Portrait Sculpture with Christine Charlesworth

The Sculptor Within, Self-Doubt and Portrait Sculpture with Christine Charlesworth

Lucy: Today I’m speaking to Christine Charlesworth, who specialises in figurative and portrait sculpture. She’s an elected member of the Society of Women Artists and an elected member of the Royal British Society of Sculptors. She was one of the official artists with BT from 2010, leading up to and including the 2012 Olympics and has far too many other awards to include here. I’m sure she won’t mind me saying that she’s not in her twenties any more, but the quantity of the finest work that she is producing is quite dizzying. This year alone she’s completed public commissions for the Greta Thunberg monument at Winchester University; Dame Ethel Smyth, the English composer and member of the Women’s Suffrage Movement; and Emily Wilding Davison, the activist and suffragette, which you’ll find in Epsom. I was desperate to interview her because every one of her portrait sculptures makes me excited. I know I always harp on about being inspired by sculpture but her work is just the type of thing that makes me buzz. I began our conversation today by asking if she’d always been creative.

Christine: Well, if you count playing with Plasticine from a very, very young age, I suppose yes. Well, my favourite lesson at school was always art. It certainly wasn’t science, although I married a scientist. But yes, I suppose I have. That side of my brain has always worked better than the other side, yes.

Lucy: And was there someone at home that particularly encouraged the creative part of your pursuits, the Plasticine?

Christine: My mother. My mother…yes, before the war, she actually got into the art college in Liverpool but then couldn’t proceed any further because the war came along. And then she never went back to it. She didn’t do anything with her talent, so it never progressed. So…

Lucy: Shame. And so, was art quite a big part of life at home, like entertaining you?

Christine: Yeah, it was something to keep myself occupied. Yes. My art projects were always very, very simple because I wasn’t lucky enough to ever go to a school that was art-based. So, I feel like I missed out quite a lot in learning how to do things, that had to come later in life. Whenever I give lectures or anything, I talk about transferable skills. You’re learning things in life all the time and you don’t actually know what’s going to be transferable but it’s there, it’s in you, and you pull it out as and when needed.

Lucy: So, when did the journey begin for you? When did you start to move towards it as a career?

Christine: My sculpture career came late in life, it’s something I’d always wanted to do. But I did go to art college, I went to Wolverhampton Art College. But, by the time I got round to signing up to go there and they saw my portfolio, the foundation course was full, which was annoying because that’s what I really wanted to do. That’s what I dreamt about doing: “Oh yes, I’ll be able to do sculpture there.” But what I didn’t want to do is go to another art college and move away from home. I’d been away at a boarding school that I didn’t really like at all and I didn’t want to move away again: “This is my time to be living back at home and going to art college.” So, fulfilling my mother’s dream, in some respects, and my own.

So, this was in the ’60s and the course they offered me, which was incredibly fashionable then, was fashion design, millinery fashion design, and everything linked with that. So, that’s what I did. So, here’s where I start amassing the transferable skills, working out how to do patterns and things like that. It’s very useful, in some respects, for making the molds for the sculptures that I do now. So yes, that’s what I did at art college.

After art college, I then did do some fashion design, I concentrated on wedding dresses and bridesmaid dresses, for a very short time. Unfortunately – it’s a fantastic skill to have, and I use it a lot for redesigning clothes and for doing all sorts of other things in the house – but actually, I don’t really like sewing. So, I like coming up with the ideas, and of course, in the ’60s, it’s great with the miniskirt, so I could think in the morning, “My God, I’ve got nothing to wear tonight. What am I going to do?” and I could have a new outfit by that evening. No problem at all, didn’t even use very much material.

Lucy: No, I think if you’re going to be a fashion designer any time, I reckon the ’60s was probably the

Christine: Absolutely brilliant, yes. And using curtain material, you know, and they had the border prints on curtain materials. That’s fantastic, that’s crying out for amazing dresses with…oh, yes, yes, we had great fun. But then I had to get proper jobs.

Lucy: Pay the bills.

