Ancient Civilizations, Mythology and Classical Figurative Sculpture with Louisa Forbes

Today I’m talking to Louisa Forbes, who blends themes of religion and mythology into her classical figurative sculpture, and is inspired by the idea of a connection with people thousands of years ago. When I first came across her, it was her patination that drew me in immediately. She seems to match her themes and her colouring of her sculptures so perfectly, and that’s something I hugely admire.

She’s exhibited extensively and has permanent public works in many places including Churchill and Trinity College in Cambridge, Chelsea Old Church, and St. Thomas’ Hospital in London. I began our discussion today by asking her if she’d always been creative.

Louisa: Yes, basically, in a word. I mean, I started when I was little. I was the fourth child, and I think to amuse myself apart from anything else, I used to go down to a stream at the bottom of the garden and play with the clay. And it just…when I started actually producing things with it and presented them, I got a rather exciting reaction from people. So I think that was an attention seeker as a child, how it started.

Lucy: Well, mud pies are always such fun, but I’ve never produced anything that was worthy of any merit, not with mud, anyway. And so, was there anyone else in the family quite interested in making things?

Louisa: My grandmother, my father’s mother was a very eccentric lady who was a Girton girl and studied Classics, but she also went to the Slade in about 1907.

Lucy: Oh, incredible.

Louisa: And she was there around the time of Augustus John and Professor Tonks. And so I used to go to her when I was stuck trying to draw an ear or something, and she used to, sort of, give me the classical basis of drawing. But, sadly, she obviously passed away. She was quite elderly, I think, when she had her children, so she was a pretty old lady when I knew her. But she was very interesting.

Lucy: And so, was there a school influence as well? Was there a good encouraging art mistress or…?

Louisa: That was my teacher, History of Art A Level. So, I did Classical Civilisation, History of Art, and Art A Level. So it took me from, sort of, 500 BC right up to 1955.

Lucy: Covered all the bases.

Louisa: There was a school trip with the History of Art lady who was a famous History of Art teacher. She was absolutely wonderful, called Susana Svoboda. And she took a gaggle of us awful teenagers off to Florence, bless her, on a couchette, can you imagine?

Lucy: Incredible.

Louisa: And the introduction to Florence really went deep with me. I absolutely loved it. And she was such an extraordinary teacher. She had such a real genuine love of the work, and we used to be surrounded by…everywhere we went to galleries, we would attract a crowd because she was just so interesting to listen to. And I just had a sort of soul reaction to Donatello, and Masaccio, and all the early…Uccello. I really loved it, and that’s been with me ever since. I’ve always tried to follow my heart, and that’s where it is really.

Lucy: Wow. Well, the thing is that it is such an incredible city, isn’t it? It’s just like nothing else, although it makes me a little bit sad that some of the sculpture they have put reproductions in place. I know that obviously they’ve brought them inside to try and slow the environmental impact on them, but the thing is that I still feel like it’s not quite the same. It’s fibreglass and…I don’t know.

Louisa: No. No, it doesn’t do it. I always knew I wanted to go straight to art school and I didn’t have a gap. I just went straight on to…very lucky, got into Chelsea Art School, Foundation, and then applied for the degree and got that. So I did four years straight. And I had an illness halfway through and went off inevitably to Florence for six months, and studied again.

Lucy: To convalesce.

Louisa: Yeah, basically. I was working as a nanny for a family to pay my way. I went into drawing with Signorina Simi who was very structured, very classical old school, and actually that made me realize how lucky I was to have the freedom to use my imagination and to do what I wanted rather than being forced to draw from plaster models, or have the same pose for months and months. And it was excruciatingly boring because…I mean, but that’s what, you know, the old apprentice would have done.

And it was a big lesson to realize how lucky we are now to have the freedom.

Lucy: Yeah. But also fantastic to have that really quite traditional schooling in that kind of medium.

Louisa: But I see it as a platform to jump from rather than something that you should… I mean, it can be draconian. It can squeeze the life out of an artist, I think, to be so immersed in rules.

Lucy: Yeah. And so you started to find your own way when you went back into art school?

