Contemporary Figurative Sculpture with David Williams-Ellis

Lucy: Today I’m interviewing David Williams-Ellis whose contemporary figurative sculpture can be seen all over the world in public spaces, including Swires in Hong Kong and the IFC Building in Shanghai and above Gold Beach in Normandy. He continues to sculpt for both public and private collections. And his sculptures are so engaging that you can see why his career has been a long and fruitful one. I began our conversation today by asking, have you always been creative?

David: I suppose I have since a baby, I mean, a child. I started playing with sand, mud pies and streams, always, always making things organically with plasticine, boxes, mud. You know, in a pond, I built something, always building, always making things.

So as a child, that was specifically easy. I had parents who were very creative themselves and were great with encouraging me to make things. You know, I think I was of the generation of Blue Peter. So I did a lot of making of various bits and pieces that was taken from the television.

Lucy: So your parents were creative as well?

David: Yeah, they weren’t…they were creative, but they weren’t actual…because they were 18 in 1939, during the Second World War, neither of them went on to be professional artists, but both of them could have been, my mother particularly, was a particularly talented painter. But she never did it. Because, you know, in 1939, 1940, and then rationing up the war, a young family, and all the rest, it made it impossible.

And she wasn’t, you know, Lucian Freud living on an island in Greece. He had a remarkable time in 1947 sitting on an island in Tinos being wonderfully creative there. But, yeah, and then I suppose I always made things at school. I had an amazing art master at school who was a painter by profession and a sculptor by inclination.

And he just at the age of 14, he just said, you know, “David, just get on with it, you should have a go at sculpture.” And I loved it. And I never looked back, I never really…I’ve never painted since, properly painted, I draw quite a lot, but I’ve never painted. And I just carried on making it by the time I left school at the age of 18 having done my A level in sculpture – a very practical A level in sculpture – I had lots of experience, more experience than other people would have had at art school with all the techniques and various things.

Lucy: Well, so do you feel like this teacher really drew you in? Or do you think maybe you’d have got there anyway?

David: You know, it’s difficult. It’s what happened. And he found something in me. And he got me to run with it. And it built on my strengths, and I loved it. So I owe him everything. But I don’t know whether it would have been found, I think it probably would have been found in a different way.

But he was an amazing encouragement to my…and actually also not just an encouragement, but he sort of…his method of teaching or his method of working was very similar to, I think, my mental creativity, or my physical creativity. So he was very much a modeller and a figurative modeller, and that’s what I’ve stuck with.

Lucy: And was it clay that you were working with sculpture? Because, I mean, you seem quite a renaissance man, you seem to have gone through lots of materials in your career.

David: I mean, clay is my favourite. It’s absolutely, I love it. But when I was 18, I went out to Italy, I got a Greenshields Scholarship, and I managed go to a drawing studio. And in the afternoons, I used to go and carve wood in one of the wood-carving studios in Florence. And I was so lucky to do that.

And I was there for about nine months and realised I didn’t particularly like carving wood. But I learned a lot. And then I went back to Italy. I came back for about six or nine months and then went back to Italy, and then carved marble for over a year at Pietrasanta and really discovered I wasn’t…carving is not my thing. And I went back to modelling when I came back but it was a process I had to go through.

Lucy: So were you working there, as in earning some money at the same time?

David: No, I was again, I was on an amazing Canadian scholarship, which was fantastic. And I was able to work in the studios. The Italians were amazing those days. They used to encourage you. They had no young Italians carving marble, and so they took on a lot of other people from Britain, and Germany, and America, and places, and Dutch, from Holland, and places that wanted to learn to carve marble, and they were amazing, these old craftsmen, and they were all in their 50s, or 60s, or 70s.

And they just loved having young 20-year-olds who were mad keen on learning. And they gave us their studio, and we had to pay for our marble. We weren’t paid, and we were allowed to carve what we wanted.

Lucy: Wow. Now I’ve got to say there can’t really be a better place to be young and in Florence, and in Italy, generally. I spent some time there myself. And it was just something out of a film, out of A Room with a View or something like that, it genuinely is like that there.

