Artist profile - Sculptor Tony Bentley

Tony in his workshop in Great Harwood

Tony in his workshop in Great Harwood - Credit: Irene Amiet

An artist from Great Harwood has broken free from the 9-5 and is enjoying his new-found freedom

The Swimmer, one of Tony Bentley's early works

The Swimmer, one of Tony Bentley's early works - Credit: Irene Amiet

Sculptor Tony Bentley was told to forego an artist’s life or he’d struggle forever to pay his bills. This advice came from his watercolourist uncle.

Tony, who’d always had a mind full of bubbling ideas and curiosity, opted to become a paid artist instead, and got a degree as a graphic designer from Blackburn College.

‘When working for a client, I always scribbled down my ideas and 90% ended up to be rubbish, but the graphic design background gave me discipline as an artist,’ he says.

Although quickly gaining a good reputation and sizeable client list, Tony knew that however well presented, the client might veer from his ideas and decide on something different. ‘The structures given for a commissioned job are there for communication, and I’m grateful for my years of having had a safe income but I needed more. I needed to express myself unconditionally.’

Dark Cloud by Tony Bentley

Dark Cloud by Tony Bentley - Credit: Irene Amiet

He tried to reserve a day a week for his art, but found that didn’t work for him - ‘It was difficult to switch off from jobs and to start creating during fixed hours’ - and the freelance life didn’t suit him either. In the end, Tony’s wife Julia told him to take the plunge as a full-time artist.

The couple, who live at Great Harwood, took over a vacant Clitheroe shop which gave Tony the chance to be creative for himself and he began to sculpt in earnest. One of his earliest works is called “The Swimmer”, which Tony made after his wife’s description of a bullyish man in her pool who would not get out of other swimmers’ lanes. Humour is a staple in a lot of Tony’s sculptures, while others are rooted in science.

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‘Any work starts with something tickling my curiosity,’ he says. ‘Often, it’s science. Our explorations in biology or chemistry are fascinating to me.’

A recent series of sculptures has been dedicated to DNA strings and how much of it we share with other creatures. Tony hand-paints the sculpted stone to reflect individual make-ups. ‘I’d call them semi-abstract, as there’s a real idea behind them. Something scientific translated to the artistic.

‘I start with notes or drawings only I understand, and keep going until it’s clear to me what I’m going to do and then source the right medium.’

He prefers working with stone and sources Portland Stone from quarries near Dorset’s Jurassic Coast or finds marble and alabaster in Italy.

‘I love clean lines,’ he says. ‘I suppose I find it hard to loosen up in that sense.

‘Once I have an idea, I follow it through and the result is almost always neat in shape.

‘We love to touch stone and feel a connectivity. Stone has been here billions of years before us and will outlast us just as long. It puts us in our place and therein lies a fascination.’

On his workshop bench in the back garden of Tony’s house sits a large, beige block of Yorkshire stone, formerly a lintel from his house that needed replacing. Looking at the way the stone was pre-fabricated with carved-lines, family interaction sprang to mind.

‘The idea is to use this lintel to show how families stay connected even when death takes out major chunks. The structure can stay intact.’

The loss of Julia’s brother-in-law to cystic fibrosis has influenced Tony’s more recent work.

‘Loss and grief put you on a powerful journey,’ he says. Julia suggested he should create whatever was on his mind to process their loss. The outcome was the sculpture Dark Cloud, a stoneware ceramic cloud standing on stainless steel rods symbolising incessant rain.

From these profound emotional journeys also sprung creations such as Black Dog which reflects the lure and dangers of addictions, inspired by someone close to Tony and named after Winston Churchill’s famous term for his own depression.

‘I’m glad to convey relatability with my work. I’m not trying to manipulate others’ thoughts,’ he adds. ‘But we’ve all been through loss or experienced love. Even if people don’t always like my work, if they understand the thought-process, they can hopefully appreciate it.’

To see more of Tony’s work go online to