Artist John Farnham: Henry Moore’s protégé

John at work

John at work - Credit: john farnham

John Farnham learned his trade from master sculptor Henry Moore while working as his assistant from 1960 until Moore’s death 30 years ago this month

Large winged figure in bronze

Large winged figure in bronze - Credit: john farnham

As a child, growing up in the hamlet of Perry Green, John Farnham remembers playing in Henry Moore’s garden.

‘It was the biggest house and there were only three or four kids in Perry Green and Mary, Moore’s daughter, was a friend, so we’d all play around there,’ he says.

It’s a rare sunny afternoon in June and I’ve come to meet Farnham at his home in Braughing. The door of the big, barn-like studio is open, but I have to call out over the radio until the sculptor appears in his overalls. Does he always listen to Radio 4 while he works, and at this volume?

Brazilian Girl in Alabaster

Brazilian Girl in Alabaster - Credit: john farnham

‘All the time. I like the variety. You start off with Woman’s Hour in the morning and then there’s the Archers. I like to listen to the play in the afternoon and then there’s comedy at half-past six. I do turn it up if I’ve got a machine on. So far, the neighbours haven’t complained.’

He says that his structured working pattern was formed while working with Moore, when downing tools for elevenses was a strictly observed practice.

‘I’m not quite so on the dot,’ he says, smiling. ‘But I still think that when you want to look at something you might as well make a cup of tea, and then you can stand back, and then draw on the stone.’

Bear Form in bronze

Bear Form in bronze - Credit: john farnham

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In the large studio, surrounded by large sculptures, some draped with covers, we talk about materials. ‘At the moment I quite like the alabasters because they’re easy to work,’ he says. ‘And I think ancaster is quite a nice stone because it doesn’t bruise. It comes from Stamford, just up the A1.’

He works mainly in stone – alabaster, soapstone, marble and limestone – and bronze, although he sometimes works with steel. For help with metalworking, he has people he can call on, such as Birch Engineering in Ware, and for the bronzes, the Morris Singer Foundry in Basingstoke.

Farnham’s garden is a wonderful outdoor sculpture gallery, complete with meandering lawn and fittingly sculptural foxgloves and aquilegia. ‘The flowers are nice, aren’t they?’ he says, as we walk around. My eyes are on the work: confident, intriguing, part figurative, part abstract and every piece has a story to tell. Some of the bronzes have a fluidity that may remind you of Henry Moore, but there is something about the spirit of the garden that evokes Barbara Hepworth’s St Ives home.

John Farnham, 'It channelled my future without realising at the time'

John Farnham, 'It channelled my future without realising at the time' - Credit: John Farnham

As we walk and talk, I realise that I’ve already seen Farnham’s work - his Torso in bronze is outside the Hatfield Art and Design Gallery at the College Lane Campus ot the University of Hertfordshire.

We go into a much smaller studio, and from the pell mell of shelves laden with maquettes, fossils, photographs and quirky found objects, Farnham starts to pick out things to show me.

‘This is puddingstone,’ he says, showing me a small piece of rock native to Hertfordshire. ‘And this is ironstone, from the Channel Tunnel.’

Large Crescent Figure, fibreglass

Large Crescent Figure, fibreglass - Credit: john farnham

His work is now all over the world, in private collections and public spaces. He mentions Denmark, Germany, a yacht where the owner has several pieces of his work on board, and a crescent-shaped bronze that started life as a piece of jewellery for a friend which he enlarged and cast in bronze for Kirk Douglas’ garden in America.

If you want to see his work, then I would recommend visiting Braughing in September when Farnham’s wife Lotte, who is also an artist, has an open studio in the garden. There is also a video on his website made by Stanstead Abbots filmmakers King Street Images.

When it comes to his influences, as with many artists, it’s a case of keeping the eyes and heart open, as he says, ‘You’re always looking’.

Hand of God, alabaster

Hand of God, alabaster - Credit: john farnham

He loves India and Venice; ‘I’ll go to Venice at the drop of a hat,’ and he admires the work of potter Grayson Perry. He is also a frequent visitor to the Fitzwilliam Museum and Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge.

In the space of two weeks he has made time to visit the new building at Tate Modern, the Summer Show at the Royal Academy and an exhibition of the work of Peter Randall Page, currently at the Gibberd Gallery in Harlow. He loves raiding the cultural London larder, such as ‘going to the British Museum and interpreting things in there,’ he says, showing me his pieces Eye of Horus and Fist of Horus.

Farnham learned his trade on the job. His father was a builder who acted rather like an estate manager for the Moores. He was always in and around the studio and then the great sculptor offered him a job. Farnham did his own work in Moore’s studio in the evenings before graduating to his own on the site at Perry Green, now home to the Henry Moore Studio and Garden. ‘Mine was more like an apprenticeship, really. I worked with the master and his assistants and I learned how to do certain things.’

Torso at the Hatfield Art and Design Gallery, University of Hertfordshire

Torso at the Hatfield Art and Design Gallery, University of Hertfordshire - Credit: john farnham

Some of these things included being introduced to materials. ‘Moore was using plaster and he was using polystyrene, and all the offcuts I could use to make my own sculpture. He was very encouraging.’

While working with Moore, Farnham or his father would sometimes pick up a camera and film the legendary sculptor at work. This footage is now available for all to see in the new archive and visitor centre that opened last month at Perry Green. Farnham is also in the unique position of being able to advise fine art auctioneers such as Bonhams and Sotheby’s on the authenticity of a Moore work. ‘We know where every one of these sculptures is,’ he says. ‘There is no such thing as a “lost copy”.’

He is also called on for conservation work – to re-patinate bronzes. ‘When a bronze gets old, it looks unloved. I work on the surface. It’s like a Rolls Royce going in for a respray.’

Given that his own route into sculpture was the happiest of accidents, I ask him what he thinks about people studying sculpture today.

‘If you’ve got the chance to go to art college, then go. If you do it properly you would start at Ware College and then go to Hatfield or somewhere else in the country. It gives you time to sort yourself out and experiment.’

Farnham is prolific and continues to have as much enthusiasm to learn and make new works as the most keen undergraduate. Yet he is quick to acknowledge that his career owes a huge amount to growing up in the right place at the right time.

‘I suppose it channelled out my future really, without realising it at the time,’ he says. ‘You just have to take the opportunities when they come up. I was very lucky.’

John Farnham’s sculpture garden at 15 The Street, Braughing will be open as part of Open Studios on September 24 and 25 from 11am-4pm.

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