Carving out a living

Sculpture of any sort is a long and laborious process, involving hours of painstaking work. But when your medium is ice and the end result is destined to be a pool of water before you can say "ice-pick", why bother?
Duncan Hamilton has been Europe's leading ice sculptor for the last 20 years and starts work at 6am. The pursuit of a good story has occasionally required me to endure various hardships but waking up at 5.30am is easily the cruellest.

His studio in south London is a shrine to ice. Rather predictably it's cold and houses two freezers, one walk-in cold store, customised ice making machines and a collection of Japanese wood carving tools that wouldn't look out of place on the set of a kung-fu picture.

"I love ice as a material, it has a magical quality," says Hamilton. "I sometimes pick up pieces of ice and I'm quite excited about what I see.

"Ice isn't permanent but it doesn't worry me that I spend all of that time on something that won't be there tomorrow. When an artist is creating something, the important thing is working with materials and overcoming problems. I always remember my work. It's part of me so I don't worry about them disappearing."

The process of creating a 500lb clear block, standing 4ft by 2ft, is an arduous task. Giant tanks of distilled water are constantly agitated to free the block from impurities. Coagulation of minerals make ordinary ice cubes white but, by keeping the water moving, the minerals in the tank congregate to the middle where they can be drawn out with other impurities.

This morning's work involves finishing a 10ft-long iceberg for the British premiere of the new blockbuster Titanic starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.

Hamilton takes a chainsaw to a huge piece of ice while his assistants, Ian Gellard and son Jamie, carve smaller pieces of ice. Erring on the side of caution, Duncan gives me an ice pick and puts me in charge of crushing ice to garnish the finished sculpture.

"I began sculpting swans on the Saturday for Jewish weddings on the Sunday but I always wanted to sculpt ice until it became an obsession."

A former chef, Hamilton received pounds 25 for his first sculpture, now he commands around pounds 2,000 for sculptures that take days to design and create.

"When I started, there was no competition, I never advertised and people had to find me," he says. "When other firms started mass-producing ice moulds [a simpler process of freezing water inside a pre-designed hollow container], people became used to seeing ice on display. Now my clients want me to get away from that and make something new. It's pushed me on a great deal."

Everything is completed in-house; Hamilton's wife Jeannie takes care of administration while he directs proceedings at the studio. In addition to travelling the world over, the Spice Girls, Aerosmith, Clint Eastwood, Rowan Atkinson, Oasis, Steven Spielberg and Margaret Thatcher are just a few of the celebrities he has worked for.

The next stage in the day's proceedings is to transport the exceedingly heavy but delicate pieces through a plethora of people (one fan offers to carry a particularly heavy block in an attempt to sneak inside), to the Cafe Royal.

The finished sculpture (comprising three separate pieces that slot together like a jigsaw) is placed on clear perspex trays surrounded by gleaming crushed ice. When lit from below the effect is stunning.

Imposing and shimmering, it is huge in size though closer inspection reveal tiny ice fractures and stretch bubbles within the clear ice.

It has taken days of planning and labour to transform gallons of water into this jaw-dropping sculpture. Tomorrow it will be gone, but without exception everyone pauses open-mouthed to take a closer look.

Duncan is more than happy.

Duncan Hamilton is currently finalising preparations for a series of ice carving seminars next year. For additional information telephone 0181-944 9787