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Building Momentum, Storytelling and Commemorative Sculpture with James Butler

Lucy: Today on the podcast, I talk to, James Butler, the legendary sculptor, who has created a dizzying list of magnificent monumental commemorative sculptures in bronze. He was elected a Royal Academician in 1972, a Member of the Royal West of England Academy in 1980 and Fellow of the Royal Society of British Sculptors in 1981. His portfolio includes The RAF Fleet Air Arm Memorial, London Embankment, Field Marshal Earl Alexander of Tunis – Wellington Barracks, Birdcage Walk, London, footballer Duncan Edwards, The Stratford Jester and so many more. 

Lucy: Have you always been creative?

James: I don’t know, really. I suppose I have. I mean, I wasn’t really creative until I was about 15, 16, really. My father used to draw for me. I used to sit on his lap, and he used to draw in the margin around the edge, you know, the white margin around newspapers where there’s no lettering. He used to draw me tigers and soldiers and things like that. I thought he was a wonderful artist in those days, but he wasn’t really much good. But I did enjoy his drawings. And maybe that sort of got me going on military things. I don’t know.

Lucy: His career wasn’t in arts?

James: No, no, no. He was this docker, a stevedore. And he was away a lot of the time. He built a house down in Kent for my mother, and me, and my brother, and sister, but we didn’t really see much of him because he was always away working. And then during the war, he was away. And after that, after the war, he died. Unfortunately, he died quite young.

Lucy: Shame.

James: Yeah, it was a shame. And my mum married again to a wonderful old boy, who was an ex-cook in the army. And he was a great chap. And he looked after me and my brother beautifully well. He was a very nice, simple, nice chap.

Lucy: And so, when did you start getting interested in art?

James: Well, I went to grammar school down in Kent, where I lived, near Maidstone. So I went to Maidstone Grammar School, to begin with. And we had a teacher there who took an interest in the arts, and he used to talk to me from time to time about making some things and doing drawings and painting and stuff. So I thought I was going to be a painter. And when I left grammar school, I went to art school in Maidstone. And we had a splendid chap teaching there. He was teaching sculpture, and his name was Jock Stewart. He was Scottish, obviously. And he used to talk to me a lot about what I was doing. I don’t think I was doing much good in those days, but at least he got me interested and excited about making sculpture.

And then when I left the art school… Oh, no. That’s right. He arranged for me to go up to Saint Martin’s. So I did a couple of years at Saint Martin’s Art School. And Jock Stewart, he came up as well. He was a member of staff. And he looked after me. And we used to talk a lot about sculpture. But thinking now, I don’t really reckon much to his sculpture. It was a bit too sweet and didn’t quite work, but I was grateful to him for his interest in what I was doing.

Then, of course, after that, when I left the art school, I got a job. Because I was quite handy with my hands and things, I got a job as a stone carver. And I worked for a group of Italians. They were running a small carving group. And it was great. I mean, I really enjoyed working. It was early work in the morning, from 8 o’clock till 5, working, carving all day. And I learned to copy work using a pointing machine, which gave me various points in space. And I just enjoyed working there. The Italian couple were two brothers. So their father had come over to England to work on the figure of Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. He was obviously an Italian, and he worked on that, and then both his sons worked on it as well. And they became professional sculptors, carvers. Stone carvers. And I got on well with them.

Lucy: Did you learn more doing that job than you did at art school?

James: Well, I think I did! I mean, they treated me like a, sort of, idiot, you know, a young sculptor. They used to take the mickey out of me all the time, but, you know, I got used to that. And that was okay. But using a pointing machine, that was a very useful art to have. We carved the Queen’s piece at Kew Gardens. I think there’s six of them. Anyway, they’re in front of the Palm House at Kew Gardens. So I carved all those.

And they were on circular bases, and we had to leave the bases to trim up on the actual job when they were in situ. And so, people used to walk by. We used to use a newspaper folded to make a hat to keep the dust out of your hair. And there were three of us working on these pieces. And people walked by because we were doing it in public. People would walk by and make a comment about the fact that there was a lot of Italians working there, you know. So, I learned, really, working on those carvings, to really cut stone properly. And I was very much in debt to the Giudici brothers who I worked with a lot.

