian, you’re white, and you say your family read ‘The Telegraph’ and we’ve got nobody like that so you’ll make a good whipping boy.”

Paul Day at Work

Paul Day at Work ©

Lucy: Oh, I bet they’re kicking themselves, the other ones. I bet they’re like, “Oh, what did we do?”

Paul: I’m not sure but I think they barely looked at my portfolio, they just thought I would be an amusing clown for other people, you know, mostly on the left side of the political spectrum to take the mickey out of.

Lucy: This sounds like I’m name dropping here but, just a funny story that my son happened to be in primary school with Chris Martin’s daughter, and…

Paul: Chris Martin, is he in Coldplay?

Lucy: Chris Martin the singer. Coldplay.

Paul: All right.

Lucy: So, super successful. And I remember him one day telling me, I was bemoaning something, and him telling me that he had applied over, and over, and over again to get in the choir and they wouldn’t let him in. He said it was like every year he was rejected from the school choir. Which is like, “Really?”

Paul: Well, it’s nice that I was not alone. He’s been successful. I mean, you know, that’s the difference between us.

Lucy: Yeah, magic. And I mean, you know, you’d think, “What on earth were people thinking? How did they not see it?”

Paul: Well,

perhaps the thing is that perhaps that rejection is actually part of what made him tenacious and able to, sort of, handle the music industry.

So it’s quite funny to me in a way. You see at the time I was thinking, “Crumbs, if I get rejected three times, I’m going to be back working at the bank. You know, having had a year hiatus going to art school, I was going to end up back in some, sort of, dead-end, dull job.” Or, at least, as I saw it, dead-end and dull. Apologies to all those people. I know that one can flourish in any environment provided…

Lucy: It’s the right one.

Paul: …you’re the right person. But for me, that wasn’t an environment in which I could flourish. And I respect bankers, I can tell you because I rely on them, you know? But at the same time, you’ve got to be in the place where you should be. And, of course, my wife sailed into Bristol Art School on her very first interview which made it all the more galling, you know? So for me to fail on two and to scrape into the third, well, “Hey, ho, that’s life.” And while I was at Dartington for six months, one of the periods of work was in the sculpture department. And so I actually got an introduction into sculpture at Dartington. Now, admittedly, I don’t think they were really interested in teaching art because I think it was a very left-wing bias. Sort of, art in a social context and the tutors spent most of their time trying to teach you that traditional art was a, sort of, bourgeois legacy from the 19th century.

i-people by Paul Day ©

Lucy: Yeah, very out of fashion, wasn’t it?

Paul: Oh, totally. And what they wanted to do was to teach young people that we’re all creative, anyone can be an artist, and that art isn’t to hang in galleries, it’s to, sort of, express opinions, and ideas, and so on. And so the focus of that course wasn’t to learn how to be an artist. Now, I, sort of, get the idea that everyone has a creative fibre within them, of course, I believe that. But the fact is, I just wanted, sort of, somebody to show me how to learn to draw. And, of course, I wasn’t going to get it by staying at Dartington, but I did have an opportunity to invent myself a little sculpture in metal. And so I, sort of, learned to weld and made a metal wall relief on the subject of music for the Music department. Now, I’m sure health and safety would have had it melted down years ago because it was full of sharp bits of cut, barely-rounded steel sticking jaggedly out from a wall. But at the time, I was quite chuffed. And so that sculptural experience prompted me to make an application back to Cheltenham Art School, my original art school of choice halfway through the first year, because Dartington was obviously somewhere where, you know, they weren’t teaching art, they were teaching the politics of art which wasn’t what I wanted.

And, Catherine, my girlfriend at the time who became my wife, helped me put together a portfolio of drawings and photographs that looked like I could be a potential sculpture student. Because Cheltenham, when I phoned them, had said, “We’ve got no place in the painting department but we’ve got one space in the sculpture department. If you want to come and bring a portfolio to join the sculpture department, be our guest.” So I did. And I managed to pull the wool over their eyes, or perhaps they thought I was so square that they needed something funny in the course and accepted me for that reason. But, anyway, for whatever reason, they allowed me to come and join. Or, no, join for the start of the second year in Cheltenham in the sculpture department.