Christine: Yes, got married, and we moved away from the Midlands, we went to live in Yorkshire. All the time I’m sort of thinking, “Well, I’ll eventually learn how to do sculpture. I’ll find a class where I can learn how to do sculpture properly.” We lived in Yorkshire for six years, then we moved down to Devon for sixteen years. In Devon, that’s when we became parents, we adopted our daughter at five days old. And that’s when I thought, “Right, I can give up…” I’d been doing lots and lots of proper jobs but not found anywhere to learn how to do sculpture. But I thought, “Right, I’d always said I’m going to do something arty-farty as soon as we have children because then that’s going be my time, I’m going to be able to do that.” She was only five days old when we brought her home, so I had to immediately give up my full-time job. And I was a buyer and contracts controller for a building company, so I was in charge of the men in the yard, so building skills, transferable to sculpture.

Lucy: I was going to say, you couldn’t be better prepared, because I find that a lot, especially with large-scale sculpture. There seems to be a lot of men around in it, in that world. So, being able to talk on a level and discuss things, especially construction-related things, which you must’ve been doing…

Emily Wilding Davison by Christine Charlesworth ©

Christine: Yeah, yeah. So, it has been very useful. Yes, all good stuff. Then our daughter is learning disabled. We didn’t know when we adopted her, obviously, this was going to happen. I concentrated on learning how to do fine art when she was very young, learning how to paint. So, fine art portraiture, lots of life drawing. Eventually, when she got a bit older, I went to life drawing classes and things. So, because I specialise in figurative and portrait sculpture, that is my grounding, I can do the anatomy bit. I’ve got that, I can work with that now, I can go with the flow without even having a model, touch wood.

So, we moved when she was aged eleven, she needed to move to a special school. We school hunted, the best school that we found, which was very convenient for London, was just outside Guildford. And that’s why we moved to Surrey. And soon after moving, probably about a year after moving, I saw that there was a course at the adult education centre in Guildford on sculpture. I then had to pluck up courage to go there. And I missed two terms because I was frightened to sign up to it, because I wanted to do sculpture so badly and I was frightened that my bluff was going to be called and I was going to be proved that I couldn’t do it.

So, I went and my first sculpture lesson was helping Carol to pug all the clay. So, I didn’t really do any sculpture. I think she was testing me. Carol was my teacher. And Carol said she knew straight away that she had a student who really wanted to learn. And 90%, I would say, maybe 95% of the other people that were there, were there to learn it as a hobby. So, they would say to her, “Well, no, no, no, don’t touch this, I’m quite happy with this,” and they didn’t want to take it any further. Whereas Carol knew that she could have fun with me, inasmuch as she could come up to whatever I was doing and slice off a shoulder, or bend an arm, or cut a face off. Because she knew that if I hadn’t done it right, I’ve got the potential to work on it and I wasn’t going to burst into tears.

And, in fact, there was one time that I was doing a reclining nude figure and I was for the first time thinking, “I’m going to do this without doing any measurements of the figure I’m looking at, I’m going to do this by eye.” Carol knew that I could do better. She came up to me, because it was my turn to be looked at by teacher, and she got hold of what I’d been working on and she just mushed it up into clay. And, in fact, a saying that she taught me, which is my mantra that I tell myself is, “It’s only clay. And it’s only clay until you’re 100% happy with what you’ve done.” Otherwise, it goes back into my orange buckets and I try again. Like, you slice off the face, and you start again until you’re absolutely…you think, “At this stage, I can’t do any better,” or, “it’s taking shape.” Well, you could’ve dropped a pin in that group and it would’ve heard like a clanger, nobody spoke for the rest of the lesson, they were in fear that she was going to do the same to them. And, of course, she wouldn’t have done, she knew she could do it with me. And they couldn’t understand why I wasn’t really upset.

Lucy: Gosh, she sounds marvellous.

Christine: She was great. And yes, I did do it much better the second time. And I didn’t do any measurements, I did it by eye and I did it much better. So, she was right.