David: It was so like that. And also, you know, there were so many young artists, painters, sculptors, antique…you know, furniture makers, writers from all around the world at that period there. And the only trouble was, it became almost…the living was too easy and too wonderful. And actually, you needed a bit more…I felt that I needed to leave Italy to come back and come back to Britain and really sort of learn my trade a bit more because it was just a bit too nice in Italy.

Mercury by David Williams-Ellis ©

Lucy: Was it when you came back to the UK that pounds, shillings, and pence, came into it?

David: Yeah, really a lot. But, I mean, I was really lucky because I had my first exhibition when I was about 23. And I managed to sell a few pieces. And I then did a lot of portrait busts, I used to travel around Britain with my car, and my clay, and my modelling stands doing, you know, grandchildren, children, parents, mothers, grandparents.

And I would do about ten or fifteen days a year, interspersed with doing my own work in the studio and having the odd exhibition and selling it. But I think my portraiture, portrait busts that I used to do paid for my living costs, which was fantastic that people wanted that. And I still today, I’m amazed that I was able to do so many.

Lucy: But that’s so entrepreneurial, isn’t it? And brave, because I don’t know if there’s many artists that feel that they could go on the road and take their wares with them and have a go at it like that. Because it’s quite close and personal to people when you’re going out doing that kind of thing.

David: Yeah, it’s quite stressful. It’s quite stressful. But I always find…I don’t find people difficult. So, I mean, when I say I find sculpture difficult, I didn’t find communicating with people difficult. So I found that quite exciting, the actual aspect of meeting different people doing different things and seeing different parts of the country.

So I find it really exciting. And there were moments when, “oh, God, I’ve made an awful mess of something and the sculpture is going really badly wrong.” And I would get sort of hot, and sticky, and sweaty, and I have to run off and hide for a while, and go and regroup myself. And occasionally some of them didn’t work. Some of them were awful. I mean, some of them I’d never want to see again.

But some worked really well, obviously enough for people to want my work. But it was a fantastic experience and a real trial of getting it right because portraiture is difficult. I mean, I find that it is not that easy I find, and I had to really work at it.

Lucy: But actually no better way than, you know, being under pressure. And having to, I imagine, see something different in each face.

David: Well, I think the thing is to draw out the strengths of people. I mean, I did…you know, I can’t say that I always flattered people. But I always worked on their strengths. And I always sought to find their strong points, which also helped me to get another job because people like to see their strong points, but I don’t think I particularly flattered them, but I just wanted to get some strength in the sculpture.

But I also realised that, you know, if I didn’t sell my work, I couldn’t make it. You know, sculpture is an expensive business, you know, just the casting process, the materials. And then if you’re not doing portraits, you’re working in a studio. A studio is…unlike a painter can be…you know, you do need quite a lot of equipment, and quite a lot of space. And you can’t move it that quickly. So I needed to have some resources in order to be able to do as much structure as I could.

Lucy: I read that you had a chance encounter that gave you that signature style that you have for your contemporary figurative sculpture. Was it during that period that that happened?

David: Yeah, that was in Italy actually. That was extraordinary. That was just somebody sitting on a pillar. And it just caught my imagination. And I’ve always come back to it to sort of go over the hundreds of pieces that I’ve made over the years, or see a percentage of, sort of have an origin from that, and which I love. And it just…I can’t tell you what it is. It’s just something that I think works, really, sculpturally.

Lucy: Yeah, very wistful, I can’t decide which one of your sculptures…I’ve got this idea that I have a sort of imaginary sculpture park in my head where I can just pick and choose anyone’s sculptures, but I can’t decide which ones of yours I want. Because it makes me change my mind, because it’s also the beauty of the countryside with your sculptures, I think that they do say something different with each backdrop, even though a lot of them are very rural.

David: I mean, I love the landscape, the figure in landscape is one of the most exciting things for me, to see a figure in landscape. And that’s what I love making more than anything. Having said that, you know, I’ve worked on very commercial buildings in cities around the world. And they’ll put sculptures in and they add something. You know, they have another life.