That’s what really, sort of, set me on the path because knowing I wasn’t a sculptor, yet…. well, still not really. No, no, no, seriously, Lucy, it’s just a fact.

Lucy: Hardly.

Paul: One has to face facts, you know? I could draw a bit, I could illustrate a bit, and because I was then going into a sculpture department, I had to pretend, somehow, to be interested in sculpture. Well, what I discovered was clay on that course, thanks to Nicholas Stevens, the, then, head of sculpture who was a ceramicist. He’d been out in California with David Hockney in the ’60s, he’d made all sorts of wacky and incredible clay sculptures. And you see, clay was also off the agenda for sculpture in those days. You know, you did ceramics if you wanted to work with clay, you didn’t pretend to be a fine art sculptor. And yet, when I went to the library and looked at the entombment or deposition sculptures of Niccolo dell’Arca, and these incredible, sort of, nun-like characters with the wind blowing their billowing robs made of terracotta, I mean, for me, seeing those blew my mind. I thought,

Hang on a minute, clay is a material for sculpture

Come on, let’s not joke about this, clay has always been the material for sculpture. Rodin made sculptures in clay, you know? Most of Bernini’s sculptures started life in clay. I learned that clay was a perfectly acceptable material for sculpture.

Lucy: But it’s almost like you’re having to do it, sort of, off camera because it’s out of fashion.

Paul: But nobody else was touching this stuff, they were, sort of, cutting pigs’ heads up in half, and sticking them on stakes, and casting them into bronze. They were disassembling vacuum cleaners and inflating large plastic shapes, you know, like balloons. The people on the course who were very, you know, inventive, intelligent, a lot of the more creative people, just had wacky ideas that I couldn’t understand, and I just thought, “Well, hang on, isn’t sculpture basically making figures in clay? Isn’t that what sculpture is?” That’s what I understood sculpture to be at that stage. So yeah.

Lucy: It’s like, teach yourself sculpture.

Paul: It was, it was. But at the same time, I think that the criticism and the environment of, sort of, debate and discussion actually was very helpful to me. Because, ultimately, you know, well, I felt that, “Yes, if I’m going to do this,

if I’m going to make sculptural art of any description, I’ve got to have something to say.

You know, I’ve got to have a direction for the work to travel in, to explore something about the world.” And so, for me, that became… Well, there were two aspects to it,

sculpture for me was relief, it was making pictures in clay.

Clay being such a sensitive and fine recorder of gesture and time. You know, the slightest mark on a wall of clay can open up a great sense of space, depth, a sense of speed and time, you know, and energy.

So clay was a fabulous recording device. But also, I realised that the subject that interested me at that time was simply the things I saw around me in the street, in particular, in the town centre of Cheltenham. The town centre of Cheltenham became my… it was where I would observe, just, members of the public going about their ordinary lives and be absolutely bowled over by the wonder, and the miraculous nature of the ordinary. Because, I mean, I’ve always had a strong Christian faith, I’ve always believed that life isn’t a happy accident, or even an unhappy accident. I believe that there is purpose and meaning in everything and in particular, that small things are never to be underestimated, you know? A mother wiping the snotty nose of her little child in a pushchair, in my eyes, sort of, became as like “Virgin of the Rocks” for Leonardo da Vinci. I mean, you know, that relationship between a small child and a mother is a constant throughout the history of humanity. It remains one of the fundamental building blocks upon which society is made and has flourished.