Louisa: Yes. Sculpture-wise I was making big reliefs because they were easy to carve to start with. But then I discovered actually the drawing in relief is rather interesting. You can pull your surface in and out so that you’re using perspective in some parts, and it can be terribly abstract in others, and using the material to making the clay really speak. So it’s very obviously made of clay, so you’ve got, sort of, rough, very loose working, and then you can be as tight as anything in other parts. And it just has a…it’s, sort of, one bit punches off the other, and I’ve always enjoyed that.

Lucy: So it was clay that you really enjoyed working with rather than any other material?

Louisa: Yeah. At art school, I went through…I tried carving, and I tried stone, I tried working direct plaster and wood and just kept going back. And, also, I tried because it was deeply unfashionable to be figurative when I was there. And I tried very hard to become an abstract for about a term, but I just had no interest in it. It just didn’t fire me up. And I’ve always had this thing about making people.

Lucy: But, also, maybe artists thrive when you’re going against the grain a little bit. So, if everybody wants you to do abstract work, actually, maybe there’s more of a thrill in doing the opposite.

Louisa: Yeah, it could have been. It could have been. I certainly had to argue my way. That was an education in itself trying to intellectualise about it, which I’m not very good at. I, sort of, slightly depended…there was a wonderful biography by Epstein where he basically said, “My work is my voice. My work should speak for itself.” And this business of explanation, of endless sort of intellectualising, analysing, it shouldn’t be necessary because it’s a visual art. If it’s not actually communicating what you want it to, then maybe it’s failing, I don’t know.

Lucy: But the only thing is that I find quite often that when I interpret things and the sculptor says, “Oh, no. You know, I want other people to have their own opinion,” then when I say my opinion, they’re like, “No. It wasn’t supposed to be that.” I’m like, “Oh, okay.” But the thing is that is the tremendous thing about sculpture I think, particularly if it’s figurative, I think, is that it gives you an idea of how to understand it, but not necessarily tying everything up so that it’s obvious. I think abstract is, it’s even harder to know exactly what the interpretation is.

Louisa: Yes. That’s true. But it also opens up a can of worms because if you slip up making figurative work, it jumps. Whoever’s looking at it, you can see straight away that it’s not right. If the bones are slightly in the wrong place or the proportion’s not quite, or there’s something just slightly not right about it, people are very quick to spot it. And so you’ve got to be really on the ball about your anatomy. And you can digress, but if you digress in a way that doesn’t work, it’s very obvious if it’s figurative.

Louisa Forbes ©

Lucy: And so, tell me about your process.

Louisa: I used to, before I got commissions, I used to just work straight with the clay. And I’d play around. I’d have a very loose armature very often suspended from a beam in my studio so that the wire coming down took the weight and I didn’t have to support it from underneath, and that gave me complete freedom with how I was making things. That sounds quite weird, doesn’t it?

But it’s just, most of the time you struggle trying to keep the clay up off the floor, off the ground so it doesn’t fall down, and this is a completely a new way of thinking. But with commissions, obviously you have to have far clearer understanding of where you’re going with it to be able to present it to the client and get their approval before you kick off. And you can’t really start playing around with limbs going all over the place and changing it radically halfway through.

So, yeah, that’s a bit of a learning curve. I started to have to do drawings and take maquettes on the bus and things like that. So it’s an interesting difference between commissioned and non-commissioned work, but, you know, one does have to prepare. And so I have sketch books. I do a lot of research. I do a lot of…if something can spark me from a face in a crowd, or a photograph, or anything, or a lot of my work comes from stories.

So, with the Stratford piece, the Puck piece, the brief was about Shakespeare, and about Bell Court, and Fountain Courtyard, which is where he’s actually sited, and I just felt Puck was such a good character as a fun person to have in a space like that. But he was going to have Titania and a relief on the wall, and a whole load of fairies, and owls, and God knows what. And it gradually got whittled down. I had a vision, because there was a green wall behind him, I had a vision of glow worms all through the wall. I thought that would have been really fun, and a very romantic place to meet a friend to go and see a film, or whatever.

