Genteel Activism, Community Projects and Bronze Sculpture with Clare Abbatt

Today, we talk to Clare Abbatt, a bronze sculptor who has undertaken commissions for Wicksteed Park, St Mary Magdalene Church, Northamptonshire and All Saints Church, Earls Barton. Currently, she has a bronze sculpture short-listed for the Emily Williamson Campaign. I began our conversation today by asking when did sculpture become part of your life?

Clare: Well, I think really it was when I was a student in London and I was studying English literature. And I started going to museums, the V&A and the British Museum. In the V&A, I remember the Cast Courts, and you walk into these large galleries with these whole mix of cast sculptures, from Trajan’s Column – I think it’s in certainly in two pieces, maybe three – and Gothic gateway and Renaissance portraits, just a whole mixture. And it really captured my imagination. And I think that being amongst those pieces, that kind of 3D world that you walk into, it really just captured my imagination. And so I wanted to try making sculpture myself, and I enrolled on an evening class and started like that, and then I used to go to an evening class at St. Martin’s. This is a long time ago. It was in my 20s and I’m now in my 60s. So it was a long time ago.

Anyway, that got me started. And then gradually I was working and then eventually I had two children. But alongside all that, I was trying to sculpt and develop my art. And eventually when my two children got to school, I did a foundation course at the local art college. And then I continued sculpting at home and started to get a few commissions. When my children left school, I went back to college and I did an Art degree, so not specifically sculpture, but a general Art degree. But I concentrated on sculpture; that was always my focus with whatever projects we were doing. And I did an MA following that and occasionally, I was getting commissions. And so since then I’ve kind of built on that and I do some teaching and a variety of work.

Lucy: Was there someone at home that was very creative or had there been seeds earlier on?

Clare: I don’t know, Lucy. I was always interested in art and I remember doing my O Level Art. But I think, I mean, it must have been there. And actually I do remember a little earlier one of my sisters brought – she was younger, she was doing A level Art – and she brought a piece of clay home from school. And she didn’t use it so I used it and I just love the feel of that, working with that. And I think that also influenced me to go on and pursue it.

Lucy: We’re so lucky, if you study in London, to have so many places where you can do course. And I did tons at St Martin’s because they had just so many that I wanted to do, different skills that I wanted to bolt on to my practical skills, and Morley College. And there are so many great ones, I felt very privileged to have that access to the evenings and be able to use it.

Clare: Yeah, I absolutely agree. And that’s why it’s so important that adult education classes are available, because it really can open doors for people I think. And I then moved to Northampton and yes, so that’s where I’m based, not too far from Northampton.

Lucy: And what about your first commission? How did you get that?

Clare: I enjoy portrait sculpture and portraits were among my first commissions. So that was, I guess, word of mouth. And I really enjoyed that; I still enjoy portrait sculpture. And you really are engaging with your sitter, with that person. And I suppose you’re responding to this presence, probably you are aiming to create a good likeness. And I certainly tried to do that. And as best as you can to create a representation of this person you’re engaging with. I did my father’s portrait, he’s still alive. He’s well into his 80s now, and I think it was about three years ago, he was staying with us, and I asked if I could start his portrait. And I think he was a bit sceptical about the whole thing. And anyway, he slightly grudgingly agreed to sit for me. So anyway, the morning kind of progressed. And I could just see, he suddenly, he was just interested in it, in this process. So we continued, and he had to come and visit us again, for me to finish it, to have enough time. But I think he really enjoyed it. And I’m so glad I did it. Because this is a person, of course, I’ve known all my life. And I know him well. But it was a different experience for him as a subject for the portrait. And it was very interesting, and an experience I’m really glad to have had.

Lucy: Do you do quite a lot of bronze sculpture as commissions? Is that a preferred mode of working?

