Commemorative Sculpture with Martin Jennings

Career Change, Literary Figures and Commemorative Sculpture 

Martin Jennings statues have been commissioned by the UK’s greatest institutions: the National Portrait Gallery, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Palace of Westminster, the University of Oxford, and many others. His statue of John Betjeman, the driving force behind the saving of St. Pancras station in the 1960s, welcomes visitors from all over the world to the capital city. He won the Public Monuments and Statue Associations Marsh Award for Public Sculpture in 2017. Every time I see another one of his commemorative sculptures, that one becomes my favorite. They’re so full of character, to the extent that if I have to stand and choose between which one I like the best, there’s no way I could make a decision. And that’s why I’m so excited to speak to him today.

Lucy: Today, I began our chat by asking him if he’d always been creative.

Martin: Well, that’s a big, open question. I think we all are from birth, and I have, I suppose, been so in different ways. I went to university, studied English literature, and looked at art literature, as it were, from the outside before I went to art school to start making things myself.

Lucy: And so, it was books and literature, words, that drew you before the form and fine arts?

Martin: Yes, it was. I come from a very artistic family. My mother was a painter, and I have several brothers who are writers and journalists, and also painters and good at drawing and that sort of thing, and calligraphy. In fact, what I first studied at art school was calligraphy and lettering. But I came to it rather late in my 20s. So I’d struggled with playing the piano at school, and, as I said, most of my exposure to the arts was through books and reading. But as a visual artist, well, I didn’t really start till I was in my early 20s. But it has gone on continuously since then.

Lucy: Was it somebody that influenced the moving towards sculpture, or did it just feel like a very natural progression?

Martin: there was a moment at school I remember, I went into the art teacher’s sculpture studio. And as soon as I saw the working life he had, you know, surrounded with blocks of stone, and with dusty books on the bookshelves, and just, sort of, dust everywhere, I came to the conclusion that this was the life for me.

I’d never have to put a tie on ever again. But I then went to university, and it took me until after I left university before I really approached it seriously.

Lucy: With my own children, we have a studio at home, and there’s all sorts of projects all the way around them, but because it’s so familiar to them, they kind of go against that. They want to do the opposite of what I’m interested in. But for you, I suppose, the familiarity of having your mum painting, and the materials, and those things at home, just felt much more natural to you?

Martin: It certainly seemed like an occupation that could command respect, insofar as my parents were forever talking about art and artists, mainly painters. So where other people might talk about, I don’t know, sports or politics or whatever, it was always, “Have you seen ‘X’ great painting recently?” Or, you know, “Don’t you admire ‘X’’s brushwork?” Or something like that. So, artists of various kinds, and writers as well, were up in the pantheon of important people, which they might not be for other families. And then with my own children, what I found…I don’t know if you find the same, is that one child has very much taken up the visual arts baton, and another not at all. So, it’s partly about the roles that people take up according to their natural affinities.

Lucy: So it was after art school that you started being more serious about sculpture?

Martin: No, I never went to art school for any extended period. It was after I went to Oxford. I then did bits and pieces of art school, but I was fed up with education at that point. So my art’s education has been rather piecemeal. But I did a year studying lettering at the City and Guilds of London Art School.

Lucy: Great college.

Martin: It certainly is. I did two years of a part-time sculpture course at the John Cass in Whitechapel. And I did various evening classes at Morley College and at St. Martin’s. But by and large, I, kind of cobbled it all together for myself, really.

Lucy: I’ve done courses at all those places myself as well, because they offer brilliant short courses. It’s one of those things that I quite often talk to students about, who are thinking about going to do degrees. And I say, “Short courses can be incredibly valuable actually, and give you a lot of skills in a very short time that you can build on then. You don’t have to necessarily take the degree route, which these days is awfully expensive if you make the wrong decision as well.”

Martin: Absolutely. And particularly so for so-called mature students. Anybody who’s done a degree before, might not want the intense concentration of several years, and might well have the energy to know precisely what they want to choose in terms of their own learning and just go and find it. Pick it out here and there.