But you’re right, the sculptures do change by the environment. But it’s quite fun if you’re asked to make something for somewhere, to let the environment dictate something to you.

I always think of my great uncle, Clough Williams-Ellis who built Portmeirion. And his buildings very much work with the landscape and scale: he got his scale right because when he built the building, he chose the landscape. He didn’t just do a design and plonk it into space, he designed the building to fit the landscape. And the scale and the detail all seems to work the landscape. And I think I learned a bit from that.

Lucy: So do you think the rural landscapes particularly are a favourite for you? Or does it really…I mean, a beautiful building, I suppose, can actually add a huge dimension to sculpture as well.

David: I mean, some buildings can be sculpture themselves. So if you get a really nice building, it can have a life of its own, and a strength like a good sculpture should have. So I am really happy working in all sorts of environments.

You know, it’s quite fun working for a site amongst great, tall skyscrapers. And the lovely thing about that is actually you can give some definition, you can give some identity to the building by putting a sculpture that works in that environment. That’s quite an exciting reward.

Alan Turing by David Williams-Ellis ©

Lucy: How about the way that you tend to prefer to work? You’ve done quite a lot of public commissions. Is that your preferred avenue to actually have a client involved, or is it making something and then selling it that works best for you?

David: There’s lots of different ways. You know, I love working on a… you know, because if you’re working for a collector, or a client, and they choose the site and you can challenge yourself because you’re working with interests with them. And I’m working on something at the moment, the biggest thing I’ve ever made, and it’s going to a landscape, and it’s totally different. I can’t really talk much about it now until it’s finished. But it’s totally different to a lot of the work that you will have seen on my website or anyone who knows my work. So that has given me a challenge. And of course, like everything in life, we all love a bit of a challenge. It brings out different things in you. So…

Lucy: I know that people think that sometimes parameters are restrictive. But actually, if you’re a creative person, there’s nothing like trying to work around the parameters…

David: Exactly. Exactly.

Lucy: …and bring something. It can be incredibly freeing.

David: I mean, there’s nothing worse than the old, blank canvas, you know, walking through a studio saying, “What am I gonna make today?” When I was younger, I think I used to walk in, you know, going, “Oh, God help, help, help,” because I hadn’t gotten any commissions, I hadn’t got any other…you know, I’d be struggling for ideas, and then suddenly you would find something, and then the idea would develop. And that was really exciting. And then I would just get passionate about whatever I was working on. And it would either work or it wouldn’t work.

Lucy: So it sounds a little bit like you’re a kind of discovery creator, that you’re not someone that’s necessarily planning everything to the n-th degree. Would you say that’s true, or not?

David: I’d say that’s so true. I’m so impulsive. I think my work develops as I go along. I mean, one of the reasons I didn’t like carving is because you have to plan it. In fact, you’re so correct in that judgment, I never thought of it that way. But, you know, carving, you have to make the decision before you start.

And I like things to evolve. And that’s why I like modelling, and carving does not give you that…does not give me that freedom to do it. So I like to explore as I’m going along and I don’t quite know exactly…I’ve got an idea of what I want to make when I start. And I’m sitting in my studio looking at the piece in front of me, this really huge piece. And is it exactly what I can see? No, it’s not. Is it close on the sort of feeling idea? Yes, but it’s developed so much. And that is really exciting to have that discovery on every piece that you’re…you know, if you don’t discover something on every work, life gets very boring.

Lucy: Do you have a creative practice or a routine that helps you get into that flow of work?

David: Oh, gosh, that’s a difficult one to just get through to. But I find that when I work, I start something. And I have lots of ideas. And then one of them, I sort of follow on, and then I get very, very intense and then a lot of discipline, really. I mean, I’m a bit like a musician. I mean, I do believe that art’s a bit like music, or classical music, or so…not just classical music, but where rehearsal practice is really, really important.

So if you have the skills, that when you do have those moments of inspiration and concentration, I think is what it’s really all about, you have those skills and that concentration, you can fly, and you just don’t think about your technique. And that’s the state that I like to get into. How I get there I don’t really know. But I think it’s just perseverance.

