Gaining Traction, Finding Your Niche and Equestrian Sculpture with Charlie Langton

Charlie Langton’s inspiration is the horse. He is one of the most sought-after equine artists of our time. Just to be even more specific, his interest is in thoroughbred racehorse. His sculptures revel in the difference in attitude, character and physicality that sets champion racehorses apart. He has undertaken major commissions of famous racehorses including his over life-size bronze tribute to four-time Gold Cup Winner, Yeats, in the parade ring at Ascot Racecourse. 

Lucy: I began our conversation today by asking, have you always been creative?

Charlie: Yeah, as far as I can remember, I’ve always loved drawing, painting, sculpting, making things. You know, I’ve always been one of those types of people. Well, reading, I never really liked sitting down with a book and reading. I much prefer getting on and making stuff and getting my hands dirty.

Lucy: Practical.

Charlie: Yeah, I think so. Yeah, even if I got stuff wrong a lot, it was still enjoyable to me, mucking around with stuff.

Lucy: So, was that because there was someone at home that was very practical or inspiring with that kind of thing?

Charlie: I don’t know what it was, actually. I think at home… I’ve got two brothers. My older brother is two years older than me and we always used to compete fiercely at everything we did. We both played a lot of sports so we were always egging each other on at that, and then it was the same whether it was drawing or painting or whatever. We used to do these drawing competitions at home and I was always furious I couldn’t get as good as he was.

So, I think it started off with that sort of thing. And then my dad had…well, I think most dads have like a garden shed type situation. And I remember going in there on Saturday mornings with him and he’d have his workbench and I had a small workbench, and we used to make stuff on a Saturday morning. It was never any good but it was just nice mucking around with tools. And then I think I was very lucky with the teachers I had at school, actually. They were all really encouraging. And I won an art competition when I was seven, a prize for which was a pencil.

Lucy: Wow!

Charlie: Yeah, I know, an HB pencil.

Lucy: Hugely inspiring.

Charlie: Yeah. Well, I mean, winning anything…

Lucy: Yeah, that’s true.

Charlie: …at age seven is pretty good news. But yeah, I think it was just those early things which stick in my mind anyway. And then those lead on to doing other things.

Lucy: See, we’ve got a workshop at home and I’ve got two boys and a girl, but particularly the two boys, I keep thinking, maybe the tools and things will inspire them and get them going. But all that they do is they come through the hall and they fall over something and they go, “I wish we lived in a normal house. Why is there a compressor in the doorway?” Or, you know, “Why is there a mold here?” And so, it hasn’t really translated into them actually…you know, apart from if they want money, I get them to manage to clean some brushes or clean out my whatever. Yeah, if they’re after money, then they might actually venture into the studio, but that’s about it.

Charlie: They’ll find it pretty cool one day, I’m sure.

Lucy: Not sure. Anyway. So, when did the passion for horses and equestrian sculpture begin? Because it does seem like a huge passion.

Charlie: Yeah, it started very early. I was very lucky I had a pony called Whizz. He was about as bonkers as the name sounds. He was a little grey Welsh mountain pony. And I started riding when I was six, and just really loved it. And I used to go and just muck around with him in the paddock and stuff. And I never rode seriously or anything, but I really enjoyed that connection. And, you know, I never really wanted to do anything like hunting or…I wasn’t really into racing, to be honest. And I just had a connection with this little horse and then I started doing drawings for friends.

My mum was really passionate about racing, she loved her horses, and my great uncle did as well, so there was a kind of racing connection with the family. And horses were always around in my peripheral vision growing up. And I started off in my school holidays doing drawings of their horses and friends’ horses. And there was something about the structure of the horse head in particular, which I found really satisfying to draw. I think it’s because I always used to start off by drawing the eye first and then working out from there. And I think with a horse, because there’s a facial crest that comes down like the top of the jawbone there, that was quite a good reference point to go for, and then you can build out from there. I just found the structure of the horse head really satisfying to draw. And I think as I started to draw more horses, I got more into it.