Philip Larkin, Kingston-upon-Hull by Martin Jennings ©

Lucy: Did it immediately become a job thing, or were you doing it on the side for a little while?

Martin: I decided at the end of a year at City and Guilds, that I couldn’t stand any more formal education, which is no criticism of the course. I’d just done enough of it. So I went off, and I was apprentice to Richard Kindersley, who makes carved inscriptions – or did then make carved inscriptions – and lettering for buildings. And it was a great training, not only in how one might run a business, but also how you could adapt different materials to different purposes, and particularly, how a work of art might work with a building, which later on has stood me in good stead with making statues.

Lucy: Yeah. Well, they are very often akin to each other, aren’t they? And they need to relate to each other.

Martin: Very carefully. Yes, I always go and look very carefully at a site before I come up with an idea for a commemorative sculpture, rather than impose it on the site.

Lucy: Okay, so that’s an inspiration for you, the setting?

Martin: It just gives you ideas and, you know, the scale of the piece. You know, when you’re putting an organic form, which a figurative sculpture often is, against buildings, the buildings will be linear and modular forms, and offsetting one against the other enhances both.

Lucy: Is the majority of the work by commission?

Martin: Yes, it is. Yeah.

Lucy: All right. And it suits you like that?

Martin: It does, yeah. I mean, I do choose which commissions to pursue. Usually, it’ll be because the subject interests me, but there are some that would have been possible, but that I didn’t. And sometimes jobs come up that would be better suited to other sculptors, so you pass them on. But essentially, I’ve worked to commission. Only occasionally have I come up with an idea and then eventually it’s found a place.

Lucy: That’s one of the things I love about your work, it’s the characters. You’ve got some really interesting people there. I suppose having a person who’s done something incredible, it does heat up the subject, doesn’t it? I mean, you fall in love with the character. It’s the same with books. It’s often not the storyline of the books, but it’s the characters that bring it alive.

Martin: It is character. It’s also one’s own particular kind of bias.

I mean, I like doing old men in baggy suits. I don’t quite know why.

So, give me a mid-20th-century author and I’ll jump at it. So sometimes you can see very early on how a sculpture might be, and you’re drawn to its compositional and formal qualities. And it’s that, as much as the fact that you want to be commemorating people you admire, that might mean that’s one that you go for.

Lucy: I’ve never thought about suits. You’re right about suits.

Martin: Well, it’s just me. Not too crisp. I don’t want one that’s been ironed too much.

Lucy: No, but it’s a funny thing. My father is a genius restorer, and you never saw him out of a suit. I mean, our work is incredibly messy, and you know, you get really grimy just working practically. And even in the messiest situations, he was always in a suit, with a tie, you know, in building sites, the lot. Everybody else is in, sort of, relaxed clothing – not him! He loved his suit.

Martin: I bet. I bet. Oh, well, good man.

Lucy: Do you have a creative practice or a routine, something that gets you to that subject?

Martin: Do you mean a routine for my day?

Lucy: Yes. So, gets you in that steep, sort of, work state where you can actually catch on to the muse?

Martin: I don’t really tend to think about it too much in terms of the muse in the traditional sense, but I know what you’re after. I mean, I get up and I do a full day’s work. It’s usually a long day’s work. And as often as not, it’ll be a six-day a week, or even a seven-day a week, particularly if I’m coming towards the end of a big piece of modelling. But I treat it as other people treat their job, you know, you’ve got to get up and you’ve got to put your hours in. And during that time and outside that time, you’re forever pondering the job, and ideas come to you sometimes when you’re least expecting them. So, it’s not always when you’re concentrating directly on how you might do it, that the best ideas come to mind. Sometimes they even come in your dreams.

George Orwell, BBC Broadcasting House, Martin Jennings ©

Lucy: And so you make sure that you do quite a lot of non-studio work as well. Sort of, the “play” part?