Clare: No, I mean, I am sure, compared to some people, I haven’t had a large number of commissions. But it’s exciting because suddenly you’ve got this piece of work that maybe otherwise you wouldn’t have thought of doing. And I’ve done a couple of pieces for gardens. And one was an interesting one, because it was the garden of an oast house. So I used the form, the conical form of the oast roundel. I echoed that in the plinth. And yeah, so other commissions: I’ve done a couple for churches and children, figures of two children, life size figures, which stand in the lake at Wicksteed Park. So that was an interesting one.

Lucy: Because I saw that you’d done quite a lot for churches, I wondered if that was a particular interest of yours or not?

Clare: I can’t say it’s a particular interest, but they’re the commissions that came along, and I’m really glad to have done them. And one was to replace a small figure of Mary and the child Jesus in her arms. And unfortunately, the previous piece that was there was stolen. And so the church is Earls Barton Church, which has an Anglo Saxon tower, so it’s an interesting building. And I did this Madonna and Child for that church, and that’s cast in bronze. And then I did Mary Magdalene, for the church of Mary Magdalene at Castle Ashby. And I found a bronze in the floor of the church – a brass, I mean – and Mary Magdalene is depicted kind of holding the vial of oil. And so I echoed that in the figure.

Lucy: I just think that with the religious figures, especially replacements, it’s such a hard act to follow when you look at some of the great sculptors that have turned their hand to Madonna and Child and things like that. I really think it’s an incredible challenge.

Clare: I suppose it is. What I think happens when you’re making a piece, of course, it’s for a particular church and a particular community. And I think I focused on a piece for that community. So trying to make it specifically, hopefully mean something in that context. Which is not to say I don’t get anxious about of how a piece is evolving or how I’m going to represent it. But I suppose that is something that’s common to all commissions. It’s either for an individual or it’s for a church community, or in the case of Emily Williamson, it’s the RSPB and very specifically, for Fletcher Moss Park in Manchester, which I know has many people who love the park. And whoever is commissioned is going to create a piece for a lot of people for whom it’s going to mean a lot, a great deal, I think.

Portrait of my Father by Clare Abbatt ©

Lucy: Tell us a little bit about the bronze sculpture you submitted as your entry.

Clare: Okay. Well, I mean, what an inspiring woman Emily Williamson was. I mean, we all receive this photograph of her as a young woman, it’s a beautiful young woman. And she must, I think, have been quietly very determined and have vision. And not only did she found the RSPB, but she also did a lot of work for women’s education, and the education of nurses and midwives. So she was actively engaged in ways that were really making a difference to people’s lives. And along with Etta Lemon and Eliza Phillips, the foundation of the RSPB… what an amazing success it’s been, because they now have over a million members worldwide. And this trade in feathers and millions of bird carcasses every year was effectively stopped. So, very significant results from, I suppose – as these actions often do start – a quiet way, a modest way, but then end up having a real impact.

So she’s a really interesting character. She was one sister with, I think, five brothers. So I don’t know if you know the story of how Tessa Boase – the historian who really uncovered this and got the whole thing, the whole story, rolling – was researching and trying to find out about Emily Williamson, and she really couldn’t find anything very much at all. She was looking on Ancestry, the family history website, and Emily was born Emily Bateson. And Tessa found Patrick Bateson still living. Sadly, he died in 2017, but at the time Tessa got in touch with him. He was Sir Patrick, a biologist at Cambridge University. Emily was his great aunt. So Tessa said, “Do you have any photographs of Emily?” Because all photographs and records of the RSPB were destroyed during a fire caused by a bomb during World War II. The headquarters were in Kensington at the time. And so Sir Patrick Bateson provided this lovely photograph of Emily as a young woman who they simply knew as great aunt Emily.

And the family was amazed to discover that she had founded the RSPB. Sir Patrick was a biologist with a particular interest in bird behaviour. His daughter, Melissa Bateson, is a professor of animal behaviour at Newcastle University, and her special interest is starlings. So this interest in birds has gone through the generations. But until Tessa told them what Emily had achieved, the family had no idea!

Lucy: That’s incredible, isn’t it?

Clare: It is.