Greta Thunberg by Christine Charlesworth ©

Lucy: I can’t remember who it is, someone who says, “Kill your darlings,” but I think the thing is you’ve got to be brave enough to edit. And I think that is a distinction of a professional, isn’t it, someone who doesn’t crumple at that because you nearly always can do better. Very rarely I think that you think, “Oh, I’ll never make it better again.”

Christine: Yes, absolutely. But you must never ever think, “This is absolutely perfect,” because you’re never going to progress and get any better if you ever think any of your work is like that. But I must tell you what I go through each time I do a commission. I get to a stage where it’s taking shape and, yes, working very well, and my husband will come in and say, “Oh my goodness, you’ve nearly finished.” No, he always says that, you know, as soon as I start putting stuff on the armature. “No, go away!” And I go through this stage where I have to stop myself picking up the phone, contacting my customer and say, “Look, I can’t do this. You’re going to have to go and find a proper sculptor.”

Lucy: Oh, isn’t that funny? But the thing is that you have to know yourself, and you clearly do.

Christine: Yes. And then I have to make myself…it’s almost like being in a glass dome, I don’t know, like science fiction or something, where you’re in it and you’re working on the sculpture and, suddenly, you can actually get through. You can get through the surface of what’s holding you and it’s starting to take shape how you are visualising it in your head. And you’re pulling at it, and yes, it’s taking shape and it’s looking like what I want to represent. “And yes, yes, okay. Good job I didn’t phone them, I’ll stick with it. That’s all right.”

Lucy: You need someone to cut the phone line so there’s no contact with the outside world allowed.

Christine: I’ve never phoned anybody yet, so maybe I know shouldn’t, and it’s just I know I’m going through the horrible time.

Lucy: I think some of the greatest creatives… writers I know have said that they always have that absolute doubt, that thing that says, “I’m not good enough, I can’t do this. Why am I torturing myself?” It’s like it’s part of their battle with the thing that’s going to be born. You know, there has to be a tussle.

Christine: Absolutely. And as for unveiling, when we get to the unveiling bit and we’ve got lots of other people that know who the person is supposed to look like, I just want to be a million miles away really.

Lucy: Yeah, I can’t imagine how hard that is. There’s been a very topical statue unveiled this last week, hasn’t there, with the royal family?

Christine: Yes.

Lucy: And I just feel like it must be the hardest thing ever to have to do that and to hear people’s opinions. And people are just not necessarily kind, you know. They feel like it’s fine to tear people down, and it’s painful.

Christine: Yes, absolutely.

Lucy: So, I love the fact that you had this, sort of, inner sculptor inside you years before you even began. I love the fact it was waiting in the wings for you.

Christine: Well, I was in my forties when I was able to start sculpting.

Lucy: Wow. That’s just a magic kind of idea, the fact that there was this awareness it was there and you’d come to it at the right time, but timing was part of it.

Christine: Oh, yes. It was something I had to do. I had to do it. And I’ve had to be making up for lost time ever since. So, you know, I have really been churning out – well, not churning them out but it’s just been…As my husband said, he took early retirement, he said, “Well, it’s your turn now. It’s your turn to do what you really want to do.”

Lucy: Brilliant.

Christine: And he has been very supportive, eventually. There was a time when he said why didn’t I go and get a proper job.

Lucy: Yeah. Well, the thing is it is hard, I think, for those on the outside of that process to know, because so many people want to be a professional in the area they love, but how many people really do break through and are able to make money at it? It’s tiny, the number.

Christine: It is tricky. Yes. I have been very, very, amazingly lucky with the number of commissions I’ve been given. And, of course, I’ve been learning as I’ve been working on the commissions. So, I’ve been paid to learn rather than paying to learn. So, that is wonderful, absolutely wonderful. Lots of people that were willing to take the risk, really.

Lucy: Yeah. Well, I’m sure there’s more to it than just them taking the risk. I think there’s a lot more to it than that. But just to take you back a step: you were talking about this self-doubt that you have. Is there a creative practice or a mode of working that helps you to get into that flow, that moment where you can feel and see what you want coming out of your sculpture?