Martin: While you’re doing your research, ideas will come to mind. So, for example, for my statue of John Betjeman, I read all of his poetry a couple of times. And, you know, that doesn’t in itself…it’s not the same as doing the drawings, which you also need to do, but it provides the mood for a sculpture. And I found that just reading his works created visual images in my mind of how it might be done. So there are all kinds of ways in which you approach it. Of course, you also look at still photographs and film footage, if it’s available, and you grab your research material wherever you can.

Lucy: And so it sounds like there’s quite an extensive research phase in the creation?

Martin: There is, yes. Yeah, you really have to get to know your figure and, sort of ferry about in their lives as it were, until you’ve really taken the temperature of the man or woman you’re representing.

Lucy: Right. And just to come back to your comment there about the muse: do you scorn the muse? Is the muse not part of it?

Martin: It’s more like the expression. The muse is, of course, always seen as a female figure inspiring a male artist. It’s just a rather sexist symbol, it seems to me.

Lucy: It’s true.

Martin: I mean, as often as not, it’s just a young woman who an old male artist fancies. So it’s not the language that I use. However, I do know that there are moments when one is more inspired, and other times when the work can be more pedestrian. So, certainly, there are times when you get excited about the job.

Lucy: Have we got a better word? Come on, have you got a word that you like?

Martin: I don’t know that I’ve got a better word, but it’s about connecting with the subject.

There’s suddenly this moment where you can see it clearly in your head.

You haven’t yet made the thing, but various things that have come out of your research and your interest in the subject and your enjoyment of making sculpture, coalesce, and the image is there in your head. And that’s always an exciting moment.

Lucy: And so, typically, how long is it taking you to produce the work? Is it a rapid-fire process or something that’s different for each project?

Martin: It is different for each project. But I imagine you’ll know from big commissions, particularly with fundraising, they can take a long time to come to fruition. So, I never quite know how to answer when people ask me how long something takes, because it can be several years from when you’re first commissioned to when the thing is installed, or that process can be quite short, depending on whether the funds are available for you to start work straight away. But normally, if I was to make, say, a slightly larger than life-size male figure, if it was about 7-foot high, that would be three months or so of clay modelling on the steel armature, followed by four or five months of bronze casting in the foundry. So, each commemorative sculpture that I’ve made has taken the best part of a year or so. That’s a loose way of describing it.

Lucy: Yeah. With us, we’ve found that what happens is they say, “We’ve got this amount of time to do it in, so you have to plan to do it in that.” And that’s often an event or something where somebody has just realised that such-and-such has to happen within these dates. And so, even though, ideally, we have an amount of time, it often has to be quite flexible, that vision, because you’re having to work within that framework, which I find quite difficult sometimes.

Martin: I don’t blame you.

Lucy: Very large scaffolds are very expensive, so they can’t keep them in place too long. And obviously, people do silly things when they’re up. So people try to climb them and things like that at night, so there’s more risk.

Martin: In my experience as well, one has to compromise with the practical issues surrounding public areas, and, of course, with the client’s brief. It’s always a meeting of different people’s needs. And I saw on your website, you just installed the Charles I in Parliament Square?

Lucy: Yes, yes.

Martin: That’s a fabulous, lovely thing, isn’t it?

Lucy: I know.

Martin: I mean, how did you deal with the plinth, or were you only doing the bronze?

Lucy: Well, we did the bronze. So there was another contractor nominated to deal with the plinth, because the plinth is very special in its own right.

Martin: Absolutely. Yeah.

Martin Jennings creating George Orwell ©

Lucy: Charles I is our first large scale monument in the UK, bronze monument in the UK. So the thing is, just in terms of technology for Britain, it was a really important monument, let alone the fact that we had, you know, a fantastic sculptor make him.

Martin: Yeah. So it’s just one of the pieces of work I most love in London. In fact, it’s certainly the thing I love most of all in Trafalgar Square.

Lucy: Yeah. It’s sort of dwarfed a little bit now because of the other sculptures. I mean, I feel like it never gets as much attention as it should.

