Medieval guilds, To Thine Own Self Be True and Public Sculpture with Mark Richards

Mark Richards is a sculptor specialising in figurative work whose list of public monuments is vast including, The Matthew Flinders Monument in Euston Station, The Vernon monument, Portsmouth, The Roger Casement Statue in Ireland, The Big Tom McBride Sculpture in Co Monaghan among many others. I began our conversation today by asking, when sculpture had first come into Mark’s life? 

Mark: I think I was drawn to sculpture because I studied medieval architecture as part of an art history course at Manchester when I first went to university, and one of the things that really I was very drawn to was the collective nature of the way that the carving communities worked in those days. And I found it very much at odds with the much more contemporary idea of this, sort of, stand-alone kind of creature, which I’ve never quite understood how that came about. So, I was very drawn to the collective nature of how the gothic cathedrals were carved and made and so. You have these communities of artisan sculptors kind of move around Europe taking their livelihoods, and life and families and everything, friends along with them. They would move from cathedrals often up the limestone that runs through France and up into Britain. You know, transferring skills and working very much in a kind of collaborative way.

And I was very interested. I was very drawn to that as an antidote to the rather isolated, almost the sort of personal branding. Well, since the Renaissance, really, the myth of the branding of the individual has been sort of out of society. I’ve never really gone with that. And so, I was very drawn to carving and things because of that. So, then I went on to study carving. So, I went from a kind of academic thing to that. And I took a course in carving figure sketch. But then when I came out of it I realized that obviously the medieval times were finished.

Lucy: And so is that part of your degree?

Mark: No, no. No, my degree was an academic degree.

Lucy: Okay.

Mark: But I always used to paint and draw, I was a terrible academic.

Lucy: I’m sure you weren’t.

Mark: No, I was much more interested in making and drawing and things. So, I seem to remember spending most of my spare time in the architecture school in Manchester doing drawings.

Lucy: And so, it was after university that you began to explore the practical side of yourself.

Mark: Of sculpture, yeah. I’d always painted or drawn. So, yeah, and then I wanted to learn the craft. The three, sort of, main families of sculpture.

Lucy: Yeah.

Mark: To learn the basics of all three of those. And that’s what I did.

Lucy: What form did that take? Was it short courses and night school?

Mark: No, no, I went to a full-time course.

Lucy: Course, okay.

Mark: But I had kind of my own agenda, which was to the learn those, basically carving, modelling, and fabrication. And to put to learn all the skills associated with those techniques.

Lucy: Yeah.

Mark: It’s pretty much all the sculpture, all sculpture. It’s very rare that you see a piece of sculpture that doesn’t fit into one of those families and having those basic skills, I thought, was a really good place to start.

Lucy: And so, tell us a little bit about your first paid piece of work? When did it start becoming a profession rather than a sort of passion?

Mark: I made a lot of sculptures for a film called “The Ultimate City,” which was a film school film. That was my first sculpture, I made a series of…

Lucy: So, like, props or…?

Mark: They were kind of, I suppose they were props, yeah. Maybe I cut them in polystyrene and covered them in plaster and paint, that sort of thing. So, that was my first paid job.

Lucy: Paid job. And did you just get that taste for it and think to yourself, “You know, this is something I can do for myself?” Because not everybody has that entrepreneurial streak in them, I don’t think.

Mark: Yeah, I just loved making things and I just thought, if I could just get…yeah, I mean, that’s a good point that you raise, actually. I don’t know if it’s an entrepreneurial streak, but I’ve always been really careful to divide the sort of making half of the world, the making, creative part of the world, stuff to become selling and basically getting work and doing it. I’ve always tried to keep those two things quite separate and to…

Lucy: Yeah, they are quite different.

Mark: …treat one with…you know, just to be quite organized in one and maybe not so organized in the other.

Lucy: Yeah.

Mark: And obviously that disorganization would transfer from one side to the other at random.

Lucy: And so, what was the progression, then, from doing that first job? Did you start to tell people about what you could do, or was it working for other people first?

Mark: No, I always just wanted to gather as much practical experience in the field as I possibly could. So, after I trained in how to make sculpture, I started…obviously, you can only…you know, you can train to be a doctor, but when you start seeing patients that you start getting experience, you start understanding what’s going on. So, I just then took anything I could find just to get experience.

