John Mills: sculptor to the nation
- Credit: Chris Frazer Smith
In John Mills’ long career he has created pieces that sit at the heart of British culture. Richard Burton met the sculptor at his Hinxworth studio ahead of a Herts retrospective this month
John Mills is looking at Brian May’s hands. One of Britain’s most accomplished sculptors has been told they don’t look right on one of the world’s most famous rock stars.
It was his son who pointed it out. He plays the guitar. Not as well as the Queen legend perhaps, but enough to have an opinion. And like some, he’s not slow to offer one. Such as the football fan who once complained that the nose on his statue of the Newcastle star Jackie Milburn in Ashington, Northumberland, was not as he recalled seeing it – from high up in the terraces.
But May himself is delighted at the way he’s been depicted. And so he should be. He spent many hours sitting for this past president of the Royal Society of British Sculptors on a tall high-backed stool in the studio of John’s 14th century home near Baldock just inches away from the five-feet tall figure we are looking at now.
‘He did as many sittings as he could manage,’ says John. ‘About four or five, I think. His driver would bring him out and he’d sit here chatting away while I worked. I think he liked it here away from fans where no one would recognise him.’
No one? The hair alone would be recognisable to anyone under 60, surely. ‘Well one day my housekeeper did stop him and ask “you do know who you are?” He replied “yes I do”.’
So what did he say of the finished product – a bronze depiction of May at the 2002 Party at the Palace for the Queen’s golden jubilee – fist aloft, leg in the air, guitar humming with a power chord as he played God Save the Queen on the roof of Buckingham Palace? ‘He thought it was quite animated. I told him I thought he was dancing. He said “I don’t dance. I was trying to kick the speakers (round) so I could hear the band”.’
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May is just one of many famous faces to sit for him in a career that has taken him back and forth across the Atlantic and produced some of the most iconic sculptures currently on display in Britain. Such as Baroness Boothroyd whose phone call to book an appointment interrupted a TV chat show Mills was watching – with her as the guest. She sat in the same tall, high-backed stool talking everything from politics to her love of the local fish and chips.
Or the French actress Leslie Caron who arrived at his home in Battersea as a young starlet wanting to see if he lived up to his reputation, telling him: “If I like what I see, I will sit for you, if I don’t I won’t.” In the event, she did, and hours later, he was running her home in his Austin A30 van. Oddly, she liked that too, telling him she preferred it to her husband’s Jaguar.
Replicas of all three sculptures sit on shelves high above the organised chaos of the garden studio of Hinxworth Place, the medieval manor house where he lives and works. They share space with others who posed for him and many who didn’t, from the jazz legend George Melly (who did) to the likes of Beethoven and his comedy hero Buster Keaton.
Many others, from the stunningly statuesque to the mildly erotic, are spread all over his 3.5 acre garden, in full view of ramblers who use the footpath and occasionally feel compelled to request a closer look. He generally obliges, as he does those from schools. He enjoys the perceptive nature of the children’s questions. All very fitting, given that it was a highly perceptive question from a former headmaster who put him on the road to where he is today.
‘You could say he encouraged me to leave,’ John recalls. ‘He called me in and asked me where my interest lay. I said art, swimming and girls, although not in any particular order. He said, if I can get you an interview at an art school, would you go for it?’
He did, and what followed were seven fruitful years at Hammersmith where he developed a love for working with clay and, in particular, portraiture – modelling in clay to create moulds to cast in metals such as bronze.
Now in his 80s he still works long days; starting at 8am and, regardless of breaks, often doesn’t leave again until around 7pm. The studio has every tool imaginable, from the many files, chisels and gauges to the pneumatic height-adjustable table. But there are no windows, except for those pouring in natural light from the roof.
Unlike painters, he doesn’t rely on the diffused north light. He welcomes the shadows, and the changes they bring. But he doesn’t want the distraction of a view. Interestingly, he also limits the time he spends studying his subjects.
‘I’ve always found portrait sculpture a challenge – to create something that is not just a replica but a piece of work which has its own qualities.
‘If you have too much time with a subject it can become dominant. You have to trust your memory. It’s much more accurate than you think. You may be working intensely on your subject but look away momentarily and turn back to find everything’s changed.
‘The end result is often nothing to do with what they feel. It’s your response to them. They merely become a reference point.’
He talks fondly of his contemporaries, such as Henry Moore who he describes as a supportive friend, even to the point of letting him photograph some of his works for a book he was writing while he was away.
‘I rang him and he said, unfortunately, he was going on holiday but he offered to leave the key to his house in Much Hadham so I could let myself in. That was really kind of him.’
But perhaps a more cherished memory may have come while he was teaching at St Albans School of Art, something he did up until 1977.
‘There was a tannoy message for me,’ John recalls. ‘The whole school heard it. It simply said “John Mills to speak to Henry Moore”. It was a good message to get. I imagine that, in that moment, my standing went up enormously.’
I bet. But there’s more than a hint of modesty in that. This is after all the man whose work can be seen in the most public of places; from memorials to William Blake in Soho and the nation’s firefighters at St Paul’s Cathedral, to the Women of World War II in Whitehall, which was unveiled – all 23 tons of it – by The Queen three years after Brian May played on her roof.
Others can be found at places as diverse as the Chatsworth Estate in the Peak District, the Ward Freeman School in Buntingford and Chelsea Harbour to New Orleans, Massachusetts and Michigan, where he held visiting professorships at the turn of both the 70s and 80s.
His work is known for its sheer physicality, no doubt partly as a result of his time as a swimmer and PT instructor during National Service, something else he has in common with Henry Moore, incidentally. That, and the influence of his dancer wife, Josephine, a graduate of the Ballet Rambert School.
His work will be shown close to home this month when an exhibition, John W. Mills, Sculptor to the Nation, opens at North Herts Museum in Hitchin. It will run from February 23 to April 27 and feature a retrospective view of his work, including sculptures, drawings, sketches and prints.
As we parted I couldn’t let an interview involving Richard Burton and John Mills conclude without asking the one question only those named after celluloid greats would appreciate.
‘I met him once,’ he said of the star of Ryan’s Daughter and Hobson’s Choice. ‘It was in a pub. He was very charming. I told him I am always being asked “are you the real John Mills?” He replied simply: “Really? So am I”.’
Capturing the artist
Award-winning photographer Chris Frazer Smith, whose remarkable images illustrate this feature, has been chronicling John Mills and his work since 2016. Last year, he filmed a short documentary called Tommy, The Portrait Of A Sculptor, which recorded John’s creation of a piece depicting a returning Second World War soldier. The sculpture, cast in bronze, was completed on November 10, the eve of last year’s Armistice Day centenary.
Chris, of Ashwell in Herts, said: ‘Spending time with John reminds you that his craft is an ancient one, going back at least 35,000 years and the technical skills are as challenging today as they were centuries ago. In the digital world we inhabit it is important to immerse yourself in a creative history that relies on human vision, void of digital intrusion to create powerful communication.’