Lucy: Like a sort of consciousness that sees through the generations. I mean, it can’t be in your genes, can it? How does that work?

Clare: I know. So this story really engaged my interest and imagination and my proposal for the sculpture which would be a life-size figure of Emily. I would want the figures to be standing at ground level, so not on a plinth, so that people can really kind of move amongst them, have their photographs taken. And what I must just explain is not only a figure of Emily but I’ve represented Melissa Bateson, Emily’s great great niece, as a child. And Melissa and her mother very kindly sent me photographs of Melissa as a child. So my proposal is actually two figures, Emily and Melissa, and I gave Emily a brooch, quite a bold bird brooch. And I asked the foundry to polish the brooch and the child is holding a bird in her hands which is just taking flight. So I really want to have this feeling of the bird just lifting off. And the bird is also polished bronze. The bird itself is a starling because of Melissa’s particular interest. So the starling and Emily’s bird brooch are polished to stand out from the patina on the figures themselves.

Lucy: Wow, sounds fantastic. I mean, I’ve looked at the entries and voted, and they’re just all magic, aren’t they? They really have got a very high quality shortlist.

Clare: Yes, they have and without a doubt each shortlisted entry contributes something to the story of Emily Williamson.

Lucy: So tell us how you begin to pull a project like that together. Do you start with a pencil or research?

Clare: Well, lots of research and I found a fantastic dressmaker, Joanna, and she made a Victorian style dress for me, very similar to the one that Emily’s wearing in the photograph of her. So I have the dress and that is in my studio on a dressmaker’s dummy. And then I made a scale drawing because the specifications were that the adult figures should stand at 40 centimetres. And so I did some scale drawing, with the adult standing at 40 centimetres and the child, Melissa, figure stands at 26 centimetres. So that was helpful to start planning it. And then I built the armatures to that scale. And then a model, Hannah, wore the Victorian dress for me. And I spent some time modeling with Hannah and taking measurements and scaling it down.

Lucy: So you knew right from the start, what you were going to do? Or did you have various ideas?

Clare: When the project was first launched, and I entered for the long list, I worked with a couple of ideas. But as I say, the story of the family, going through the generations, for me, it’s a very strong element in the whole project. And so it was very easy really to decide that that’s what I wanted to focus on and express in the piece.

Emily Williamson Campaign, Bronze maquette by Clare Abbatt ©

Lucy: Really, really exciting. I’m really, really looking forward to seeing one of these bronze sculptures as a large scale work.

Clare: Yeah, well, of course I would love to be selected and have the opportunity to make it life size but it’s been really interesting. And something I’m so pleased I’ve been involved with. And actually I have done drawings. Well, when Tessa first got in touch with me to ask me about what launching a sculpture project like this would involve, we had some conversations. And I suddenly had the idea of a drawing of Emily with a flock of birds, kind of flying past her, but also as if they were thoughts flying through her head. So I did this drawing of Emily, and it’s quite large scale. And Tessa liked it. And she then asked me to do a drawing of Etta Lemon, and then Eliza Phillips.

And these are taken from – the inspiration, and they are absolutely taken from – portrait photographs of these women. So Etta Lemon is depicted as she sits in a photograph on a chair, and she’s reading a book. And the bird element in that drawing, I drew Raggiana bird-of-paradise, which was a bird that she was particularly interested in, and which was threatened with extinction. And the bird is kind of rising up as if she’s reading about it, but in her imagination, it’s flying up out of the book. And then Eliza Phillips – there’s no known photograph of her at all. So Tessa and I discussed what to do about this. Actually my husband helped, we were looking online for anonymous photographs of Victorian women.

And my husband just came across this album, which was for sale on eBay. And it’s just full of these photographs. I don’t know whether they are lots of different family members or what, but not a single one of them has a name. And in this album, there was a photograph of a very strong looking woman, absolutely about the right age for Eliza Phillips at the time. And she looks directly out at the viewer. And so anyway, Tessa and I discussed it and decided that we’d buy this album, and then base the drawing of Eliza Phillips on this particular character. So that’s what I did. And her particular bird of interest was this little egret. Because the feathers of the egret were used a lot in millinery and fashion. And they were also threatened with extinction. So with the Eliza Phillips drawing, two egrets are kind of flying in front of her. So that’s another project related to the wider one that I really enjoyed.