Lucy: Yeah.

Mark: I just tried not to repeat myself, and just did everything. I worked for advertising. You know, before you had CGI and stuff, all the advertising sets, the posters and billboards were all made by hand. So, there’s huge amounts of work in the model-making industry. I mean, pretty much all those companies have changed or gone. But London was…I don’t know how you are on time, but when I was in London in the ’80s, I mean, it was a very make-y place, and to some degree in the ’90s as well. But it was a really extraordinary time. For somebody who was like me, hungry to learn how to make things, and using materials, and all the opportunities that were there to make money learning how to do it were great. It was a very lovely time for me.

 Matthew Flinders by Mark Richards ©

Lucy: You seem to have found a niche really. There must have been a point when it began to reduce down and specialize.

Mark: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. I did, then I started specializing in figurative, just pure figuration. You know, there were a lot of commissions and a lot of…I didn’t really start doing private commissions until I was in my 30s. I was working very much for organizations who were just supplying industries. I was very much a job and skill type. And then I started specializing slightly. I suppose my figurations started getting…I did three years at Madame Tussaud’s above the shop, and while the studio was above the exhibition. Now it’s an enormous organization, they’ve done extremely well with their business. When I was there, I was there for three years, in the kind of post-college time and, you know, it was just wonderful. There were, sort of, five sculptors working above the shop, and with a team of molders and hair colourers, and it was like a kind of an old-fashioned Renaissance studio in one sense. It was really lovely. And interesting, it was very much along the lines of how I’d imagined artists working in the old days…

Lucy: Yeah, very…

Mark: …where people were much more, you know, working very much more closely. And the individual was really subsumed by the object, as it were. Nobody knew who made these things, they just, sort of, appeared out of workshops. Some were terrible, some were great.

Lucy: You sound like quite a social soul. Are you? You’re definitely a team player.

Mark: I mean, I like company. I like human company. And, you know, I like teams of people working together. I think it can be incredibly effective and powerful as a, sort of, creative force. And also it’s a great way to live if you’re in a group of people who are working well together. You know, it’s wonderful, it’s a wonderful place.

Lucy: Sounds fantastic, Madame Tussaud’s.

Mark: It was. I mean, at the time, yeah, and I didn’t know what it…it probably still is, but it’s on a much bigger scale. But anyway, from a sculpting point of view, because it’s like the finest sort of sculpture you can…you know, because there was nowhere to hide in it in terms of form. You can’t use texture, you can’t really express anything that’s overt. Everything is incredibly subtle. So, in terms of refining my sense of how to model form, it was just invaluable because you just do it over and over and over again, month over month over month, and eventually, you know, you become good at it just by repetition. So, I just did an awful lot of very fine mold.

Lucy: You began to branch out to commissions. You seem to quite like commissions. That seems more solitary, maybe, than working at a big studio amongst other people.

Mark: Yeah. Yes, it doesn’t suit me at all.

Lucy: But you do lots of them!

Mark: I know. It is a strange paradox. The only way of getting it done, getting these things done to any kind of standard I want is just spending hours and hours and hours, and uninterrupted hours. But as a person, it doesn’t suit me at all. I’m quite gregarious, loquacious, mischievous. I like other people being around, but that doesn’t work with the work, so, you know, in order to get the quality I want, and you know, I really go for high…I want my public sculpture to be very specific to the place. I want to build it around the place, I don’t just plonk the work into a space. I’m very much taking account of the space, design it around the community that I’m working with, or the organization. I put a lot of time, a lot of care into it. And then I like to execute it to a very high standard, and that just takes months to do. And so, it’s odd, yeah, my nature is much more gregarious than the work allows. But then, you know, life’s never exactly as you want it to be.

Lucy: No, and also, I kind of think sometimes it teaches you things about yourself. You know, especially if it’s the opposite of what you would have assumed about yourself. So, clearly, part of your creative practice is long hours, but alone. I mean, you discover stuff, I think, in long hours alone.

Mark: Yeah, yeah. Yes, you’re right. I’m not sure whether everyone comes out with any great revelations, but I think it certainly allows time, it allows space for the work to take on something that probably wouldn’t be there, you know, in a kind of group workshop, you know, above the waxworks. You know that wouldn’t happen. It was far too social.

