A sculptor of probable genius

Ray Exworth took tea with Barbara Hepworth and was mentored by Henry Moore. After 44 years in semi-isolation in Cornwall a major exhibition of his work is due to open

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Sculptor Ray Exworth was born in Ipswich in 1930. After an early career as a meteorologist he studied at the Royal College of Art from 1955 to 1959, went on to teach at many of this country's finest art institutions and was twice awarded the Arts Council Major Award. Bruce Bernard of the Arts Council panel called him "a sculptor of probable genius", but Exworth never courted the commercial side of the art business - often his works were much to large for buyers - and he retreated from the London art scene to Cornwall early on. After four decades out of the limelight a major exhibition detailing Exworth's huge though unfinished work, The Circus (much of which is still stored in sheds at his home), opens at the Kestle Barton Rural Centre for Contemporary Art.

Here he talks exclusively to The Independent Online about his career:

My wife Susie and I have been here in this tiny cottage in Cornwall for just over 44 years. The seven sheds that we’ve got in the garden are filled with either sculpture or junk. Some people say the sculpture is junk, but that’s them being unkind.

I don’t work as other people might. I don’t take a piece of stone and just hammer it. I’m shy about saying what I’m working on, but my newest piece, which I call Distant Red, will be 60ft by 30ft. The same size as the last series of work I did. They aren’t ‘installations’, that’s a word I hate. I am an old-fashioned sculptor and I work things out.

I live halfway between St Ives and Falmouth Art School. St Ives, of course, is the home of Modernism, and Falmouth College of Arts, is associated with Post Modernism. Which means I’m trapped halfway between Modernism and Post Modernism. Metaphorically as well as geographically, you could say.

I knew people like Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. However I didn’t always agree with their attitudes. People don’t realise that Barbara, apart from being what they call an abstract artist, was also in fact an humanist. I tried to talk to her about 17th Century Italian sculptors like like El Greco. She didn’t have an opinion of them. She just didn’t think they belonged in the same arena in which she worked. But I was very fond of Barbara, she used to come to tea.

Now Jacob Epstein, he was a grand old man. What a grand old man. I met him through a friend of mine who helped him make the stone carving outside the TUC building. Do you know what Epstein said about art? He said: “You won’t get anywhere without humility.”

These days there’s so much ego. Both Epstein and Moore gave me very similar advice, which is strange isn’t it? Two totally different artists, but both advocated humility. I was pleased and proud to know them both. The idea that the St Ives sculptors were a group was crazy. We were all so different and competed like mad.

I’m 81 and still working. Your mind gets blurred a bit with age. I have a heart condition and I take 22 different drugs every day. I’ve worked down in Cornwall for 44 years so I’m not reputable [laughs]. All right, let’s put it another way. I’m not a sculptor of repute. You’ve got to remember that someone my age will have taught some of the people who were Young British Artists. That’s what happens, time moves on.

People down here can criticise me for being a bit of a recluse. Our nearest neighbour is two fields away. Working in the quiet has helped me enormously. Understand that I used to teach at the Royal College of Art . When I came to the remoteness of Cornwall it didn’t seem to bother me too much. I just worked for myself.

My wife was a secretary for many 42 years and I worked for 38 years so we’ve both got single person pensions. So that’s how we survive. I’m not extravagant. Our nearest shop is five or six miles away. We manage, one just does. I think my wife misses London more than I do. I can’t travel. I’ve got a heart condition, emphysema and one arm is in a mess. It’s hard enough for me to get to the end of my field [Laughs].

I’m on oxygen 15 hours a day minimum. Life changes. But not my attitude to sculpture.

'A Shutter Came Down' is at Kestle Barton Rural Centre for Contemporary Art, Cornwall from 17 September www.kestlebarton.co.uk