Christine: Well, first of all, I build out my sculptures from the bones, the sausages on the armature, build out, then the flesh, then the fabric on top of that. So, take lots of photographs and measurements of whoever I’m doing. If I’m able to take them in their undies, that’s great. Obviously, they don’t necessarily have to get absolutely starkers, certainly children not. And then if it’s a costume one, putting the right laced-up undies on first to hold their bodies in the right shape, and then put the clothes on top. Yes, that’s fine. But what I find I always do – I know what I have to do, I know I’ve got to work out the bones and everything, I do all the bones, I do all the measurements, I do all of that – and I seem to always do it a little bit wrong. Every time, I do it a little bit wrong. And then I say to myself, “You’ve done it wrong again.” But I can see where I’ve gone wrong and, you know, back to the “clay into the clay bin” -maybe not all of it – but then you do it right. But why can’t I…? I’m sure other sculptors do it correct the first time, don’t they, or is it just me?

Lucy: Oh, I love that. But I mean that’s just true of life generally. I nearly always have to undo whatever I’ve been intending to do.

Christine: So, it’s not just me then.

Lucy: No. Well, mine’s not so much with sculpture but I certainly find myself thinking, “What was I thinking when I did it like that?”, whatever. And I always say, “Well, I bet my husband wouldn’t have done it like that,” or, “I bet my dad wouldn’t have done it like that.” Everyone else does it right apparently.

So, you don’t have a little routine like going for a jog in the morning, or warming your body up to sculpt?

Christine: No, I ought to. No, I’m old now, so I’ve got problem hips. So, if I sit for long periods, I have to go “Oh, ow, ow,” can hardly move. I thought I was going to retire from sculpture three-and-a-half years ago because the pain in my hands was so great. My thumb and first finger, sometimes it goes navy blue in the gap there. It’s arthritis. The doctor said, you know, “Keep moving, but probably sculpture’s not good.” So, I thought, “Well, okay. I might have to start being sensible and give it up.” And, of course, then I was contacted to do the Emily Wilding Davison commission. It took me three-and-a-half years to raise the funds, so I thought, “Well, okay, I’ve still got to carry…I’m involved in this, so I know I’ve got to lumber up and keep active and things.” If my hips are up to it, I will walk a mile before breakfast. So, that’s good. And of course I’m standing and moving all the time when I’m sculpting. I don’t sit around very much. It’s boring, anyway, if you do that. But these three big commissions that I’ve had to do during lockdown, a bit like buses, they all came at once.

Lucy: Really, you have been busy this last year or so, haven’t you? Tell us about how you’re getting that work. Are people knocking the door down, or is it a business strategy that you have?

Christine: I haven’t really…I’m not very good on modern media and promoting myself. So, that just gets forgotten really. I have, as I said earlier, been very, very lucky that people have seen my work and people have been coming to me offering me commissions. And that’s really all my best work. I don’t mean best that I’ve done, but the work that I’ve been thrilled to get, has come to me.

Lucy: So, it’s word of mouth, which is the best…

Christine: A lot of it is word of mouth. Yes, I obviously hear about things because I’m in the Royal Society of Sculptors and they send details of what’s out there to apply for. So, I have done lots of proposals, I put myself forward for lots of work. I have failed to get quite a number of things because, (a) they haven’t had enough money in the pot or they’ve…I was going to say “chosen a man,” but quite often that is true.

Lucy: Oh, I think that there are much less women sculptors out there as well, aren’t there?

Christine: Yes, there are. Yes.

Lucy: But the thing is that you seem to be sculpting lots of fantastic women, which is marvellous.

Christine: Well, it’s just great to be able to concentrate this last eighteen months on three really, really important women, including Greta.

Greta Thunberg by Christine Charlesworth ©

Lucy: Yes. Well, Greta’s really taken the world by storm, I’m sure as her sculpture will as well.

Christine: Well, yes, although I had an awful lot of flack.

Lucy: Oh, really?