And so I don’t know. You know, for me, and I think of Bruegel as well, who celebrated ordinariness and made it transcend the ordinary into something utterly extraordinary, spiritual, and transfigured. I mean, Bruegel’s work has been a constant source of inspiration for me because of, not only the humour, the incredible balance within his compositions, the extraordinary intelligence of the way he sees the world and of his abilities, of course, pictorially, but also the way in which the small becomes absolutely monumental. I mean, “The Return of the Herd,” one of the “Series of the (twelve calendar) Months,” which has now become one of “The Four Seasons” because the others have been lost and destroyed over time. But, you know, the brooding storm, the monumental landscape, the extraordinary movement within that herd of cows, and yet the anecdote, the detail, the simplicity of life. I don’t know, it’s the fusion of the ordinary and the miraculous, I think, in his work, that is a constant source of inspiration to me, because I never see… I try and foster, at least, within my looking at the world, wonder, playfulness, and joy without being, sort of, naïve to the world’s dark side, to the evils…

Cattle 2015 Craggy Range NZ by Paul Day ©

Lucy: Don’t we have enough of the difficulties and things like that? I think that’s where I escape from, where sculpture takes me away from it.

Paul: Well, yeah. And if art is part of a form of redemption for the failings of humanity, it’s like, you know, we’ve been given the tools, the imagination, to be able to, sort of, look into the dark but also redeem it in some way. I mean, somebody like Goya, of course, has a vision and a darkness to his work. And yet, sometimes within that, one can feel, perhaps, you know, thrown on the rocks of destiny and destroyed by the darkness. But there are other times where, you know, there is even hope in some of the blackest work. I mean, Bacon, I think…is somebody who takes the, sort of, the visceral and quite a lot of negative and turns it into something incredibly beautiful, incredibly transformed, and something that becomes an object of great, deep joy, although the outward subject would appear to be violent.

Lucy: And when you’re talking about the ordinariness as well, and it, sort of, reminds me of Lowry. The, kind of, every day and on the streets. And, again, there’s always that darkness in the background which makes it interesting, but yet there’s also joy in the, I don’t know, children playing on the street or the…I don’t know, that balance.

Paul: Yeah. Well, no, completely, Lucy.

I think that the contrast, the light and shade which makes the worlds stand out so beautifully in relief

can be also reflected in the mood, obviously, within the composition of work. You know, where there might be an undercurrent, a deep, sort of, dark undercurrent, and yet there might be some very light, and frothy, and joyful aspects.

It is more difficult, I think, to create force in a piece that is, sort of, happy. Force seems to come through brooding, through darkness.

Lucy: Intention.

Paul: Yeah. Certainly, my early works based on observing the people in the streets of Cheltenham allowed me to fuse the figurative anecdotal, sort of, the anecdote with an architectural backdrop, and the architectural backdrop could also become a character, obviously, within the picture and create tension. Even if what the figures were doing was light hearted, the architectural backdrop could give gravitas. Or vice versa, you know, there could be something quite dreadful going on between figures and yet the background somehow would bring a, sort of, lightness or mist of frivolity to it. So, yeah, I think the narrative in art and the storytelling aspect of art is still something that I find gripping and interesting. And I struggle when if I’m asked to do, sort of, you know, portraiture of figures just on their own without a context. I like to put things into an imaginary context so that I can create a relationship between a person and a place, or people and a place, you know?

Lucy: So it sounds like that narrative style, actually, it was there right from the beginning?

Paul: Yes. When I was talking about those cartoon drawings I did at primary school showing the days of our week’s youth hostelling holiday, that, essentially, in a nutshell, I think… I’ve always been drawn to the illustrative. You know, in the past, certainly when I was at art school and in the years subsequent to that, there didn’t appear to be many people interested in that, sort of, narrative approach to art. And then, of course, as time has gone on, there are artists who’ve been very successful in contemporary art, going back to a, sort of, narrative approach to things. I mean, I don’t know much about contemporary art, to be honest, but Grayson Perry does these plots with, sort of, characters and stories on them.

Lucy: But it’s been huge, I mean, in terms of history of art. I mean, faith-based arts, it’s all narrative. I mean, think of the Giotto Frescoes. It goes back centuries and centuries, but just not… well, less so in sculpture in contemporary times. So it’s just like you readopted it, felt so familiar. Maybe it’s because of the faith background, that you have a familiarity.