Lucy: Oh, it sounds a shame that it didn’t all get…

Louisa: It would have been fun. But, you know, that’s the game. You know, you can’t choose everything.

Lucy: And so, do you prefer working to commission?

Louisa: Oh, I’m delighted when I am commissioned, obviously, because it funds the rest of it. But, no, I mean, either way. I’m just happy to be working.

Lucy: So the ideas come to you when you’ve got the outline for the commission? So it wasn’t a request for a Puck?

Louisa: Not at all. No. There were about sixty of us, I think, originally, who put forward proposals for this place, and they were a totally disparate lot. I mean, it was very, very different, and I think I just felt Stratford, you know, and it’s such a tourist venue, and it was a shopping mall, and it was something that would be easy to understand for everybody walking past who this little character was. And I was incredibly lucky to get it, really.

So, the idea of it was more about the place, and I think my own private work comes from a lot of it, from history and trying to understand ancient people, the people who lived thousands of years ago. I’m fascinated by early history, and particularly Minoan civilisation. So, just the connection between women, particularly women then and now, and the fact that we still think in the same way, we are still people. And that’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? That you could actually have a conversation with somebody from a few thousand years ago, and the same loves and interests and…

Lucy: That’s lovely. I love that.

Louisa: That’s what it’s all about, really. That’s the core of my work, what I’d love to be able to communicate, is that.

Lucy: And so, do you have a creative practice? Do you have a routine that you carry out every day?

Louisa: You’re gonna love this. It’s such a girly thing. I have to clean my space. And I can’t just go there and start work and unwrap stuff. I have to go and, you know, do a bit of hoovering, and sweep it up, and get the clay gone from the day before, and maybe make a coffee. And I often start drawing, and it just gets me there.

Lucy: It’s a nice little routine.

Louisa: And I’m, kind of, thinking while I’m cleaning, like which bits I need to change, or what needs doing to the sculpture. So it’s kind of an introduction. You just, you know…

Lucy: A transition. It is quite a difficult thing, to get into that sort of creative flow of working. And so, I think it’d, be like anything else, like an athlete warming up. It’s hard to jump straight in and do something.

Louisa: Yup. And sometimes I really enjoy the silence, and need to concentrate and have it completely quiet. And other times I listen to all sorts of weird stuff, a lot of Handel, a lot of music, early baroque, and a lot of…I used to listen to poetry quite a lot, because sometimes a line…listening to John Donne or something, just a line would give you that understanding, that kind of feeling of humanity, or something that would just spark, make you feel it and then you’re in it.

Lucy: So, do you use the poetry to inspire the work you’re currently on, or is it a catalyst for new ideas?

Louisa: It could be. It could be that that line just focuses me on what I’m feeling about the piece. It, sort of, brings me into it. But the strangest thing is it’s very absorbing, sculpture. And when you’re working with your hands like that, your mind can be all over the place. You can be thinking about…like when you’re driving and you suddenly think, “Help, I’ve missed the last 10 miles.”

Lucy: Yes. “Where has it gone?”

Louisa: And you think, “God. I haven’t been concentrating. It’s becoming bland, or whatever.”

But other times you’re in that mode, and then suddenly you see something in the clay, and you think, “Blimey. Did I do that?” And it becomes incredibly exciting because it’s as if somebody else is coming through me and making it. And it’s something so alive, and I need to catch it.

And you can miss it very easily, but it’s just the most exciting feeling, and I, kind of, live for that bit where the clay is just doing its own thing, and I’m almost not in control of it.

Lucy: It’s something alive in the clay, from what you’re saying.

Louisa: Definitely, definitely! Spend my life trying not to kill it.

Lucy: And so, are you producing at quite a rapid rate, or are some fast and some slow?

Louisa: Oh, that’s a good one. Sometimes I work for six months on a piece and then bin it, and then the next one will take half an hour. It’s so random. But I think a lot of it is because the working goes into the back of your mind in a way, and then it’s all there for the next piece, so it happens very quickly sometimes.