Lucy: I was going to say, just I think the public, when they look at sculpture, they often think about it being a process where you were kind of struck just by this, sort of, desire to create. And you might have done a lot of work in a very short time because it was sort of spontaneous, but actually, it’s a process the same as any other, right? I mean, you get into a place of creativity where things flow, but it isn’t just, “Oh, one morning I woke up and I just made this thing.” Again, it’s kind of like…

Mark: Oh, god, absolutely not. No.

Lucy: The myth of artist there again.

Mark: Yes. Absolutely. I think, you know, there are obviously occasions when that has happened. The main thing that’s got in the way of producing things to where I want to be are the clients. I mean, most of the clients I’ve dealt with are brilliant, have been brilliant, but it’s usually when the client has interfered somewhere along the line that those are the things that haven’t quite…

Lucy: Gone the way…

Mark: …translated for me.

Lucy: Yeah.                 

Mark: And so, my job…a lot of the time I’m working to deadlines as well because they might need an occasion for an unveiling. So, I’m trying to carve out my time with the work in amongst all that noise and all the imperatives that are imposed upon one by, you know, the structure of it. And everything I do is just to give myself that time to keep things at bay, but also taking my responsibilities to my clients, to the finances, to my foundries, to suppliers, to my clients, I take those very seriously. And with the respect for them to treat them with integrity. That’s also important.

 Roger casement by Mark Richards ©

Lucy: Just tell us a little bit about a project, something like the Roger Casement monument. I mean, is a project like that quite restricted creatively or is it that you thrive when you have those parameters?

Mark: You mean because of the position it’s in?

Lucy: Yes, exactly. Sorry.

Mark: Or you mean because of the location?

Lucy: Because of its location, yeah.

Mark: Well, no, what really does it for me is matching a design to the location to make a piece work in the actual location, the physical location, the emotional location of the people in the area as well, and the kind of historical part of something, and the person I’m representing. So, the Casement was actually a brilliant opportunity for me to do all those things because I mean, I love working in Ireland. I love working with the people, all the people I’ve worked with in Ireland are just fantastic. They have huge…a kind of respect for the work, not to suggest that other people don’t have respect, but, you know, they have a lot of regard and they’re incredibly supportive to the artist they’re working with.

Lucy: They’re leading the way with the new universal wage type thing for artists, I was reading…

Mark: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Yeah, yeah, you mean with the tax-free until..

Lucy: Yeah.

Mark: The 50,000 euros, yeah, it’s great, isn’t it? No, but also the way that they really have trusted me, the people I’ve worked with. And that’s meant that the work I’ve done has always been really good, actually. And I think it’s as good as it possibly…I say it’s “really good”, it’s as good as it possibly can be. And with the Casement piece, it’s a little known fact actually that the first one I did, I designed the piece, I designed the piece with them around a series of maquettes. I mean, I presented the final work and, God, it was two-and-a-half, two years ago now. And I looked at it and I thought…I went over to present it to a theatre full of people down there, to present for photographs of the piece that I did at the studio. I looked at it and I was thinking…I looked at the location and I just thought…I just had this horrible realization that it wasn’t going to work. So, I walked back to the theatre to do the presentation. It was a 45-minute talk I was giving. I ran through the whole thing, and then found myself saying, “You can’t have it because I think it’s shit.”

Lucy: Oh no! How did that go down?

Mark: Words to that effect. There wasn’t really a lot of noise in the room, it went very quiet. And I thought, “Well, actually, no, this is right. This is just not…this just isn’t good enough. I’ve just done a really bad piece of work.” And so, and I thought, well, actually, there’s just no way. This is so, so public. This is hugely public. I mean, hugely important piece of work as well for Ireland, for the area, for the location. And I worked really close to it, and I just thought…Anyway, so I just said, “Sorry…” And I was expecting calls from lawyers. And they were just great, and after the silence had died down, I think somebody got up and just thanked me on behalf of the town for caring enough to say that they couldn’t have it, which was really nice. So, I started again. I started the whole thing again, which is why it took so long.

Lucy: Gosh, but probably really, that is a hard thing to do, right? I mean, anyone who can admit that it’s not where it should be at that particular moment.

Mark: Lucy, you should have seen, yeah. You should have seen, it was such crap.