Paul: Certainly. Because when I look back at our history and admire, for example, you know, the relief work of Donatello or of the, you know, the bronze friezes on the doors of the Baptistery and so on… I mean, the great relief work across all the cathedrals of Italy, actually, there’s so many examples of miraculous and beautiful relief work whether it be high relief, low relief, I mean, whether it be the southern Renaissance, the northern Renaissance. I mean, living in Burgundy, as I do, of course, Burgundy has a strong tradition from the 14th and 15th century of, Burgundy went up into the northern countries, into Holland, and Belgium.

And so, the tradition of altarpiece carving and sculpted reliefs is very strong here. Obviously, the Flemish primitives and we have one of the most exceptional Rogier van der Weyden paintings in the local town here. In Burgundy, we have “The Last Judgement.” And so those complex narrative scenes have always floated my boat. I did a long piece of work – when I say long, both literally and figuratively – in Belgium for a banker. What was it, how many feet? It’s a 75-foot-long, terracotta frieze called “The Urban Comedy.” It’s not really very well known. I don’t even know if you can find pictures on the internet, but it’s a story about Brussels, and it’s a story that is both surreal and historical, very much a kaleidoscope of both images, and times, and places that I put together logically and, you know, with a reasoned, sort of, way of thinking, it’s like a visual novel, actually, of Brussels.

And so, I spent time up there and realised, actually, that well, obviously Bruegel was born in Brussels, and his work developed there. The city of Brussels has a tradition both with altarpieces from the 14th, 15th century, but also with comics from the 20th century. And so, for me, in a sense, I can be inspired by both the high art and the, sort of, the lowbrow art as it were. But where a plot, a story is told, where characters develop, I love to see those scenes where the Bible stories are told, many stories are told in the same picture. And so your eye travels over the surface and you read, you know, you see so much. I don’t know. For me, that sense of time, the time element that narrative allows is very precious. And, of course, with sculpture, when you’re moving along the surface of, for example, that relief “The Urban Comedy,” you might spend half an hour of your time moving across the surface.

And as you move across the surface of a relief, the relationships between the characters change as well, depending on what angle you’re looking at and therefore you can introduce, almost, an interpretive sense as well. So, one scene, one particular spot on the relief scene in one way, seems to say something, and as you move around it, and the characters change place, the scene can say another story and so it’s full of possibility.

Opera 1999 by Paul Day ©


Did you say 70 feet long?


Seventy-five feet.

Lucy: I mean, long, large, that really has become your niche, hasn’t it?

Paul: No, it’s been forced upon me. It’s been forced upon me. Yeah, I’d never have chosen to spend so long on a piece. I spent 18 months making “The Urban Comedy,” I spent 3 years making the bronze frieze, “The Battle of Britain.” This is a long commitment, it’s tiresome, it’s boring, at times, it’s a struggle to maintain interest despite how exciting and exhilarating the subject can be. It’s a labour of love, it’s real discipline. And I’m not a particularly disciplined person but I’ve had to become committed. And I like doing small domestic pieces because I’m very impatient, you know, I want to move from one subject, to another, to another, to another very quickly. But when I’m when I’m asked to create something as long as, say “The Urban Comedy,” it’s a real challenge for me, and I have to say, it requires a sense of duty and commitment.

Lucy: Well, it’s a marathon, isn’t it?

Paul: Yes. Yeah.

Lucy: And there’s something about anything that’s a very long creative process that you inevitably have a saggy middle, where, you know, you start very excited and then, you know, it tails off for quite a while, and it gets… But then, obviously, there’s the finishing energy that comes…

Paul: You have a flurry at the end. I love that. I love your description of a saggy middle. I’m going to use that in future. I’m going to borrow that one from you because…

Lucy: Oh, no worries. Definitely when I’m, you know, writing, I find that the middle… I really could be either there or here, and then, suddenly, you go to the ending. And if, obviously, the bigger the project, I’m sure you get the bigger the high. Because, I mean, when you come to the end of, you know, 75 feet or anything enormous, I mean, that’s got to be an amazing high to get to the end of that and stand back and go, “It’s done.”