And sometimes I can’t do it. Sometimes I wake up in the morning, and I work… but I do carry on working. But I try not to take anything too decisive. And then suddenly, sometimes that concentration arrives. And when that flow arrives, it’s often very short and very intense.

And it’s the most exciting moment, it gives you the endorphins and it makes you go, “This is why I love it, making what I make,” you know, that’s why I love being a sculptor. Because it’s that really exciting moment, when you’re totally…you believe, in that moment, in control. Sometimes, obviously, you’re not. Things go wrong, everything looks awful. But if you don’t achieve that concentration – if I don’t achieve it – I don’t think I have a chance of achieving a good sculpture.

Lucy: Cal Newport wrote a book called Deep Work. And it’s all about the fact that that’s the thing that seems to have real connection to how successful people have been: how long they can concentrate for. My son plays a lot of chess, and his games sometimes last for seven hours or something. I mean, it’s ridiculously long. And so he always says that development of concentration is a superpower in some ways. So you don’t have a particular routine?

David: Yeah, I do. Routine, I mean, I work nearly every day. I don’t work particularly late into the night. But unless I’ve got something that I really want to finish, I find that I can work, you know, I tend to go to my studio after breakfast in the morning, and I work best in the morning. I work probably better for about five or six hours a day, or even less than that.

And then I do all the other mundane or the more technical stuff. But actually, creatively I probably work best for about four hours a day. And then sometimes I feel absolutely exhausted from it. But again, I think consistent discipline is good. As is, you know, to have the skills and the discipline is really, really important. I think over the years of working, I think that’s what I’ve learned.

Lucy: And so has it been hard to build up this magnificent portfolio that you’ve got of such a variety of clients, or did it start to flow and happen at a certain point?

David: I was really lucky. It really went mad when I was about 25. And I had phenomenal success when I was about 25. And then probably about the age of about 30, 33, 34 with young children I moved to north of England and, you know, my concentration… I had on and off sort of periods of success. But I think the distraction of life and families and things distracted me. And…

Lucy: And they take a lot of energy, young children, don’t they?

David: Exactly, exactly. Yeah, and actually, that’s a pretty creative process in itself, educating and bringing up children. So that was exciting. And actually, it’s only in recent years, I’ve really got back into the groove again, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t do a lot over the years.

But can I say it was easy? No. But was it exciting? Phenomenally exciting. Was it incredibly nerve-wracking at times? Yes. But I love making my work and that helps and luckily enough, enough people seem to love what I do that I’ve been able to live off it. So I’ve been really, really lucky, exceptionally lucky in that respect.

Lucy: There couldn’t have been another life for you, you don’t think?

David: Oh, golly, who knows? Who knows? But I wouldn’t refuse having this one again, put it that way. I might be a little bit more smarter in places, but I wouldn’t refuse it. Would I like to have done a few other different things? Maybe, maybe. But this one’s been pretty good. And hopefully, will carry on being pretty good.

D-Day Memorial by David Williams-Ellis ©

Lucy: And has there been a particular project that you’ve stood back and thought, “You know what? If I never make another thing, it’s all right, I’ve done it.”

David: I think my D-day sculpture that I did for the Normandy memorial was probably the most exciting thing I’ve ever done to date. It encapsulated a lot of the strengths of my work. It captured a bit of…you know, I talked about my father being 19 in 1939, but he wasn’t at D-day, but he was on a torpedo boat just off the coast from D-day in the Navy. And all his friends were at D-day, and I grew up with that around me.

So there was a historical element. I’m also really interested in history. It was a really exciting project, a very moving project, because it was a memorial for 22, 442 people that died. And I was given a really open, clear brief, I was asked by the architect, Liam O’Connor, to come up with some ideas for a sculpture to commemorate, and they didn’t give me any…We went to the site. And they then built a 35-million pound building around it after the sculpture went in. For lots of reasons it wasn’t done initially, French planning laws being one of the reasons. But that I think captured the strengths of my work, my modelling, I love working with figures and movement. And that was really exciting to do that.