And then the anatomy of the whole horse became really appealing to me. And they’re just a fascinating animal to look at and to try and paint and draw. And then it actually became even more interesting when I started sculpting, trying to put them together anatomically and figure it all out. And then I just became increasingly fascinated by horses and racing and looking at what makes a really top racehorse and the differences between each champion racehorse. So, the whole thing has, kind of, grown really. It hasn’t really come from an initial love of racing, especially. It’s just grown quite organically, I suppose.

Lucy: One of the reasons I wanted to interview you so badly is because I’m a huge horse fan, but I’ve worked in racing for quite a long time. And it is a very special world, got a very particular culture. What was it that appealed to you about it?

Charlie: As I started to get commissions, and they started to get bigger, and I got to go and see these amazing horses in these incredible farms, you know, particularly thinking about Highclere and Coolmore Stud in Ireland, just seeing what goes into these amazing animals.

Lucy: Oh, it’s incredible.

Fastnet Rock by Charlie Langton ©

Charlie: And, you know, the effort that these guys take to look after their horses and the breeding side of it. It’s just always so fascinating going and looking at foals when they’re born and what makes a good foal and what goes into sales, and looking at yearlings and then seeing them start to race as a two-year-old and all these guys, the real horsemen that look at a horse and can tell in a couple of minutes whether they’re gonna be in the frame as a champion horse or not. You know, that’s what I’ve been trying to get to grips with because I find that I have to almost get up to their level, pretty quick.

When I go and see a horse, I try and have as long with it as I can. I normally spend a week or ten days with each horse. But I’ve got to be able to look at a horse and see what they see and see little things that are off because those are all the things that I’ve got to put in, all the little characteristics and things that make horses as different as, you know, people look. Horses look completely different as well. So, you’ve got to be able to lock into those differences really quickly. And I found it fascinating learning off the top horsemen.

You know, Harry King, who runs a stud at Coolmore, and John and Carolyn Warren and people like them, you know, they’re just around horses all the time. And you just pick up so much. And they come and have a look at my sculptures and Harry King from Coolmore, if I was doing a life-size sculpture, he’d fly over from Ireland. And I pick him up from the airport at Heathrow, and he comes in the studio for probably all of forty minutes, an hour, just to have a look and talk it through with me and see if there were things that were off or anything I could change, and then we’d discuss why, and then he’d fly back to Ireland forty minutes later. The effort that goes into these things is fascinating.

Lucy: And so, did you go and train formally or not, at art school or anything?

Charlie: Yeah, I did. So, I went to a very good school, Radley College, just outside of Abingdon. That had a fantastic Art department and I was so lucky to go there. They had everything you could possibly want to do. They had a ceramics department, they had a sculpture department, they had painting, drawing, photography, printmaking. You know, it was a great place to get started.

And then after I left Radley, I got a very small art scholarship, a travel art scholarship. So, I decided to go to Florence. And I had been there on a History of Art trip with the school about a year before and we’d gone to a very small Art school called Charles Cecil. And we had an hour life drawing class there. And I learned more in an hour than I had ever learned at any art class before. So, I was like, well, as soon as I can, I’m going to go back. So, in the summer after I left school, I went there for a month and learned an enormous amount. And then, by that time, I already had a place at Edinburgh College. So, I went there for a year. Actually, I was intending to go there for four years and do the Foundation course and then specialise in… I wasn’t quite sure at that point, I was hoping to do Fine Art. And then I was actually thinking about going into film for a bit because I didn’t know whether a career in Fine Art was going to…

Lucy: Be a thing. Yeah.

Charlie: Be a thing at that point. So, I started doing the Foundation course at Edinburgh. And I didn’t really enjoy it, to be honest. I didn’t feel like I was learning anything at all. All the learning I’d had in Italy that summer before just wasn’t there. There was no academic learning, no structure, which is what I really wanted.

Lucy: You’d been completely spoiled by Florence, it sounds like.

Charlie: Yeah, I had been completely spoiled. You know, it was an amazing experience. And then to come back and not… because that’s what I wanted from art school. I wanted it to be my…you know, it’s like learning your scales if you’re playing a musical instrument, that’s what I really wanted. And then I felt like I could go off and do my own thing after that, in whatever medium it was going to be. But I wanted some direction. I was really hungry for that at that stage and I didn’t feel like I was getting it.