There are a couple of other sculptors there. There was a young sculptor called Peter King, who I worked with. Peter King was building quite a reputation for himself. And he worked for Henry Moore. But he died young. Very young. I don’t know why, but he died young. I remember we were with him… This was the time of the 1951 exhibit, the Great Exhibition that we had. And I remember walking around with him. And he used to like a drink, and so did I in those days. And he and I – I remember walking around the exhibition, absolutely plastered. I couldn’t see anything straight. But I remember a sort of great miasma of movement and things of people. So, that was my interest and understanding of the 1951 exhibition. I suppose I was about 20, something like that. Anyway, Peter King, who became a good friend, died. Died young. A lot of people, now that I’m talking to you, I’m realizing, “Oh, people died that I knew.” But he was a splendid chap. And he worked quite a lot for Henry Moore. Did a lot of carving for Henry Moore.

James Butler with portrait statue of President Jomo Kenyatta ©

Lucy: Did you like the stone as much as clay, or did it not appeal to you quite as much?

James: No, I like stone. I liked it. It was good fun to work. I got so that I could handle it very well. I could carve and cut stone well. So that was one thing that I could do.

Lucy: It’s quite an unforgiving material though, isn’t it?

James: It is tricky, yeah. Because once you cut it away, it’s gone. You can’t put it back again. Unfortunately, what happened is, my boss, Gerry Giudici, he unfortunately died, and then out of the blue, I got a job to do a figure of President Kenyatta in Kenya. They shipped me out to Kenya to meet President Kenyatta. He was a wonderful bloke. Treated me beautifully. They showed me into his private rooms in government house. And he loved flowers, and the whole room was bedecked with flowers.

Lucy: Wow.

James: And I could hear these footsteps coming closer to the room. And he came in. And he was about my height. I’m not very tall, about 5’7 or whatever it is. And he was the same height as me, but he’s very broad, very big chap. And he came walking towards me, and I thought he wasn’t going to stop. I thought he was just going to walk… Anyway, I remember going back as if he was going to walk over me. And he said to me, “You are a sculptor?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “We would like a statue of me.” So I said, “Oh, that’s wonderful.”

So, he allowed me to take lots of photographs of him. Then I came back to England, and I started making – I mean, I had printed out, I used to do a lot of photography in those days – and I printed out these images of President Kenyatta. A wonderful man. Great head. And so I made this… it was probably two or about a year to do because it was twice life-size. The first big figure I’d ever done in clay. I really loved doing it. I used to live in Bedfordshire before we moved here, and it was an old school that we had. And the school building, my studio, was owned by a market gardener. And he had two great big double doors put on the back of the schoolroom so he could drive lorries full of cabbages into the school, into the room.

I managed to set up a studio. And a couple of students who I’d worked with and I’d known when they were students at the art school, they needed a job, and so any job that I got – and they were mostly little commercial, weird jobs – we used to share them between us. So we had t-shirts made with, “We never say no,” across here. We never said no.

Lucy: That’s a good attitude.

James: And we had all sorts of commercial jobs. I mean, I did a figure for Madame Tussauds. A great, tall figure of the tallest man who was 9 feet tall. And I did a great big figure of him. And then they wanted reproductions to send… We sent reproductions of it to various places around the world. You know, Denmark and France. And we cast everyone in resin and then I painted it afterwards. And I would paint his coat and trousers. The unfortunate thing is that he wore a checked jacket, and I had to paint a checked jacket and make it look real. That took me a long time. I did it in the end. Anything that would come along, we would do.

Lucy: Do you think that was the secret of your success? It’s the fact that…

James: It might be. Yeah, it might be.

Lucy: …you kept the momentum up?

James: Yeah. I could do most things, you know. Work in resin, work in metal, work in stone. So, we could handle most materials. Anyway, I got this wonderful statue to do of President Kenyatta. And really, that brought in enough money for me to pack in our little job and to try and do really first class work. And so, I got a job also to do a monument to the freedom fighters of Zambia. And that’s in Lusaka. I did a commissioned bronze sculpture of Field Marshal Alexander. It’s in Wellington Barracks. Now that was great to do. I mean, that’s life-size. So I got used to working big. I used to crawl all over it, like, sort of try and have a scaffolding and crawl all over the piece. It was great to do. I loved doing it.