Lucy: I’m sure it wasn’t, but…

Mark: No, it looked great in the maquette form. It looked great in the maquette form. But as soon as I made it, you know, raised it up to full size, it was just awful.

Lucy: It just wasn’t right.

Mark: It didn’t work at all, you know? It looked great in the maquette.

Lucy: But I mean, how can you know that until…with such an unusual location, how can you possibly know it until you see it, right?

Mark: Well, in one sense, but I should know. I’ve done enough of this, I should know. But actually, you know what? I knew long before I finished it. But because I’d been given the commission on the strength of that maquette, I thought, “Well, I can’t change it because, you know, I’ll starting breaking the trust of the whole thing. So, I’ve just got to try to make that design work.” And the more I tried it, the worse it got. And I tried to get it finished. I thought…anyway, it was one of those times. But, you know, I’m forever grateful to my clients over there who were just amazing, really.

Lucy: Who believed in you.

Mark: And then, luckily, we had the lockdown, so all the building work stopped. So, it was fine! I’m not gonna hold anything up.

Lucy: You don’t think psychically…

Mark: I didn’t hold anything up in the end.

Lucy: …you, sort of, added to the…

Mark: Generated it, yeah. I suppose, yeah. Which is great, yeah.

 Vernon monument by Mark Richards ©

Lucy: I mean, you say you had this slight intuition that it wasn’t going the way you wanted to. Does that mean that going forward, if you felt that earlier you’d stopped yourself? Again, I mean, sometimes it comes right. Sometimes you’re working on something and you think, “This is the worst thing I’ve ever produced,” and then suddenly it turns a corner. It’s really hard to know whether it will turn the corner or not, but mostly, you just trust. Or I do, anyway.

Mark: Yeah. I think you’ve just got to acknowledge if you can feel it. But sometimes you just have a bad day and you’ve got to come in the next morning. Obviously, you don’t want to, sort of, change your mind every 24 hours. You’ve got to let things settle and let yourself settle a little bit. I mean, the best way of finishing work, which we rarely get the opportunity to do, is to do as much as you possibly can, then stop, and then come back three weeks later and have a really good look at it because then you know, you’re calm. You’re not so out of head frame, you’re not exhausted. And that’s a really good way of looking into something is whether it’s going to work or not.

Lucy: I always try to do that with snagging. Like, I always try to leave a period, and obviously contractors on site, they go mad if they can’t see they’re working. All the work we do is in situ, but you know, there’s usually building site around you. But if you’re not there, they’re ringing you up saying, “Where are you? Where are you?” And to try and explain that you’re trying to, you know, get some fresh eyes on the job, it doesn’t go down well.

Mark: Yes. That’s a difficult thing to write in, isn’t it?

Lucy: Yeah.

Mark: You’ve got to call it something else, Lucy. Call it something else in the future.

Lucy: But the thing is often I have to say things like…

Mark: Call it “drying time.” Call it “drying time.”

Lucy: Dry time.

Mark: No, “curing time” is even better because nobody can see anything curing. Sorry, yeah.

Lucy: No, no, but because everything is nearly outdoors, I often have to say things like, “Well, I’m really sorry. If it’s too wet or too damp, we can’t work because, you know, the materials don’t respond as you would want them to. And if it’s too hot also, I mean, if it’s a really blazing day, we can’t work because everything melts.” So, then, it sounds like you’re making a ton of excuses. We can’t work if it’s wet, we can’t work if it’s hot, we can’t work if it’s dry if we’re needing time with fresh eyes,” you know. But, no, I think that’s absolutely golden, actually, is that thing of having space from it.

I was going to ask you a little bit about whether you’ve got a piece that you think is the real deal, the one that you want to be remembered for, or whether…I don’t know, sometimes it’s always the piece you’re working on which is your best work.

Mark: I think I don’t look at it like that at all.

Lucy: You don’t?

Mark: No, I don’t really have, you know, a favourite piece. Just every piece has its own…

Lucy: Is it merit? And you’ve been an artist a long…

Mark: I’ve done something like 250 life-size or over commissions in my working life. You know, I couldn’t pick out one. Everything is…I go through the same trajectory of kind of enthusiasm, which turns to dismay, which turns to all sorts of things. Whichever piece I do, I have the same set of feelings through it.

Lucy: So, it is a roller coaster for you, each project?