And the historical element, the emotion of it, the site, which is, you know, you couldn’t choose a more exciting place for a sculpture on the coast of Normandy above the Normandy beaches, the Mulberry Harbour and above Gold Beach. And it was a fantastic challenge and then at that stage, the biggest thing I’d ever made. And it took me about eighteen months. And I learned a lot about myself, and I learned a lot about making sculpture.

Lucy: People love it. I mean, it just clearly touches people.

David: That’s what, you know, I find that extraordinary. And really perhaps the most rewarding thing about it is that it fitted – without me really realising it, because, I mean, I tried to make it fit the brief. But it actually fitted the brief, which is what people wanted. They wanted feeling from it. They wanted a story from it. And that sculpture just seems to have been able to capture it.

And it was such an exciting pleasure making it. Although, again, it wasn’t all easy, there were moments of tearing one’s hair out and going, “This is not working,” and cutting off the head, or cutting off a leg, or deciding the composition wasn’t quite right, or, you know, the various things that can go wrong in designing and making something on that scale. But it was to me, you know, if I don’t ever make anything else, I feel I’ve achieved something in life.

Lucy: It is a magnificent sculpture. It really is. I haven’t seen it in person. That’s the kind of thing that I tend to do when I’m taking holidays, go and look at…wherever we go to I go and find some good sculpture to look at. But the thing is not with travelling in the last year or so being an option. But was that one that you had to win as a commission, or did they approach you?

David: Yeah, really, really exciting. I mean, it was probably for an artist the nicest way to get a commission. I was approached by them, I think they’d had a discussion about various artists within the committee. It was led by the architect. And I think they looked…so they asked me to send a portfolio, and they asked me for a written brief as to how I would approach it.

And I think that was probably the most exciting thing because it gives you the freedom, it gives you the ability to really experiment. And then I slightly worked with them. You know, I came up with ideas, and then we discussed the pros and cons of the ideas.

So it was very much a pre-brief. And it was I think…that really selected…he liked what I did, and he worked with a lot of artists before sculptors for other big projects. He knew I think how to get the best out of us artists, and I was really lucky to be chosen.

Lucy: And do you work with a particular foundry?

David: I work with mainly one foundry. They get to know your work. I’m sure as you know from what you do, we all have slightly different styles and when the chasing is done or when the wax is done, they know what style, you know, how the seams, you know, how you work over your seams basically, when they’re chasing the sculpture.

And then they get to know what patinations you like and how the angle will be. I mean, you know, I do oversee all the work at the foundry, but at the same time, they often have the work ready, and I often don’t have to say anything to them really.

Lucy: Well, that’s the perfect combination, isn’t it?

David: You know, it’s twenty… the foundry I am with, I’ve worked with indirectly – and I say indirectly because of the various…the original foundry I’ve worked with went bust. But the people who are the legacy from that first foundry, they’re the people, the foundry I go to now are all people that developed or trained through that original foundry. And there’s a sort of continuity there.

Squall by David Williams-Ellis ©

Lucy: So tell people how they can find out a little bit more about you and your contemporary figurative sculpture. Where do they go?

David: Golly, well, you can go to Normandy, see the D-day, and sculpture there that actually, as you say, hasn’t been opened. It is being officially opened on June the 6th, which is the 76th or the 77th anniversary, I think of D-day. It was supposed to be opened last year.

The sculpture was unveiled two years ago in the 75th. So that’s quite…that’s an obvious place. There’s, I mean, there’s a few pieces publicly around. Come and see me in the studio. I’m always open. I love meeting people. I love that communication. Come to the studio, I’m based in Oxfordshire.

Lucy: A website or Instagram?

David: A website? Yeah, David@dwe.com. I have a website, Instagram account, Davidwilliamsellis, and you can see all the work.

Lucy: Do you talk to people on Instagram?

David: Yeah, I communicate a bit with them if they’re interested. I mean, I’m always open. I love talking to people. And if anyone wants to learn anything, or discover anything that I can help them with, I’m delighted, really delighted to do that.

Lucy: Well, David, thank you ever so much for taking the time today. I really appreciate that.

David: Well, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you.

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