Christine: Yes. The people of Winchester couldn’t understand why they were having a sculpture of Greta Thunberg in the town. It was never for the town, they got the wrong information. And then they were up in arms and they said they wanted to have the man that sells “The Big Issue,” why couldn’t they have a sculpture of him? What relevance was it of Greta Thunberg in the centre of Winchester? The fact that their university is the greenest in the country and that they just spent, I think, $52 million on building it, which is why they got money in the pot to pay for the sculpture with art for the building work that a section of that was put to one side for the sculpture, and she’s there, very relevant…

Lucy: Just escaped people.

Christine: Yes, although people were saying that they liked the sculpture, they were sort of correcting themselves, saying, “We like the sculpture but we just really don’t…why have we got…?” Quite a lot of gentlemen of a certain age didn’t really want to have Greta there.

Lucy: It’s a funny thing, though. Often I feel like sculpture is in its particular context, and somehow the connection between the context is something that the everyday person misses. We look after beautiful sculptures in Warrington, which are called “The Guardians,” and they are a memorial to those that were killed by the IRA bombing there. So, they are a really poignant memorial to those lost lives. But they are vandalised constantly. But as soon as people know what they are for, they’re horrified. I mean the kids skateboarding along them and things, they don’t know, they don’t understand what the setting is, what they’re for. And as soon as they do…so, somehow there is something being missed in that message, it’s just an absence. And I think often that is the case with sculpture, people don’t always see the connection. But then, when they do see it, they’re very happy to support it.

Christine: Yeah. Well, with Greta, I was quite lucky with this bad press because it gave me the opportunity to do an awful lot of talking about what I was portraying when I did Greta. Because, initially, the university wanted her sitting down, wearing her yellow coat, with her sign board beside her. Well, that was years ago, three years ago she was doing that, and it’s not relevant. She’s eighteen now, if she wanted to, she could go to that university. And she’s done so much more since she got the courage to do that. And I say “courage” because I’ve done quite a lot of work with young people, with learning disabilities because of our daughter. And Julia, although she’s on the autistic spectrum, but she’s also learning disabled, so she’s the other end of the spectrum to Greta who feels very strongly and she can remember things and she can spout about them, you know, she’s got a strong voice to do that. But the in-between bit is exactly the same as our daughter and quite a lot of other people on the autistic spectrum have to cope with. They hate going to new places. They hate crowds. They hate noise. They hate meeting new people. They can’t give eye contact. They’re very unsure of themselves.

And I have portrayed all of those traits when finally I did persuade the university that the best way of portraying Greta was standing, as she used to stand on a box, but with her one foot in front because she’s very unsure. And her hand, although pointing, not pointing strongly. And where she’s pointing, that’s not where she’s looking, she’s looking to the side of that, and her other hand in a fist with her jumper, trying to hide it. So, her body language, as with – I think it’s very important – all sculptures, should tell a story and you should not be able to have to look too far for that story to be told.

Because the students themselves then got on their high horses and they said, “Why spend all this money on a sculpture?” It wasn’t a huge amount of money. “The money should go to the students.” But having talked to the students and done an interview for the students, they’re thinking a different way now. And I’m hoping that Greta will be standing there, she’s called “Make a Difference,” and it’s for students to notice and maybe notice other students who might be having problems, bring this to their attention and help other students. And, so Greta’s still going to be working, I hope – well, the statue of Greta – helping students, enabling them to help others.

Lucy: I often get this because I’m working in public spaces. I get a lot of, “Oh, you shouldn’t be doing that, that should be going to care homes, that money that you’re spending, you know, preserving X, Y, Z.” And the problem is there is no good answer to that. There’s always five hundred places that money should go to. And my conclusion is that we have to spread little bits around in all directions to make our world better. And I think, though, that there are portrait sculptures which are just of people, but yours doesn’t sound like it’s actually just about Greta. There’s a whole lot more there. And that’s why it will mean more to the students once they embrace that, because the thing is that it is for them.

Christine: Yes. It’s to show that there’s a very small girl who, in spite of being terrified, stood in front of thousands, met so many important people, and pushed herself beyond her limits because she felt passionate about what she was trying to get across to people. And she came out the other side, and look what she achieved. Amazing. Absolutely amazing, which is why I was pleased to do the other two as well.