Martin: I always point it out to people. I mean, I like the smallness of it, and I like the smallness of him on his horse. Was it riveted together, the panels of bronze?

Lucy: Yeah. So there’s Roman joints, as far as I know. We didn’t have to do much structural stuff because a lot of the damage that I dealt with was surface damage. But as far as I know, it was all Roman joints. So they are literally where the sections are, sort of, sleeved together, basically, and then the metal is spread so that you don’t have any joins, you know, visible joins because they all fit so beautifully into each other. And have you heard this fantastic story about what happened to him? So after he was beheaded, they pulled the statue down, and partly, it was sold to scrap metal merchants. Do you know that one?

Martin: Do you mean it was there during his monarchy? While he was alive?

Lucy: Yes, exactly.

Martin: I know it was Le Sueur who made it.

Lucy: Exactly. And it was huge. I know it’s tiny to us now, but it was, you know, the biggest bronze that anyone had seen over here. So, basically, they pulled it down and sold it to this metal merchant who was supposed to destroy it. And he took it home and buried it. And he chopped off just from the knee joint of the horse’s front. And they chopped it off, took it to Parliament to prove that it had been chopped up. Anyway, when Charles II came to the throne, the same metal merchant rocked up and said, “I’ve got your statue.”

Martin: It’s a great story.

Lucy: They brought it on a chariot through London. And that’s riveted back together. So the limb that was cut off, you know, the joints are all there to be seen. Quite rough work. And it was reunited and put back up. I mean, obviously, different location slightly. But the thing is that it’s because it’s been moved in its time. But goodness, what a…

Martin: Fantastic story.

Lucy: …resurrection of a bronze sculpture!

Martin: Absolutely. The plinth, was that made for the second incarnation of the sculpture?

Lucy: Yes, I believe so. And I can’t remember who made it now. But actually, it’s had a really hard life. If you look at some of the carvings on it now, they’re starting to lose the detail.

Martin: Oh, very much.

Lucy: But I think it’s had a lot of cleaning as well in its lifetime, and I’m not sure whether all the cleaning was done very carefully.

Martin: It’s an absolutely beautiful combination of statue and plinth, I think.

Lucy: I know. It is a marvellous thing. That’s the thing I spend my life saying, you know, I know lots of people, works and institutions are very important, but what we have on our streets, actually, is some of the most magnificent. Sculptors who have worked publicly and done public works, like Thornycroft. You know, they’re just to fall in love with. So, particularly, in the era of COVID, I keep trying to encourage people to get outside and look at art because there’s so much of it.

Martin: Good for you.

Lucy: Has there been a commission where you’ve stood back and thought, “Do you know what, if I never do anything else ever again, I’ve done it. I’m alright.”?

Martin: Sometimes you think that for about three minutes, and then you start noticing the various things that you want to change in your own work, how you’d want to upgrade it, improve it, “Oh, that thing is in the wrong place.”

Lucy: But once it’s in bronze, there’s no changing it.

Martin: There’s no changing it. You really have to live with the thing as it is. Sometimes, I must say that I’ve so itched to improve something that it’s been hard to go and visit it again. But you have to pay a, kind of, tribute to who you were when you made the thing, rather than dismiss oneself as being insufficiently knowledgeable or experienced at the time, and therefore, that the work isn’t good. And sometimes, I find that people respond better to works that I think aren’t my best than they do to the ones where I think I’ve almost managed to pull it off.

Charles I, Trafalgar Square ©

Lucy: Has it been a good life, you being a sculptor?

Martin: I have been very lucky and it has been a good life. But, you know, various things have stood me in good stead. As I say,

I have been lucky. I think that the education I had, the exposure to literature I had, all of this has provided me with an angle on the sculpture,

so that researching authors, for example, is that much easier. You know how much of one’s life one spends sending emails?

Lucy: Yes.

Martin: All kinds of things. Like, the fact that my father, who was a headmaster, drilled us in spelling when we were young, so that now, later in life, I can send a coherent email to people and sound professional. I mean, there are all, kinds of, elements to pursuing a job that make it possible for one to achieve the kind of things one wants to achieve. And, you know, to put it very simply, I’m a man and men have had more jobs in this field than women have. There are many areas of luck that I’ve benefited from, and I’m pretty grateful for those.