Paul: When we had an unveiling in Belgium and had thousands of people come into this underground brick cellar to see it, it was great to have the feedback from people who recognised their home city, who recognised the humour, the historical narratives, the political narrative that was woven into it. I mean, it was a highly researched piece.

URBAN COMEDY by Paul Day PARTS 2 (Above) & PARTS 3 (Below) ©

Lucy: I have to ask you about “The Meeting Place” because, for me, it’s a very special monument. I go back there very often when I’m in all sorts of moods, but because I’m moving around London a lot, it’s really easy to pass. So it’s one that I can come, you know, visit and feel like I can… You know, some people go meditate, I go and look at sculptures, but particularly that one. What was that like to unveil, was it magic?

Paul: No. No. And the reason it wasn’t was because it wasn’t finished at the unveiling and therefore I got lots of horrible criticism in the press over it. And also, it was a fascinating, sort of, project to be invited to work on, but it was also desperately, desperately fast. And because I’m not a sculptor, obviously, being asked to make a sculpture was quite a challenge. I mean, yeah, I’ve done a few sculptures as it were but most of my work has been relief. So working on this couple which have been commissioned, I mean, I had been invited to come up with some ideas for the railway station and I came up with three, two of which were, sort of, reliefs but big monumental, sort of, three-dimensional type of reliefs, bronze friezes, that had the potential for narrative, and storytelling, and background, and so on. And the one obvious idea that I suppose stuck most closely to the brief I was given was the couple.

And, of course, the commissioners of the sculpture went for the most obvious one which was the couple, and therefore… but I only had three months to complete the design and make the scale model for that sculpture. And I would have really benefited from six months to teach myself how to make sculpture and to do a really good proper job on it. As it happened, it didn’t turn out badly. It turned out, the couple I thought, and, you know, this is coming from somebody who doesn’t really consider themselves to be a sculptor, more of an illustrator. But the couple had a stylisation which was very deliberate on my part, because I wasn’t looking to do anything realistic. I wanted them to, sort of, be icons of, like, symbols of love, and symbols of love in a future time when the British physiognomy will look very different, perhaps in 100 or 200 years because so many different nationalities now… Anyway, so I didn’t want to illustrate English people on that plinth. I thought, “Well, what would English people look like in 500 years?” And so there’s a little bit of influence from Greek and there’s a little bit of influence from India, and from Assyria and it’s, sort of, a stylisation, while at the same time, making them look like they’re, sort of, believable people. But, obviously, they avoid the question of ethnicity.

Lucy: Absolutely.

Paul: You know, which I thought, for that piece, was probably relevant in a way. I’m not a woke person and I’m not a politically correct person, but I do think about meaning and I try and think about things as truthfully as I know how. But so, yeah, when the unveiling happened, the statue was sitting on a, sort of, temporary, wooden plinth which looked a little bit like a, sort of, school trophy. And therefore, I think that the press thought, “Well, is that it?” You know, this giant couple looking a bit, sort of, grotesque on the wooden plinth, it just looked, probably, a bit wrong. And so, therefore, and some people, probably, were annoyed that I got given this commission anyway. So there were some very nasty things said about the sculpture and me in the press which made the unveiling… I felt like I should probably go and live on some small island in the South Seas, you know, because…

Lucy: Oh, my goodness.

Paul: I was quite tender, and, you know, frail at the time.


It is such a beautiful sculpture. There’s something that makes you, every time you walk into that station, you think to yourself, “I hope there’s that love of my life like that.”

It’s a wonderful thing and it’s very easy to criticise people in the world, isn’t it?

