Cotswold Arts: The marque of distinction
- Credit: Archant
Chris Davis is a Malvern-based classic automobile sculptor whose bronzes are admired and desired the world over. Words by Candia McKormack
Ah, the golden age of motoring.
OK, so I’m not old enough to remember seeing Jean-Pierre Wimille behind the wheel of a Bugatti at Le Mans in 1937, but I do remember the look, feel and scent of cream leather in my father’s Jaguar Mk2 as a child. I remember my brother’s enduring love for Mk3 Spitfires and the care he put into burnishing every last part of their soon-to-be-reassembled parts with Duraglit… and my beloved 1972 Damask Red MG Midget – with chrome bumpers I made sure I could see my teen face in – resurrected from rust pile to gleaming glory before she died an ignoble death wrong-way-up on the isle of Anglesey…
I confess to knowing nothing about classic cars, other than the second-hand passion that’s been passed down to me from father to daughter, older brother to kid sister… it may not be much, but it endures.
There’s a passion for these glorious marques – be they classic Maseratis or Morgans – that goes way beyond the nuts and bolts of their anatomy. Their spirit can of course be captured in photographs, sketches or track-side anecdotes, but capturing it with convincing animated verve in bronze is another challenge.
Chris Davis is a Malvern-based artist known for his skill in bringing to life the essence of some of the world’s greatest automobiles in bronze. He has worked his way up through the artisan ranks, from apprentice caster to skilled finisher and universally-admired sculptor, in the last 45 years or so.
Chris maintains his own website, and says that it’s a real boon for getting his work known in the wider community. He sells his sculptures in the USA, Japan and Australia, but most of the sales come from Germany, France and the rest of Europe.
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“I’ve had more sales in Europe and the rest of the world because of the internet than I have by going to shows,” he says, indicating the power of an online presence in the art world.
Some of his biggest sales are from people who have only seen his work on the internet which he says he finds very odd indeed. “Why would you buy a three-dimensional object through a two-dimensional medium without even seeing it?” he wonders. In one respect, I have to agree it does seem rather odd as it’s only once you’ve seen his pieces ‘in the flesh’ as it were, you can truly appreciate the beauty of the texture and patina, but on the other hand if you don’t have the luxury of living close to Malvern or attending one of his shows, it may be all you have. He does, however, have a link to a YouTube video from his website where you can see the sculptures turning, giving you views from all angles, but it’s not the same as seeing them and, indeed, touching them. They’re incredibly tactile pieces.
From his workshop cum studio at the foot of the Malvern Hills he both creates the original clay model from which the bronze models are cast, and then adds the finishing touches and glowing patina which shines out from all his pieces.
“My workshop’s a workshop, and not a posh place,” he laughs before he leads me through to where the magic happens. I’m pleasantly reassured, and tell him so. Omelettes and breaking eggs spring to mind.
Chris uses the ancient ‘lost wax’ method of casting his bronzes.
“It’s the same way that your rings are made, actually,” he explains. “The original piece is made, then they take a mould of that and wax is either poured or injected into it to create a wax replica of the original. The wax replica is then taken to the foundry and cast in bronze, silver, platinum, aluminium, stainless steel… whatever metal you fancy, depending on how much you want to spend.” During the process, the wax is melted away or ‘lost’ to create the fire-proof mould used in the final casting. It’s a time-consuming, but tried-and-tested method used for bronze pieces of this scale.
Chris uses Red Temple Foundry in Birmingham. My only experience of a foundry is visiting Pangolin Editions in Chalford and, having been hugely impressed with what they do; walking through the cavernous buildings with their giant crucibles, with apprentice alchemists working their magic, being thrown into a Hieronymus Bosch landscape of tortured souls and devil-made bargains, I ask him if he’s considered using them. “They specialise in large-scale pieces and aren’t really set up to produce work like mine,” he says. “It’s very difficult to find a foundry that can cope with smaller-scale work, actually.” You can certainly see that the scale of his work, with his Rolls Royce Spirit of Ecstasy barely larger than the length of a regular paper staple, wouldn’t necessarily work in a foundry used to creating gargantuan pieces such as Paolozzi’s ‘Vulcan’.
He anticipates a day when casting will all be controlled by computers, and I’m sure he’s right that that will happen, but we will surely be losing the creative element of the human touch on three-dimensional work. Chris likens it to producing an ‘oil painting’ effect using Photoshop; you create a vague painterly effect, but it has none of the nuances of an artist’s hand.
Chris’s career started in 1970 working as a metal caster for Ronald Van Ruyckevelt, a modeller for Royal Worcester porcelain, on ormolu – gold-plated bronze – which proved to be an invaluable apprenticeship for the young artist. When Van Ruyckevelt was offered a job in California, Chris naturally went with him.
The years in California and Monterey Beach proved fruitful to the young artist and his wife – faithfully on the journey with him – and he became attached to other companies and foundries before establishing his own mould-making business to supply a need to Californian foundries.
It was attending Concours d’Elegance in Pebble Beach that kicked off Chris’s car-sculpting career, however.
“I originally learned the hard way,” he says, “when people would bring in a piece of corrugated cardboard bent into a shape asking ‘can you make me a piece from this?’ and I’d say ‘I’m sorry, but you can’t do that’. But having all these problems thrown at me, I’d learn the right way to make the originals, making little MGs and such, and so it began…”
The draw of Worcestershire, and Malvern specifically, became too great and not too long after daughters Rosemary and Amelia were born, Chris and family returned to the UK where he established himself as an artist in his own right.
“We never intended to stay in the US,” says Chris, “and it certainly doesn’t do any harm to be able to say to overseas buyers that they’re buying direct from an English artist in England. It has a certain magic, doesn’t it?” n
Chris will be exhibiting at La Vie en Bleu, Prescott, May 23-24. www.prescott-hillclimb.com/la_vie_en_bleu.aspx
Find out more about Chris Davis’s work at www.chrisdavis.biz