Lucy: And do you think to be a successful sculptor, to rise in your field, it’s the artistic, the creativity that you bring to the table that makes the difference, or do you have to also be a businessman?

Martin: You have to be very clear about what things will cost, how long they will take, what the various stages of the process are. You have to deal with contracts. You have to know how to communicate with a great variety of clients. It’s all about giving them the confidence to employ you, not only from the point of view of your artistic abilities, but just from the point of view of who you are to communicate with, all of which is a part of running a business properly. But, you know, I often sympathise with my clients because they’re always taking a risk. I think it’s a kind of vocation to be a commissioner of art, as well as a vocation to be an artist, because there’s a leap of faith involved. You don’t know quite what the artist is going to come up with. And they might be too dangerously artistic, and then you’ll be landed with something that’s really not what you want at all. So it’s continuously a balance between the two. But if you don’t mark out that part of your life that you rely on to come up with a really brilliant piece of work, then the whole thing will be, you know, a bit inert, a bit lifeless, perfectly pursued from the business point of view, but not a great piece of art.

Lucy: So how much of your life would you say is spent in the creative zone, as opposed to the… What should we call it? The more managerial or the more business aspect of working?

Martin: Who was it who said that “A work of art is 2% inspiration and 98% perspiration”?

Lucy: Ah, yes. That was Edison, wasn’t it?

Martin: Was it?

Lucy: I think so. about genius, yes.

Martin: There is a lot of admin, but there’s a great deal of actually making the work, and it’s slow. Sculpture is a slow process if it’s a big thing. I mean, increasingly, I’m getting slower. I find that even when you’re making small maquettes of things, they require great concentration, and you spend days at the turntable, even when you’re making something really quite miniature. I mean, it might contain the whole idea for a big piece of work, and to that extent, you’ve got to get it right. But I don’t want to overdo the idea that I’m always sitting in front of the laptop and typing out emails, but it is a part of it as you’ll know.

Lucy: And so, is there a spot you have your eye on for a commemorative sculpture? Your pieces are obviously in some incredible situations around the country, but you haven’t got your eye on a spot where you think, “Yeah, I’d like to have one there.”?

Martin: Oh my goodness. I spot a new one every day.

Lucy: Do you?

Martin: Yeah. It’s, like, every time I see a slightly broken down old brick building, I spot a new studio. These things don’t come to pass.

Lucy: No.

Martin: But as soon as you’ve started making sculptures for public places, every time you see a public place with a rather interesting backdrop, you think, “Oh, it’d be rather interesting to put something there.” Of course, as often as not, you’re required to put things into a location where the backdrop is quite far from what you’d want. It interferes with what you’d want to make. Sometimes you’d like to remove a building completely. The one behind my sculpture of Mary Seacole, an ugly old building called Gassiot House, which is part of St. Thomas’ hospital, I’d have happily demolished in order to provide a better background for my piece of work. But you can’t always have what you want.

Mary Seacole, St Thomas Hospital, London by Martin Jennings ©

Lucy: Yeah. Now, can you tell us where people can find out a little bit more about you if they’d like to?

Martin: I have a website. I’m just in the process of redoing it with various media links on it to articles about what I’ve done. And it’s a film.

Lucy: Social media?

Martin: Yes, I am on Twitter. I’m not on Facebook.

Lucy: Is Twitter your preferred social media? If people would like to tweet you, that’s the place to get hold of you?

Martin: Yes, it is. Yeah. I don’t always talk about sculpture. Every now and then, I go off at a tangent and talk about what I’m cooking, which is a great steak, I’m sure. But that is the body of what I try to refer to on Twitter.

Lucy: Yeah. Martin, thank you ever so much for talking to us today about commemorative sculpture. It’s been a real pleasure.

Martin: Good. Thank you, it was fun.

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