Paul: I don’t mind. I don’t want people not to say what they think, I must say and I don’t mind being the butt of people’s jokes or anything, actually. But what pleased me was that, subsequently, 18 months later, we were able to finish the job with the bronze frieze around the base. And the frieze around the base is a little bit more, sort of, it was more compatible with what I was used to. And I also wanted, you see, to create a foil to this giant, romantic idyll. I wanted there to be a scene that would actually make people smile, laugh, talk to each other, be curious, and show relationships actually in real life. Slightly, sometimes dysfunctional, sometimes ambiguous, you know, not necessarily working as the, sort of, romantic idyll.

And I felt that because the clients wanted to call the sculpture “The Meeting Place,” if people were going to stand around waiting for some member of the family to come back on a train, then just standing underneath these two giants wasn’t really a particularly engaging experience. Yes, it was, sort of…it had a power, but I felt that by creating a visual narrative of relief, a bronze frieze around the base, it allowed people to look at something in detail and to get up close, and to touch, and to feel a story, albeit, not a particularly… You know, it’s not a precise narrative, it’s more a, sort of, series of suggestions of narratives. But I’ve noticed when I’ve been in the station on those rare occasions, that, actually, a number of people really do take the time to look at those reliefs and talk about them amongst themselves. And so the engagement with the public, which was in the brief, they wanted a democratic piece of artwork that would appeal to as wide a number of members of the public as possible. And so I think that the brief was fulfilled and that people get pleasure touching the dog’s nose, wondering about the soldiers going off or coming back from war, you know, asking questions about who’s doing what. It was censored by the great British media, of course, because there was a bit of a scandal prior to the installation where I was asked to change the composition a little bit so as not to offend anybody. We know how easily people are offended these days.

The Meeting Place, St Pancras Station, London by Paul Day ©


Lucy: Yes.

Paul: But, basically, it’s pretty much as I planned. And I feel that it’s, yeah, it’s a curious piece of work.

Lucy: So has there been a commission where you stood back and you thought, “That’s it, if I never do anything ever again, I’ve done it?”

Paul: No, because every time I finish a piece of work, or every day I leave the studio, there’s part of me which feels reasonably content with the work that’s gone on and there’s another part of me which just looks at the gaping holes and the dreadful flaws. And so I hope I won’t lose the desire to grow and to try and become a sculptor in my life because I think that, yeah,

I don’t feel as I’ve scratched the surface, in a sense, of what being a sculptor is.

I do feel that I’ve done a fairly large body of work and the reliefs themselves have added something to the history of the relief as an art form. You know, I’m never going to be a great academic sculptor because I was never trained to be an academic sculptor and I probably don’t have the talent for it. But I do think I’ve got a talent for interpretation and for coming up with an innovative solution to a problem.

Lucy: Could you tell us where people can find out more about you?

Paul: Well, I have got a website which is going to be rebuilt this year because it’s not up to date. But it’s not bad and so that’s probably a good place to start. I mean, I don’t know what Wikipedia says about me but it probably isn’t very up to date or accurate. So I have a book, actually, but I haven’t got it on Amazon. I’ve got a really lovely book which people can buy off me if they send me an email.

Lucy: See, that’ll have to be added to my library.

Paul: It’s got 300 pages, it’s got a foreword by the Prince of Wales, it’s got a lovely essay by a gentleman called John Russell Taylor who has been a critic for The Times for many years as a film critic, and lots of pictures. And, yeah, it’s really beautiful. A big, hardback book, a coffee-table book. But I haven’t made time to, sort of, promote it in any way so I just sell them to people who come into my studio or give them to clients.

Lucy: And social media, is that you or not?

Paul: I’ve got an Instagram account which I’m not using at the moment because the work I’m doing, I can’t publish because it’s, sort of, secret and under wraps. And it’s an 18-month project so for the moment, my Instagram posts are very few and far between.

Lucy: Right.

Paul: But there is an Instagram account.

Lucy: Very good. Well, thank you very much, Paul. It’s been a great chat and I hope to speak to you again soon.

Paul: I’m delighted that you asked me and it’s been a joy to talk with you, Lucy, thank you.