Lucy: So is it a hard career being a professional sculpturist? Has it been a hard road for you?

Clare: Well, it depends how you define hard. I think you’ve got to be very persistent, follow your interests and not give up. I find, to be absolutely honest, it’s very difficult to earn a good income, it’s very, very difficult indeed. And everybody will have their ways of coping with that.

Lucy: But like many creatives, maybe you have to supplement it with other things.

Clare: Yes. And as I say, I do some teaching. And of course that’s enriching. And yeah, you now, you want to do it. You really, really want to do it. So you do your best to make that possible.

Lucy: And is there a way that you market yourself? How do you find work?

Clare: Well, I have a website, which I can give you the details of, and that links to an Instagram account, and I’m on Facebook. And I suppose otherwise it’s word of mouth, and then occasionally, either organising an exhibition, or showing some pieces in an exhibition. And although, you know I’m not embarrassed to say I’m 64, I don’t want to stop ever what I’m doing. And I feel I’ve got to this point, and I really want to build on what I’ve learned so far, and hopefully it’s going to keep me going till the end of my life. And I feel there’s just so much to learn, so much to try.

Lucy: It’s magic, that, isn’t it? Because for so many people, life is a grind, as in their daily work. And yet, not wanting to retire is a thing that not many people have. That wonderful thought or plan. I totally agree, I plan till my very last moment in the world, I hope to still be creating in some form or another.

Clare: And, of course, another thing about doing anything creative – whether it’s art, or music, whatever, writing – I think it really enhances your appreciation of all the work that you look at. So through making sculpture, when you look at other sculptors’ work, you’re looking with a very particular interest and I just think it’s enriching in that way, it does inform your looking.

Lucy: But you must have days where you think, “Ah, I’m gonna pack it all in!”

Clare: Well, there are things that obviously don’t go as well as you hope and you’ve just got to try again. Yes, and like any working life, there are some disappointments and frustrations. But overall, I think that there’s a strong motivation to continue.

Lucy: I often find that sometimes I have days where I’ve written something, and I come back to it, and I think, “What idiot wrote this?” And so I have to sweep it all away and write it all again. But at the time when I was writing it, I thought it was really quite good. So fresh eyes, I always think is a wonderful tool.

Clare: Fresh eyes, and maybe a variety of projects or trying different things. For example, I work a lot with clay and then occasionally pieces are cast in bronze. So that process is you know, it’s ancient and I love that, the way really you feel it connects right back to the way sculptures have been made for hundreds, thousands of years. And then I’ve made pieces like this figure, and I can send you some pictures. So these ash figures, as you can see, they’re quite small. And I made them with ash and glue, and I showed them in an exhibition. And also I did a portrait head, and then I made a mold, and then I cast it in fibreglass and ash and it just gives the piece such a different character. And then I showed these little ash figures in an exhibition and they were mounted on a piece of quite rough wood. And somebody wrote this amazing poem in response to these figures called “Ash on the Wind.” And I was just so delighted. She’s called Judith Line, and it’s a really strong poem, and that was great…

Lucy: Inspired by you!

Clare: Well, it’s sort of a conversation between work.

Portrait of Ellie by Clare Abbatt ©

Lucy: Clare, tell people where they can find out a little bit more about you and your bronze sculpture.

Clare: Okay, so my website address is Clare Abbatt, and it’s often spelt wrongly. So it is clareabbatt.com.

Lucy: Very good.

Clare: And I have an Instagram page. So there’s a link to that through my website, or it’s @Clareabbatt.

Lucy: Very good. And thank you so much for joining us today, Clare. It’s been a real pleasure.

Clare: Thanks very much, Lucy. Thanks for talking to me.

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