How giant Suffolk Yoxman sculpture was created
- Credit: Laurence Edwards
At 26ft high he's the latest magnificent addition to the Suffolk landscape by sculptor and bronze caster Laurence Edwards who gave us Creek Men. How was he created and how did he get there? You can see more of Laurence's work at Snape Maltings in June
For Suffolk sculptor Laurence Edwards, size matters. He's an artist with a dazzling reputation for larger-than-life ‘organic’ sculptures, inspired partly by an encounter with a gorilla - but more of that later.
As his work has grown in size, the making of his creations has become very much a collaborative affair, involving a team to carry out the bronze casting, a crew to assemble the finished work on site and structural engineer Tom Compton to ensure the work can withstand anything that Mother Nature can throw at it.
Last November, Laurence’s largest and most spectacular work to date, Yoxman – often dubbed The Suffolk Colossus – arrived at its new home in the grounds of Cockfield Hall, close to the A12 at Yoxford. It was the culmination of a four-year project which completely changed Laurence’s way of working. When he accepted the commission he had no idea how he was going to achieve the desired result. It was an inspired process, combining 30 years of experience with a fair bit of trial and error – and teamwork.
In addition to making sure that the sculpture would stay upright in the face of North Sea gales which will inevitably batter it, Laurence also faced a huge problem - for the first-time, he was creating something so enormous that he couldn’t step back and see what he was sculpting. Yoxman stands 26 feet tall and had to be designed, sculpted, cast and assembled in sections. Laurence had to sculpt the hard polystyrene moulding material while perched on a scaffolding platform with what looked like a cliff-face right in front of his nose.
“I was carving blind. I had no overall perspective. Not at any stage could I step back and get a look at the whole thing and see how it was going. It was a case of me giving myself permission to get it wrong – letting muscle memory take over and allowing my experience of what felt ‘right’ guide me,” he says. Seated in his Saxmundham workshop, he recalls his most nerve-wracking assignment which now seems like a distant memory. “It seems so long ago now because my involvement with the creative part, the sculpting, finished years ago. Everything since then has been more of an engineering project.”
There are 52 different interlocking sections to Yoxman, which all had to be cast separately. But before work could begin, Laurence had to install new, larger furnace facilities, along with cranes and heavy lifting gear. “Normally you would outsource a job like that but I wanted to keep it in-house, so we had control, and because it was an opportunity to invest in new equipment as my work is still getting larger. Now we have one of the largest furnaces in the country.”
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During the making process the only reference material Laurence had to hand were two maquettes he had made in 2017 during the first stages of the creation process. “We have gone from a small maquette that was six inches high to a 90cm high model which was then scaled-up to get to a 26ft high polystyrene man covered in plaster.
“Once I had sculpted the figure, I then moved on to other projects and left Tom Crompton and my foundry team at Halesworth to solve the engineering problems and to cast the pieces. I only really came back to the project when we came to erect the finished sections on site and put Yoxman together.
"I had never been so nervous because we had no way of knowing for sure that all the sections would fit together properly. Even if the dimensions of the individual sections were a few millimetres out then it wouldn’t fit together and there would be no easy way to fix it. Thankfully, as we know now, it did come together brilliantly, but we had several hours of nervous uncertainty as we hoisted the various sections into place by crane.”
Laurence feels a closeness to this giant-sized figure because he is a close cousin of The Creek Men, primeval figures which he created in 2008, which appeared to be made from the mud, twigs and leaf litter to be found in and around the mud-flats enveloping Iken, Orford, Snape and Butley. This trio of larger-than-life figures were moored on a barge in the reed beds adjacent to Snape Maltings for the duration of the Aldeburgh Festival and then the Snape Proms.
“The Creek Men were products of the earth. They were created from the Suffolk landscape, from the very matter that makes up Suffolk, and Yoxman is similarly made up of organic materials along the River Yox which have been found no more than a mile away from his current site. The maquettes showed him looking like a Michelin man - completely layered and sedimentary. I’m pleased that the finished figure has that organic texture to it.”
The sculpture's organic quality was an integral part of the brief as the owner wanted him to be part of the landscape. “I went to places like Covehithe and examined the layers of geology and archaeology being spewed out of the cliffs and onto the beach. This is the stuff of Suffolk. This is the material that makes up Yoxman.
“As he is now, he stands surveying the Suffolk landscape which made him. He is a sentinel, looking over the world around him but he is timeless. He will stand for generations, not rusting as he is made of bronze, and he will be reclaimed by nature. Birds will perch on him, vegetation will grow around him and eventually over him, insects will buzz and scuttle around him and he will stand watching how Suffolk changes and evolves over the generations.” Laurence's ambition was to make the sculpture a timeless, sentient being rather than just a logo. “It’s brooding, it’s questioning, it’s protecting a wounded arm…it’s vulnerable.”
The Covid pandemic has, unsurprisingly, put everything behind schedule as the foundry was out of action for long periods. Not that Laurence has been idle. He continues to produce exciting new work even as he tries to rationalise the effect of the Yoxman project on his world. “Lockdown proved very fruitful because there was just me in my studio and I started making quick, easy plaster sculptures – lots of them, which filled my studio.
“I also started doing couples interacting – which I had never done before. I had only done solo male figures and now I was doing female figures as well which was new for me. I found that I enjoyed producing pairs of figures and I will be interested in seeing where this takes me.” This lockdown figures were shown at a Messums exhibition ‘While the Whole Earth Changes Tune’ between lockdowns in early 2021. “As it was only on for a brief time, it would be great if it had a second show sometime, as I was really pleased how these couples turned out. Each one had their own personality.”
Many of the pieces Laurence is currently producing are refined versions of ideas and themes he has been working on for his entire career and now are finally coming close to the vision he has been carrying around inside his head for most of his working life. “The biggest difference I think is size. I like working on an epic scale. It gives you greater opportunity to make a statement and for the work to communicate with its audience. It’s easier to strike up a dialogue with a figure that imposes itself on a space, particularly if it is life-size or bigger than life.
“This, I realise now, is because of a close encounter I once had with a mountain gorilla at a zoo in France. We came face to face with just a piece of glass separating us and his head was three or four times the size of mine and he had such wisdom and such a sense of timelessness, that it was something to do with his size and that is something I have been trying to replicate.”
Laurence is currently displaying a series of walking figures at the Aldeburgh Festival. These figures are the latest in a series which first made an appearance at Jason Gathorne-Hardy’s Alde Valley Spring Festival when a large Walking Figure carrying an armful of sticks and branches strode across the Suffolk landscape – it seemed as if he was gathering materials to make a companion.
These latest figures, all standing seven or eight feet tall, will be walking around the Snape Maltings site, striding between the out-buildings as well as public spaces like the Hoffman Studio complex, conveying a realistic sense of motion and kinetic physicality seeming at odds with their solid bronze construction.
Creating this sense of ‘living humanity’ is what distinguishes Laurence’s working from the solid, ‘upright’ classical school of the past. His figures capture that sense of timelessness but they also have a capacity to connect with whoever encounters them. They represent the best of us. They capture our humanity.
See Laurence Edwards' walking figures on display at Snape Maltings as part of a Festival art installation project alongside Paul Benney, Kiki Smith John Craxton. The Aldeburgh Festival until June 26.