And then I started getting commissions from other places. I did Richard III in Leicester. He was in castle gardens, to begin with, but they moved him to the new… Well, not the new, but the new setting for the figure of Richard III, which was outside the cathedral. And I did another commissioned bronze sculpture for Leicester at that time. The seamstress. A lot of the work was done locally from various trades, and they wanted a figure of a seamstress, who used to put things together and sew things up. And I did a figure of her. And so that’s in Leicester. Because I used my wife as a model, and it really was great to do. I loved it.

Alexander Of Tunis by James Butler, post restoration by Antique Bronze Ltd ©

Lucy: And so, these commissioned bronze sculptures: were people approaching you, or were you pitching for these jobs?

James: No, people approached me for these jobs. I mean, I was just surprised when I would suddenly get a letter saying, you know, “We would like so-and- so, can you make this for us? And how long would it take? And how much would it be?” And all that. I mean, I had to work out how much things cost.

Lucy: How much time.

James: And time. Yeah. But I had two or three things going on at the same time. I did some extra work for Madame Tussauds in those days, and I did a big statue of Christ that was based on a drawing or a painting done by Rembrandt. So, I had to check up on a lot of things and try to make a useful and intelligent sculpture from, sort of, just an idea, you know.

Lucy: And so, was there anyone in the background promoting you, or was it just word of mouth that this was happening?

James: Just word of mouth. I had no one on my behalf. I have now. Work began to dwindle a bit, and I thought it would be sensible to have… Well, I became a Royal Academician. That helped a lot to begin with. Unfortunately, for me, I’m a figurative sculptor, and the Royal Academy, I’m afraid, no longer really looks after figurative sculptors. They’re not really interested in what I do. So, I thought I should find someone to stand up for me, who’s got a bit of cash. So I went and saw a chap called Chris Beetles, who’s got a gallery in St. James’. And he’s a splendid chap. And so with him, he shows some of my work, and he gets me the odd commission. And what he does, he sends over my work to the Royal Academy for me so that I don’t have to go through the whole business of doing it myself, and also casting. So, it’s very useful and handy for me to have someone like Chris Beetles, who runs a gallery in St. James’. And he flogs my stuff whenever he can. Takes a fair whack out of it, of course. But that’s what galleries do.

Lucy: Well, they’ve got to eat as well.

James: Well, I’m sorry about that. That’s what they do.

Lucy: And so, tell me a little bit about what your day is like, James. How do you get into the creative flow of the work? Do you have to warm up like a jogger?

James: No, I don’t. I don’t have to warm up because my studio’s bloody cold in the wintertime. So, I warm up by putting new jackets on and things. But I’ve been very fortunate. I mean, I’m 90 now. In a couple of weeks, I’m 90.

Lucy: Are you 90?

James: Yeah.

Lucy: Well, I had seen that your career was very long. And you’re a similar sort of age to my father. I lost him a few years ago. But the thing is that I thought that maybe you might know each other. Because he was a restorer, but he worked at Morris Singer when he was a young man, and he patinated for many of the prolific sculptors, Henry Moore, and he was great friends with Barbara Hepworth. So, I wasn’t quite sure how old you were.

James: Well, I’m 90. I mean, on the 25th of July, just a couple of weeks’ time, I’ll be 90. My kids are all getting excited about it. They told me they’re going to take me around London. They’re going to hire a van or a car or wherever, and we are going to visit all my sculptures in London.

Lucy: Magnificent idea!

James: It will be really enjoyable. I haven’t seen so many, especially the one in the barracks. I haven’t seen many of them for such a long time.

Lucy: My dad always said, “I’ll never retire.” He was in the studio, you know, even a couple of days before he left us. But he said, “I’m not one for retiring. Just keep me working.”

James: Well, that’s the way I feel. Although I’m getting weaker. I used to be quite strong, but, you know, time is sort of taking my strength away from me. But anyway, I’m still working.

Lucy: Yeah, yeah.

James: I’ve got an interesting commission to do now. It’s a portrait of an elderly gentleman, who was very religious. He’s seated on a rock, and he’s looking towards this religious building. He’s thanking God for his help.

Lucy: Is it going to be huge?