So, I left after a year and went back to Florence and did a year and a half there. And it was very structured, portrait painting…well, initially it was life drawing from a model in the mornings, and then it was drawing from the cast in the afternoon all in charcoal, and you’d spend months doing the same drawing, you know, really observing things properly. I was working in charcoal for pretty much the whole of the first year and towards the end, I did sculpture in the afternoons. And then went on to oil painting portraits in the second year. And I was there for a year and a half in total. And I felt that after a year and a half, I might have stayed a little bit longer, but I wanted to get back and get on and I felt like I developed a really good grounding in what it takes to get a painting started, get a drawing started, get a sculpture started, and the basics in observation or technique. And then I wanted to just take it from there and put my own thing into it and learn on my own a bit.

Lucy: You were ready?

Charlie: Well, I probably really wasn’t, I really wasn’t ready at all. But I just felt like I wanted to jump in with it and try and get myself out there. I mean, I left when I was twenty-one, I think it was, and I came back and did an exhibition almost straight away. And I felt like if I was going to get my career going, I needed to just get on with it and get my name out there and get started.

Lucy: How did you pay the bills at first? I mean, it couldn’t have been a paying gig from day one.

Charlie: No, it wasn’t. The first job I got back, luckily there was a guy who was a friend of my father’s who became a high sheriff of Wiltshire.

Lucy: Is that a real thing, high sheriff?!

Charlie: Yeah, it’s a real thing! And he wears this amazing black velvet, kind of…

Lucy: That is such a cool title.

Charlie: And he has a sword and everything. It’s really cool. Anyway, he was this amazing guy. He supported loads of people locally and did lots of charity work and he was fantastic, supportive of everything, really. I think he picked up on the fact that this guy had just come back from art school and needed to sink his teeth into something so he commissioned me to do a full-length portrait of him in his high sheriff kit.

Lucy: Wow.

Big Bucks by Charlie Langton ©

Charlie: And we had a great time. He came into sittings and fell asleep mostly but we ended up…

Lucy: Sorry, was that a sculpture or was it…?

Charlie: No, it was a painting.

Lucy: A painting, okay.

Charlie: It was great. And then he was very generous with his time after that. So he used his contacts to promote it. So he got an article done for me in “Wiltshire Life” and started to, kind of, push me and then he unveiled at the local pub and got people to come and got people talking. You know, he was just a brilliant person to have pushing me from when I first got back. And then little commissions started coming in and I was just working regularly, and the money wasn’t great, but I was lucky enough that I could set up a studio at home in an old stable block. I didn’t have the expense of that or being in London, I was down in Wiltshire and I could just take my time and get on with these small commissions.

And I then started doing sculpture on the side. And to get that promoted, I got a loan from the bank, and I did a sculpture for a charity auction, and I ended up raising quite a lot of money. And then that sort of got my name out there as a sculptor and then the sculpture side started to take off.

Lucy: I’m totally amazed… anything to do with the bank, they’re always like, “Oh, if it’s art related, then it’s risky,” you know? I’m quite amazed that you got a good one.

Charlie: I had to get my dad to guarantee it. So that was back in… what time was that? I think it was before the financial crash, like in 2008. So, it was on that cusp of things being a bit more difficult.

Lucy: Yeah.

Charlie: But I remember having a massive punt, it was a silver sculpture and I got this loan and my dad was like, “What are you doing? This is not going to work.”

Lucy: Thanks, dad.

Charlie: I think the charity were a bit worried about it as well but it went well, thank God, and yeah, things have moved on from there sculpture-wise.

Lucy: It’s quite a narrow niche you work in. Is that by choice or has that kind of been forced upon you because you’ve had success with the horses?

Charlie: Initially, I really didn’t want to specialise in any one particular thing. Leonardo da Vinci has always been my…

Lucy: Idol.

Charlie: …my biggest inspiration really about things and I love the way that he did everything. He painted, he drew, he sculpted, he did everything. And I always thought, well, I’d love to be able to do that as well. I’d love to be able to paint, draw, and sculpt as well in each medium and not necessarily concentrate on doing horses in particular, and maybe do portraits as well. And then I quickly realized that I couldn’t do that. I’m nowhere near talented enough to be able to keep doing it.