Lucy: And it’s not to do with mindset? Not to do with if you’re anxious or …I don’t know, the lockdown has upset a lot of writers, I think, that I know. It interrupted their creative process, but do you think that affects the speed for you?

Louisa: It did to start with. I started doing Zoom life drawing, which was hilarious. So, there was a ballet dancer in St. Petersburg, and a flamenco dancer from North London, they’re all modelling in their bedrooms…

Lucy: Brilliant.

Louisa: …for mad people like me on Zoom. That was brilliant, really good fun. And I think that was actually something good that came out because I was very sad not to be able to go life drawing, which I do a lot of. Zoom…I don’t know. I think the sculpture practice… I did get down, I did get low because I felt, apart from anything else, I live in a big place, so I didn’t have any help suddenly. And I had five people to feed who were working from home. So there was a lot of running around, and shopping, and feeding, and relentless, really, seven days a week with no end to it.

Louisa Forbes ©

Lucy: I can totally sympathise. My kids are eating me out of house and home.

Louisa: Yeah. Totally, right. You know, that’s it. I’ve gotta be in the studio from 2:00. And I started being quite firm about that, and they could help themselves to whatever.

Lucy: Yeah. I keep saying, “The café’s closed.”

Louisa: Yeah, exactly. It was quite tiring, quite tiring because there was, sort of, no foreseeable end to it. That’s the weird thing, I think. But there were positive sides. And I…I mean, obviously I love being with my family because they’re all grown up now, so it was lovely seeing them so much. But, yeah, the sculpture, more than ever, became an escape, and I started making a very feminist piece, which is basically Eve looking at her apple in mockery, with her hand on her hip, saying, “What the hell is all this about?”

Lucy: Yeah. That’s a nice idea, though. I like that.

Louisa: Well, she’s quite…I think “bemused” is the word.

Lucy: And so, do you produce any pieces that are not commissioned? I mean, obviously it’s an expensive process to be particularly casting without a commission.

Louisa: Well, I’ve already got the cash from a previous piece that was bought at Christmas time, actually, so I had the funds for it. So I was producing a bigger piece than normal with those funds. But actually I had a phone call a couple of days ago, and somebody might be interested in buying it, which I’m very excited about. So that’s the dream.

Lucy: Yes. The thing is that if it can fund the next one, that’s the ideal, isn’t it? It keeps it going.

Louisa: Yeah, yeah. Exactly, exactly.

Lucy: And so, has there been a commission where you’ve stood back and thought, “That’s it. If I never do another thing, I’ve done it?”

Louisa: Never, never.

Lucy: Never good enough.

Louisa: I’m always a million miles away from where I want to be. It’s a huge mountain to climb. And, I mean, I’m nearly sixty now and I feel like a baby. I’m just a beginner. When you think of the amount of time it takes to get good at something, and then feed in family and life, and modern life particularly, we’re so distracted.

Lucy: I agree. Yes.

Louisa: It’s a struggle. But, you know, I mean, there are glimpses. There are little bits and pieces that keep me hanging on in there, sort of, bit of hope that I’m getting a bit closer, but, no, nowhere near yet.

Lucy: Well, I think that, though, that’s what keeps us interested in it, isn’t it, creating? I suppose if you do maybe peak too early, then maybe there’s nowhere else to go.

Louisa: Yep.

Lucy: Obviously, you do make quite a lot in bronze. Is there a particular love for bronze that you have or is it, really, is it just because it’s such a practical material for reproducing your work?

Louisa: I think the thing about bronze is it’s so changeable depending on the patina. And I’m sure you’re well aware of it. You know, the colours and the things you can create with the different acids. And so, I do my own patination.

Lucy: That’s so interesting because that’s one of the things that I really love about your classical figurative sculpture. It’s…I know that often you have a natural world feeling to the pieces, but I think the way that they’re patinated, and I wasn’t quite sure whether some of that was a natural evolution or whether it was 100% intentional, but it just looks like it’s part of the natural world. And, obviously, you know, when the subject reflects that, it is really very well done.

