Jim White on Friday: This is no piece of cake, it's art: Sugarcraft '93 showed icing for all tastes, from cute mice and kittens to Warhol-esque sculptures

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Indy Lifestyle Online
THE CRUSH was more like what you'd expect at Wimbledon: 14,000 tickets sold in advance, and a further 10,000 people turning up on the day. The doors of the exhibition centre in Telford, Shropshire, had not yet opened on Sugarcraft '93, the international Olympiad of cake icing, and already the queue snaked its way beyond the horizon.

'They're literally clamouring,' said Janet McCreedy, one of the organisers, as she surveyed the scrum outside from the safety of closed glass doors. 'We're going to have to let them in early. I honestly don't think we can hold them back.'

Inside the centre, middle-aged ladies with homely bosoms finalised their displays before the hordes were let in. Everywhere there was sugar: spun, teased, moulded, coloured, carved into a thousand sculptures.

Through the preparations, taking in the craftsmanship, walked Greg Robinson and Max Schofield. Greg and Max are the big names of cake icing, and one of the chief reasons why a ticket to Sugarcraft '93 was the hottest thing in Telford one weekend last month.

'Oh my gawd,' said Max, pointing to an elaborate piece of sugar-work with which Jeff Koons, the American artist of kitsch, could have made a couple of million. 'Check out the mice dressed as children.'

'Pass the bucket,' said Greg, thrusting two fingers playfully down his throat.

Ten years ago, cake icing was something done in the privacy of the home, perhaps once a year on a birthday or anniversary. Now, according to one of the triumphant organisers of Sugarcraft '93, it has overtaken knitting in the popularity parade of national pastimes. Five years ago, Max Schofield was a clinical psychologist and Greg Robinson a designer of jewellery. Now they make a living icing cakes and showing people how to do it.

'The explosion of interest in icing is unbelievable,' said Max. 'It's gripped the nation worse than Sonic the Hedgehog. And the dedication] Do you know the reason why this is not an annual event? Why it takes place every four years? Because people will have taken two, three, four years preparing their work for this.'

Sugarcraft '93 provided everything the enthusiast could wish for. There were competitive displays by icing circles from around the world (the Japanese contribution was a sugar representation of the recent royal wedding); there were professional demonstrations (Geraldine Randlesome of Canada showing how to make 'Gumpaste Ribbons and Bows'); there was a hall full of salesmen offering the requisites of the cake icer's art ('Well, you see supermarket marzipan stays on the shelves a bit too long: if you want freshness, you have to pay that little bit more'). And, most importantly, there were Greg and Max.

The pair had a small demonstration stand in a corner of one of four enormous halls, to which, the moment the doors opened, they repaired to avoid the incoming tide. Here they were to spend the day meeting their fans, signing copies of their recipe books and videos, and showing how things are done the Greg-and-Max way.

'This is our most extravagant piece,' said Max, pulling a glittering item from a cake box. 'It is a gold Buddha, carved out of fruitcake, then marzipanned, then covered with 24- carat gold leaf. It is exquisite and possibly priceless.'

'Want a slice?' said Greg.

The Greg-and-Max way began when they made a cake in the shape of a bouquet of roses for the birthday of Max's mother.

'We'd have left it at that,' said Max. 'But someone saw the creation and asked us to do something for them. So we started making cakes for friends, and it spiralled. After a year of doing that we thought it was more fun than regular jobs.'

'It's not a proper job, though, messing around in icing,' said Greg. 'Max has an MA, for God's sake.'

The pair established a firm called Crumbs of London, making iced cakes in any shape from a full English breakfast to a hot-air balloon, which would set you back at least pounds 800.

But their first love remains trying to infect the world with their own enthusiasm for icing. During the summer they tour agricultural and county shows in a caravan, smearing sugar and edible gum over exotically carved cake sculptures.

In the style of Rolf Harris, their demonstration technique was aimed at keeping their audience guessing what the final work would represent until it was almost complete.

'If anyone can tell us what it is, shout out,' said Max, as he set about some fruit cake with his Sabatier knife.

'Er, a rhinoceros?' said someone.

'Nope,' said Max. 'Fruit cake sculpts beautifully, by the way. Strangely enough, your nuts don't snag if your knife's sharp enough.'

Spectators jostled to get a glimpse of the pair carving and sculpting, icing and painting. Pat Burnett and her husband, from Birmingham, were big Greg and Max fans.

'I've done the panda from their first book,' said Mrs Burnett. 'Normally we do cars. We've done a BMW and a Ferrari and my husband's working on a Porsche.'

'A 911. With spoilers,' said her husband.

'I love this type of work,' said Ann Norrish from the Australian Cake Decorators' Association, as Greg put the finishing blue flourish to what turned out to be a cake in the shape of a pot of blue paint spilling over. 'I've just done an emu sitting on her eggs.'

Oddly, although their skill was turning hundreds of heads, Greg and Max were not entering a cake in the competitive section of Sugarcraft.

'We never go into competitions,' said Max, 'because what we do is so different. I think they'd find it a little difficult to judge us.'

They had a point. Almost every sculpture in the packed competition hall was infused with a sugary sweetness. Otters played on banks, wrens twittered on hay bales, kittens sniffed snails; there were all manner of creations, from a matchbox-sized veteran car, perfect down to its spare tyre,

to a Victorian drawing-room scene, complete with sugar piano and sugar antimacassars.

'It's all so predictable,' said Max. 'Where's the cake in the shape of a nude? This is supposed to be art, but even though the nude has been the staple of art for five centuries, it would be a complete no-go here. It's rabbits, mice dressed as children and Jemima bloody Puddleduck. These are master craftsmen, but how many are artists? But, excuse me ranting, it's beautiful none the less.'

The pair's iconoclastic influence, however, was clear among the younger entrants. Here, standing out among the puppies with slippers, were cakes in the shape of Nike tennis shoes or crepe-soled brothel creepers. Such items, however, were not to every Sugarcraft goer's taste.

'It's very unusual,' said a woman, who did not wish to be named, as she surveyed a Warhol-esque display of doner kebabs and McDonald's shake cartons. 'But I'm not sure I like it. It's not the sort of thing you'd want in the house.'

Did she like Greg and Max's work?

'Not really,' she said. 'I mean, a pot of paint spilling over? Anyone could do that. That little mouse over there, though, that one dressed up as a baby. Now that's a different matter.'

(Photograph omitted)

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