And also I think I wasn’t getting good enough at any one particular thing either. The commissions weren’t allowing me enough time – well, the money and the commissions – to develop in all these areas at once. So, I decided to go with the horses and equestrian sculpture, and I’m really glad I did specialise in that because I love doing it. And I think the portrait side of stuff which I started off doing, the commissions thing, I wasn’t really enjoying it, to be honest. Whilst it was really interesting meeting lots of different people, I found the pressure of having a sitter in front of me very different to having a paid model in front of me, and I wasn’t really enjoying it that much. And the horse commissions allowed me to do my own thing a bit more.

Lucy: It seems to have been lucky for you. The thing is that sometimes things just come a little bit easier in one direction than another, I think.

Charlie: Oh, absolutely.

Lucy: And there’s no rhyme or reason to it.

Charlie: No, no, exactly right. I’ve been so lucky. I can trace the work that I’m doing now back to five or six people, really, that have made a difference in what I’m doing. And it is just a huge amount of luck, you know, one person…and it’s all down to other people, that’s the thing. It’s people pushing you or backing you or buying a piece and showing it to somebody who then does something else. Literally, it’s all down to other people, you know, taking a punt and supporting an artist trying to get going. And it’s really nice that people do take a chance on a young artist sometimes.

Lucy: So, have you got a routine in the studio? Do you have anything that gets you going, the creative juices flowing when you’re working? Or is it much more standardised, like going and working in the bank?

Charlie: Well, I used to be a bit more formulaic with it, I think, just trying to do similar hours to a normal working day. But actually, I find that I’m more creative in the evening. I tend to like working when there aren’t other people around. You know, when people are at home or the whole area has gone quiet, I find I get to be more creative in the evening. I like listening to classical music, it can be anything, really, but I used to do that a lot. And I’ve actually come back to that recently, and it’s actually really helping creatively. What else? I listen to a lot of audiobooks. A lot, a lot of audiobooks, which I love.

Lucy: Thank god for Audible.

Charlie: I know. But yeah, I sometimes find it quite difficult to get started. But literally within the physical act of starting to put wax on or clay on or something, as soon as I do that, then I’m away, I can go for hours. But sometimes it’s just getting started.

Lucy: I love 4 a.m., that is my time.

Charlie: Wow!

Lucy: I know that’s ridiculous. But you know what that comes from? That comes from racing, because we used to feed at twenty-five past four in the morning so you’d have to get up at 4:00. You’d sit by the Aga because it was the only warm place, and sit and have a black coffee. And then by twenty past four, we’re out. And that 4 a.m. thing, for me, is this silent time when no one else in the house is awake. You know, even the dog doesn’t want to talk to me. And so, I get completely left alone and I just love that energy about that time of day. But then the later that you go in the day…I mean, by about seven o’clock in the evening, I’m dead. You can’t even speak to me. But it’s a funny thing, that you find your little time and little rhythm and it just helps a bit.

Charlie: Yeah. No, it’s funny. I think it’s that thing you were just saying there about that quiet time when nobody else is around. I often find working on a Saturday as well is really nice, or a Sunday, because like nobody else is really working. It just feels like a quiet time.

Mare and Foal by Charlie Langton ©

Lucy: So, how do you tend to get your work? Are you completely commission-driven? Or do you make things and actually sell them, find the buyer after you’ve made them? How does it work?

Charlie: Well, it’s a bit of both really, but mainly commissioned stuff, to be honest. Just because it’s the way it’s gone, really, and I love to… I mean, my work is really based on capturing the portrait of each horse that I do. So therefore by default it is a commission-based way of working, really, but I have been finding recently that because the horses are, normally speaking, in conformation pose mostly, it hasn’t really helped me creatively enormously to be doing that too regularly. So, I do try and do my own work in between and have things for sale on my website. I haven’t done a huge amount of it, but I’m starting to do it more now.

Lucy: And if you were to give other people thinking about becoming a professional an insight? Do you have to do an awful lot of marketing? Is it all word of mouth, social media? How do you manage to tell people about yourself?