Dame Ethel Smyth by Christine Charlesworth ©

Lucy: Yeah, I was going to say, it’s quite difficult to choose between all these magnificent women that you’ve got on your list. So, Christine, has it been a good career to you? Would you do it again if you had the chance over?

Christine: If I could rewind and start from when I was younger, with all the knowledge that I’ve got as an old person, without having the pain in my hands, oh my goodness, I could create so much. It would be wonderful, absolutely wonderful to know that I’ve got years and years and years ahead.

Lucy: And, so maybe to younger sculptors, they need to invest a good portion of their time looking after their bodies. Because, if you want a long career, you can’t…

Christine: Yes. So, I have been very good, I have been very careful, healthy eating, healthy lifestyle, healthy everything. But with arthritis, it just arrives. But in spite of that, it’s okay.

Lucy: So, has there been one particular sculpture that you’ve stood back and thought, “Do you know what? If I never work again, I’ve done it. I’m okay.”

Christine: Well, this is a sort of question I’m asked quite often when I give talks and things. And I always say, “Well, the sculpture that I am the happiest with, because I’m giving it my all, is always the sculpture that I’m working on at that moment. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be giving it 100% of myself.” But looking back, these last eighteen months have meant very much to me, and I have been so lucky that I’ve had these three very important women. And I think they are…I’m going to hope there’s more in the pipeline going to come and I hope I’m going to carry on working because I’ve learned to live with the pain now. Because what I tell myself now is, “If I’m not feeling the pain, then I’m not going to be alive.” So, that’s fine. I’m still alive, I can still feel a bit of an “ouch” or more now and again. I loved doing Emily Wilding Davison. Even now, since being unveiled, she’s still having flowers left beside her. People come and sit beside her and they hold her hand. I didn’t expect them to hold her hand, she’s gesturing, but it’s also a very comfortable hand to hold. And children like her because she’s at that level they can climb on the granite bench and they can get beside her. I don’t like sculptures on plinths, I have a thing against them.

Having said that, the big one that’s going to be unveiled, we’ve had to put off the unveiling, that’s Dame Ethel Smyth, the composer, in Woking. They haven’t finished doing the building work where she’s going. So, that might not be unveiled until the end of next month now, unfortunately. She’s going to have to stand on a bit of a plinth to raise her up because how she’s standing with her elbow in such a position, I was worried that people might bash into her, because I had to wear a hard hat because she kept attacking me on top of my head with her elbow. We had quite a lot of fallout about that because I think she was doing it on purpose.

Lucy: I know, knocking some sense into you.

Christine: Trying to!

Lucy: Anyway, you’ve been so wonderful. I would love you to be able to tell the listeners where they might be able to find out more about you and your portrait sculptures.

Christine: Well, I live in Milford, which is near Godalming in Surrey. I’m lucky enough to have a studio. It’s not huge, I would love to have a huge building just dedicated to me. I have the equivalent of a single-car garage area, that is my studio. So, when I did Dame Ethel Smyth, she was floor to ceiling.

Lucy: I was going to say, “How on earth did you fit her in?” She’s huge.

Christine: Yes, I’m very pleased that, because of lockdown and everything, I didn’t have to go and find another premises. So, it was great, just walk out the kitchen door, just across a small gravel area, and there is my studio. I can be waved at if teas and coffees are ready or called in to eat my meal because my husband was the chief. Because of lockdown, he had to go and get all the food and everything. But they can find me near Godalming. Did you want my address?

Lucy: If you have got a website, that would be wonderful.

Christine: Yes, I’ve got a website, it’s www.christinecharlesworth…

Lucy: …co.uk, I think.

Christine: Yes, thank you.

Lucy: I know it very well, but just for the listeners. And have you got a social media that you like, if people want to contact you?

Christine: I’m quite happy for people to send me emails.

Lucy: Brilliant.

Christine: I always check my emails. It’s [email protected].

Lucy: Very good. Thank you ever so much for taking the time today, Christine. I really appreciate it.

Christine: Okay. It’s been great talking to you.

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