Mark: No, I think I take public sculpture very seriously. I think it’s something that is…you know, especially commemorative or all sorts of public sculpture, I’m obviously in the world of commemorative sculpture but these things are very important inasmuch as the community is identifying itself. In the same way that, you know, whenever I put a picture on my wall, I’m kind of identifying, saying what I care about, I’m saying something about who I am, it’s semiotic. When people did do that with public sculpture, if I like working with…I like creating something for a location, I can’t ever imagine myself making something and it being plonked somewhere because I think that’s not public…in a way, that’s like gallery sculpture that’s in a public place. I think there’s a difference, and I think it’s very important to very much engage. It’s spatially very important to engage with a location, and I put huge amounts of time and trial and error to get the sizes right because that’s your first experience with it.

So, I want my pieces to really fit where they are. To fit, both physically fit, visually fit, but also emotionally fit with the community. So, that’s what I spend…that’s where I focus my attention. I mean, this is kind of my work, it’s what I do. So, and that’s part of it, is making sure that as much as I possibly can, because I can’t control everything, but as much as I possibly can, I try to make it work in all those ways. Because I think it’s incumbent on all of us to make inspiring, beautifully made work that is respectful of the community and the people are going to see it, be around it. Otherwise, why have anything there at all?

Lucy: Yeah. Well, I see an awful lot of love towards public sculpture. I know that some sculpture’s had a bad rap recently, but there’s also a huge amount of love and care taken and, you know, even the tiny gestures. There’s some sculptures we work on that have different flowers put in every week, you know, in the hand of a sculpture, and you just see the community, how much they love it, and they care about it, and how much they identify with it.

Mark: Yes, it’s a sense of ownership. Yeah.

Lucy: Yeah. I mean, you know, it sounds like it’s been a good career to you, 250 sculptures. You know, you’ve obviously gained a very significant reputation in the field, but have there been days where you’ve thought, “You know what, I should have done something else?”

Mark: What, when you’re freezing in the room in the middle of winter? Because, yeah, I mean, I think it’s more…

Lucy: At least you get a room.

Mark: …count the days when I don’t. No, I exaggerate. Of course. Yeah, I mean, I can…yeah, probably. Do you?

Lucy: Yeah, I mean, I frequently, particularly in…

Mark: What would you have done?

Lucy: …January. When I’m breaking the ice on the sculpture before we start work, I kind of think maybe I should have worked in an office. But no, I couldn’t think of doing anything else other than spending my time worrying about sculpture and making sure that it’ll be here in future.

Mark: Yeah. I remember…I can’t remember which sculpture studio it was, but it was certainly the moment I walked into a sculpture studio, I kind of felt at home at the moment. And so, when you get that feeling, you just put up with anything to keep that going.

  Roger casement by Mark Richards ©

Lucy: Yeah, I agree. Can you tell everyone where they can find out more about you and your public sculpture if they’d like to?

Mark: I’ve got an Instagram thing called Mark Richards Sculpture, that’s on Instagram. And my website is called Markrichardssculpture.com.

Lucy: One of the things I was quite fascinated with was that you seem to have an Instagram page for the different projects sometimes. I thought that was quite interesting.

Mark: Yeah. So, I have an Instagram page, say for the Roger Casement piece, which is Roger Casement sculpture. That would be for the time, that was because I was working with a visual artist in Ireland and they wanted to have a record of the process so that they can point people directly.

Lucy: I thought that was magnificent.

Mark: Thanks.

Lucy: I really loved that.

Mark: What, the accounts?                               

Lucy: Yeah, just the progress that you can see, and it’s not something that’s necessarily common with one project because maybe they feel like there’s only a finite amount of content, but I think it really works for that statue.

Mark: And I’ve got kind of a visual blog on each – a process blog, I suppose – on each of the statues. They’re on the website, so every statue category on the website has a few pictures of it in the making process. And I think that’s something I do for my clients more than anything so they can really keep track of things and it stops people from having to make studio visits. You know, it stops…it means that people can just check progress and they can see how things look and then maybe just do one or two studio visits rather than a lot over and over in the process.

Lucy: Well, thank you so much for talking to us today. I really appreciate it, Mark.

Mark: Pleasure, Lucy, and thanks very much indeed for asking me. It’s been really lovely.

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