Louisa: Oh, that’s really nice to know, because I feel like a beginner with…it’s such a difficult thing to get right with the temperatures and the different strengths of the cupric and ferric. And that’s basically all I really use. I’ve had to go with some bismuth in the past. So it’s a little base, and then washed off, and then ferric and cupric, either in a mix. Quite weak, though. And it just gives me the rusty colors, and the greens, and I play with them, and hopefully it feels as loose as the clay. So, bronze gives me that opportunity to, sort of, play with it when it’s in metal, so I haven’t quite lost control.

And the other thing I cast into is lead, which is a different animal altogether. But it’s…has a softness to it that…bronze is quite tough, can be quite hard with the light, so lead I find works well with old buildings, and in a country, you know, in a, sort of, green, in a garden setting. And I love, absolutely love putting sculpture in gardens. I think it works hand in hand. It’s got a focus. It’s got an interest. It can lead you along an alley. It works beautifully with gardens. So that’s the other great love I have, is gardening.

Lucy: Yes. I think sculpture and gardening, ideal bed partners, really, aren’t they?

Louisa: Yeah. Mind you, neither of them are very good for your back, and I have had operations, but I’m all good.

Lucy: Look at Barbara Hepworth’s garden. You know, sculptors seem to have the eye for both things.

Louisa: Actually, that’s something I should mention, is when I was little, my mother was a great gardener, and she took me to local gardens down in Kent where we grew up. And Sissinghurst was a huge influence on me. I remember going through the series of rooms in the garden and coming across sculpture by surprise in a way. I think it was Simon Verity. There was a lovely sculpture there. And I just thought, “That is perfect. That’s what I want to have. That’s what I want to create: that feeling when you come across something unexpectedly and it sends you”…

Lucy: Well, I think you have definitely pulled that off.

Louisa: Oh!

Lucy: It’s a funny thing about the patination, I know sculpture is always…it’s form and surface combined, but sometimes I feel like the form is beautiful, and the patina is beautiful, but they don’t always mesh. I think they can be separate in their own beautiful way, but I think your classical figurative sculpture definitely manages that very, very well. They look completely integrated.

Louisa: Well, I should thank my foundry for that because they taught me. It was Simon Allison. I first went to Simon Allison when he had red bronze in Brixton, and I was living in Stockwell. And he’s a New Zealander, my mum’s a New Zealander. He had just understood what I wanted, and he had a very loose way of working the patina when I first started with him 35 years ago, and gradually I’ve, sort of, taken it over, and used it more.

They’re still very helpful to me. I couldn’t do it without them, and technically I’m probably useless. But I do think that if you go to a huge foundry, you’re far more likely to find a sort of industrial level of skill, but it looks bland in a way. It doesn’t have that feeling of the artist being involved that much. And it’s not their fault. It’s just, you know, there are ways and ways of doing things. It’s a very technical thing to do.

Louise Forbes patinating Puck©

Lucy: Okay. So, would you be able to tell everyone where they might be able to find out more about you and your classical figurative sculpture?

Louisa: Yes, absolutely. I have a website, louisaforbes.com, which I’m hopeless at keeping up to date, but I will try. And Simon Allison now runs the foundry called Lockbund. And they have a website, and I’m on that as well. So, all my contact details are on my website.

Lucy: Fantastic. And, do you have any preferred social media or way of getting in touch with you for the fans?

Louisa: Just an email is absolutely fine. I should also have mentioned that I’ve become very involved with the Society of Portrait Sculptors. They put me on the council.

Lucy: Oh, brilliant.

Louisa: So I’ve been doing a lot more portraiture recently. And that’s a wonderful website. So, it’s Society of Portrait Sculptors. And they’ve got an online exhibition which is on, I think, until the end of July at their annual show, which is exciting because they come from all over the world, and it’s an amazing range of talent, really interesting.

Lucy: Oh, that sounds just up my street. That’s what I’ll be doing this evening.

Louisa: Oh, yeah.

Lucy: Well, thank you very much for talking to us today. It’s been a real pleasure.

Louisa: My pleasure. Thank you.

Puck by Louisa Forbes ©

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