James: No, it’s going to be life-size.

Lucy: That’s pretty big.

James: Oh, to me, that…

Lucy: Not compared to what you do normally, I know! 

The Rainbow Division/Croix Rouge Farm Memorial Maquette by James Butler ©

Lucy: James, has there been a project that you’ve stood back and thought, “You know what? If I never work again, that’s good enough”?

James: I’ve never really quite thought that. But I did have a wonderful job to do. It was for an American. And he came over to England. He was very much interested in the work of… What’s his name? God, I’ve forgotten his name. Oh, he’s the chap who did the figure of the great gun in Hyde Park corner.

Lucy: Oh, Jagger?

James: Jagger. Yeah, Jagger. He thinks the world of Jagger. And he came over to England because he thought he’d seen something of Jagger in my work, you see. And he was a splendid chap, this American. He was an ex-army man. And he came over to see me, and he was looking around my studio, and he saw a sketch pinned on the wall. It was an idea I had of a soldier holding a dead comrade in his arms. As if he picked him up off the battle floor and was taking him wherever. And so he loved this idea, and it made me think of it much more deeply than I had before. And so I made it for him. He paid me to make it twice for that size.

Lucy: Wow.

James: A figure of a soldier, an American soldier, First World War, all the gear, rifle, and everything. And I imagined that he was like an angel. Did he come down from heaven? And he picked up the body of one of his soldiers, and he was taking him up to heaven. That’s what I had in my mind when I was modelling it.

Lucy: You think of the Pietà, don’t you?

James: It’s like a Pietà, but it’s not really.

Lucy: No.

James: It was a figure of a soldier carrying another soldier.

Lucy: The military version.

James: Yeah, that’s right. Because I was completely moved by the idea, I just loved working on it. And I worked on it for over a year. And then we cast it. And then they wanted another casting. It was put in front in the foyer, or in the front of the Royal Academy. Being a member of the RA, I am allowed to send in work. And it’s usually put, you know, in a reasonable place. Not anymore, but it was put, in those days, in a reasonable place. And it was in the forecourt of the RA. And it caused a lot of interest.

And I took my American there. And we had lunch at the RA. And he saw my big statue, then he shipped it out to America. And Angie, my wife and I, we went out as well to set it up in America. And it was great fun to do. Great fun. And I’ve got to know a few American army generals, masses of medals all over them. And it was good fun. I really enjoyed it. And then he wanted another one. He wanted it for France, in fact. I’ve got it round the wrong way. He wanted the one in France first.

Lucy: Okay.

James: Yeah. We set it up in France on the battlefield. His father was injured, very badly injured on the field in America where they fought. It was called the Rainbow Division. This particular group of American soldiers were given the name The Rainbow by a general. He said, “These men are from America like the rainbow.” And he spread his arms like a rainbow. And the men were given a special little flash on their shoulders like a rainbow curving with three or four colours, whatever, three colours, something. Anyway. And it became a really important fighting group, the Rainbow Soldiers. And my statue is called the Rainbow Division. And he’s in France. And then after that, we set up the same piece and another casting made in America.

So, I suppose that’s my favourite piece or my most wonderful piece, the piece I was so knocked out by doing. And I did it pretty almost by myself. And I had some help building the armature. So, that was done in my studio here. And I just loved working on it. It was just amazing. I’ve got photographs of me, sort of, with the top half done and me hanging off the scaffolding because I had to build a scaffold around it to maybe better reach the head.

Lucy: So, James, if you had your time again, would you do it again? Would you be a sculptor again, or would you go with something completely different?

James: No, I’d do the whole bloody same thing all over again.

Lucy: Good for you. So, it’s been good to you as a career?

James: It has, yeah. Well, now I’m getting old and I’m getting weaker, so I don’t think I could handle something that size anymore. But I would try. But I can handle a life-size piece, which I’m going to do. But it’s a problem with aging.

Lucy: For all of us, not just you.

James: You are lovely and young.

Lucy: Oh, hardly.

James: What do you mean hardly? You’re not 90 years old!

Lucy: Sometimes feel like it after a day’s work.

James: Yeah, might as well feel like it. Anyway, it’s lovely to talk to you about my work. It’s very nice that you chose me.

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