His master's vice

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Anthony-Noel Kelly is a serious artist, and he has a show on at a cool London gallery to prove it. Yet all anyone ever wants to talk about is the fact that he's done time for stealing body parts and burying the bits in the grounds of his stately home

Anthony-Noel Kelly is the artist famous for being the first person in Britain to be found guilty of stealing body parts. Now he has a new show called Birthdays that features photographs of almost 170 naked people, and so, it is off to Clapham to see the man whom a colleague describes as Mr Body Parts. But, as I stand outside what should be his house, I realise there is a problem. I cannot find a door - at least, one for humans. There is something that could be a giant cat-flap. I hunch over to get through it.

"I feel like Alice in Wonderland!" I call out in mid-struggle. "Don't mind the dog!" a voice shouts at me as a big, black, curly thing heads towards my bent-double form. Perhaps this is actually a dog-flap? I straighten up. I seem to be in a garage. To the right there is a stairway, and at the top of it is Anthony-Noel Kelly. He smiles. He is tall, light and handsome. I smile back. I didn't know it then, but this would be our friendliest moment for some time.

It's not that Anthony-Noel Kelly doesn't like journalists. It's that he cannot stand us. We call him The Body Snatcher of Clapham, and portray him in a ghoulish and macabre way. He says we try to put words in his mouth. We ask questions about his family, his life, his time in prison, and his work in progress. Here he is, a serious artist, trying to talk about Birthdays, and here I am, asking questions about why he buried heads in his garden! I say, in a roundabout way, that it is because he buried heads in the garden that I am here asking about Birthdays. So why did he do it? He says he wants me to be positive. "It's time people saw for real what I am doing, so none of these heads and things like that. It's just sensationalising it."

I sit still for a moment on one of his extremely uncomfortable antique sofas. If you wanted to create a situation where a journalist would write something nasty, then this would be it. The set-up verges on the paranoid. The room is filled with the whirring of tape recorders, and Kelly has asked Edwina Orr of the 291 Gallery, where Birthdays will be exhibited, to be present to take notes. She does this and, occasionally, speaks for him too. She tells me that, if I ask a certain kind of question, they may have to leave the room to discuss it and then fax me a written answer within 24 hours. In addition, he refuses to answer directly most questions that have anything to do with his past. This from a man who has actually never even sold a piece of art.

Edwina says that I have to understand that Kelly - as he is called - has been very badly treated by the press. She says that every story about him includes the words "I entered his studio with trepidation..." I cannot imagine such a thing. Curiosity, yes; trepidation, no. Kelly says that I will not be allowed to go to his studio anyway. "I've been advised against it," he says.

All of this is a shame because Kelly is clearly passionate about dead things. In fact, most discussions seem to lead to dead matter - be it coconuts, leaves, human hands or horses' legs - that he has used in his art. For instance, we are sitting in what I realise is his front room. It has white walls, a huge, green Aga, quite a few ancient sofas and, perhaps most striking, a beautiful stone floor. He says it used to be a dairy. He moved here in 1995 or so, and the room we are in was a horse stable.

Edwina interrupts. "He has done a wonderful series on horses' legs," she says. Really, I say. What has this to do with the floor? "Did you find the horse in the dairy, Kelly?" asks Edwina. He says that, no, he "obtained" it from the countryside. What does that mean? I ask. He doesn't answer directly but says it is no easy matter to embalm a horse's leg. He took advice from the Royal Veterinary College and built a huge bath of fibreglass and steel in his studio, and filled it with formaldehyde. He then submerged the legs. He is very precise and talks with enthusiasm about such things as how to deal with the femoral artery. And then, as if he realises that he is doing something wrong, he shuts up.

I suspect this is not a game. Kelly is a deeply eccentric man. He might be 44 but he seems to have no perspective about what is acceptable to most people. So he tries to edit himself. The result is that he cannot really talk about his art or his life with any sense of continuity. For instance, he will not say where this interest in dead things comes from. He does not want to talk of his childhood. "I don't think that is important. It's anecdotal. I really would like to talk about my work now. I concede that I am part of my past, of course, but..."