Charlie: I’ve always been really bad at that part of things. When I did my first exhibition, I decided that I was going to get a company to do it so I got a PR company to do it, who were brilliant. They were racing…because the exhibition was racing-focused so I got a racing PR company to do the promotion for it, Johnno Spence Consulting. They were absolutely brilliant. They were so, so good. It was a new thing for them, getting into the art side of stuff but they had all the racing connections and they really helped get the exhibition into the right audience which was brilliant.

I just used them for, I think, it was maybe the first year or six months or so, regularly and then I’d use them now and again for the odd specific thing. But they really helped. It was an expensive way of doing things but it got my work in front of the right people at the right time. And it was a really important thing to do, I think. I mean, the racing world is really quite small, as you probably know, and word of mouth now is definitely the most powerful thing but that’s just in my little niche. It’s so small, the world that I work in; but as an artist, wider than that. God, it’s so hard, I don’t know. I wouldn’t be able to suggest what to do really.

Lucy: Well, no, you can only talk about your own journey. You can’t worry about other people’s but everyone comes at it differently. But have there been days where you’ve thought, I want to give it up?

Charlie: Not yet, no.

Lucy: That’s great.

Charlie: I really haven’t. I’m so lucky, I absolutely love what I do and I feel really lucky to be doing it. And, you know, these commissions don’t come up very often. The big portraits of horses, they really don’t come up very often and it’s really competitive to get these jobs. And the people that commission them put a lot of faith in you to get it right, you know? They’re big jobs and these things last forever, a portrait of a successful racehorse. And it’s also a piece of racing history and you’ve got to capture that right. I feel that it’s a huge privilege to do it so I absolutely love it and I wouldn’t do anything else, couldn’t do anything else. So it’s lucky that I do love it.

Lucy: Well, I’m not supposed to choose favourite sculptures that I’ve worked on in my life because obviously, every sculpture I’ve worked on has something about it that makes it fantastic and unique. But for me, Red Rum at Aintree, you know, just working on my hero was huge. I can’t really say to the client, “I’d do it for nothing,” but I kind of would because of it being Red Rum. So, is there a place you’d like to see one of your equestrian sculptures if you could make that choice? Have you got a little spot in mind? Maybe plant a seed if anyone’s listening who’s got access to that racecourse?

Charlie: Wow. Oh, that’s a good point. Goodwood is a beautiful racecourse, it would be amazing to have something there. But as beautiful as it is, I don’t know where you’d put a sculpture there. But it’s a beautiful place. Newbury is my local racecourse, so it’d be really nice to have something there. But other than a racecourse, I’d love to have something in London somewhere, I think.

Lucy: Yeah.

Charlie: Yeah, I’ve always really admired the equestrian sculptures that are in London. I think some of them are so underrated. There are just really incredible sculptures in London.

Lucy: And I’ve spent my life banging that drum saying, “You don’t need to go inside galleries. We’ve got this incredible gallery on your streets, you know.”

Charlie: Yeah.

Lucy: My poor kids, it’s no wonder they probably hate sculpture because I spent my life dragging them out to look at things. But there are so many incredible things to see. And as you say, the equestrian sculpture — second to none.

Charlie: Yeah, some of it is absolutely amazing. There was a sculptor called Adrian Jones, he was a vet. He was a soldier and then a vet. And he’s done some of the best equestrian sculptures you can think of really. And you wouldn’t really notice… a lot of people wouldn’t probably really notice they’re there. And they just drive past and they think of them as, you know, an adornment or a piece of architecture or something. But he was absolutely amazing, and in my opinion, probably one of the best horse sculptors there has ever been. And I hope he gets the recognition that he deserves, but I get a feeling maybe he doesn’t.

Lucy: Well, Charlie, tell people where they can find out more about you and your equestrian sculpture.

Charlie: Well, I’ve got a website, which is charlielangton.com. And I’ve got an Instagram thing, which is @langtonsculptor.

Lucy: Right. And is that your preferred social media? Do you like Instagram?

Charlie: Yeah, I’m pretty rubbish at social media.

Lucy: So, people are not going to get a reply?

Charlie: They might! They might.

Lucy: If they are very lucky.

Charlie: But I post very sporadically, not very often. Yeah, but I do put the odd thing on there.

Lucy: Brilliant. Well, Charlie, thanks ever so much for joining us today. I really appreciate it.

Charlie: Pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.

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