His mother, Mirabel, is the sister of the Duke of Norfolk. He grew up well off, one of eight children, in what he describes as a large house but what is actually called Romden Castle, near Smarden in Kent. He was not particularly academic, but enjoyed drawing. He went to art school and then went to work in an abattoir and then a butcher's. "I used to always obtain objects from them," he says. These were mostly bones that he took to the studio. Edwina interrupts to make sure that I am aware there is a long history of artists who used meat and bones in their art.

In 1991, he was asked by a surgeon to illustrate an article that the latter was writing for Operative Surgery on a technique for extracting cancerous tumours from the rectum. Kelly was fascinated in a clinical kind of way. At one point, for instance, he was given a discarded segment of the rectum, in a dish, to draw, and he found it "quite beautiful in shape and texture". This project provided an entry into the Royal College of Surgeons and, by the end of 1992, he was making weekly visits to draw body parts, already expertly dissected and preserved. He modelled them in clay but then wanted to make moulds and so, with the help of a technician, smuggled them out. The parts included three heads, parts of a brain, six arms, 10 legs and feet, and sections of three torsos. In 1995, he completed most of this project and buried the remains in the grounds of Romden Castle.

Now he sees that he should have asked permission but he is so detached that he could not understand why people are interested. This fascinated me:

Me: How did you end up using these body parts?

ANK: I didn't end up using them. They had been part of my life.

Me: But you ended up with body parts buried at your house. Why?

ANK: I was drawing and then I wanted to take casts. The only way I could do that was to take them. I didn't get permission. I didn't feel I was doing anything morally wrong.

Me: Why not?

ANK: Because these bodies should have been buried. They were donated for only three years. This was well past that. I was using these pieces with respect.

Me: People talk about the fact you took heads.

ANK: I want to play this down. These words, heads and bodies and whatever, really it is sensationalising it. My work hasn't been seen.

Me: Where is it?

ANK: It's all back at the Royal College. You may talk about heads and this and that, but you haven't seen what has come out of it.

Birthdays was conceived while Kelly was still finalising casts of the torsos in 1996. He decided that he wanted to do a piece that celebrated life and had the idea of photographing bodies after seeing a Gossard bra advert on a billboard. He wanted to show bodies without artifice, make- up or jewellery.

"This is a going back to the roots, an honest look," he says. He advertised for volunteers. The project was interrupted when one of his torsos was chosen for the Contemporary Art Fair and was recognised by a member of the public. He was convicted in April 1998 of stealing body parts, and sent to Brixton Prison. There, he said, he had a hard time until he started to draw portraits and make friends. He was released a year ago and continued to work on Birthdays. He finally managed to photograph males and females of every age from zero to 92.

So how does he earn a living? Not from art. He has not even put a price on Birthdays yet. But since the photos are life-sized and must be used together, the piece is "ginormous" and cannot be easy to sell. He used to teach, but just lost his job due to cutbacks. So what is he doing now?

ANK: I've gone back to doing moulds for garden furniture. It's just a way of paying the bills.

Me: What do you do exactly?

ANK: It's simple. It's doing replicas. So that's it.

Me: Replicas of what? Gnomes?

ANK: No, no, no. Renaissance portraits and things like that.

Me: Do you not dream of selling a piece of work?

ANK: I dream that people will look at the work in a sensible way.

Me: So you aren't worked up about selling?

ANK: No. I don't want to starve. If I can earn a living without compromise, then I prefer to do that.

Me: How would you label yourself as an artist?

ANK: I produce things. I look at life. I reason with myself.

Later, he told me that if I weren't a journalist we would be having a totally different conversation. He now plans to get married and go to Ireland. He says it is time to move on.

`Birthdays', 291 Gallery, 291 Hackney Road, London, from 15 June