Ferelyth Wills

Sculptor of animals in wood
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The Independent Online

Ferelyth Wills was a sculptor who worked outside the gallery system, sometimes to commission, with a large body of sculptures in private collections. Especially notable were her many superb carvings of animals in wood. Her book Sculpture in Wood, published in 1975 with photographs by her husband Bill Wills, became a manual for students around the world. Its clear text and illustrations, including her own drawings, have instructed thousands wishing to learn the essentials of their craft, from the virtues of various timbers to the handling of tools.

However, Wills - or Ferelyth, simply, the Scottish name she often chose to show under - was prepared to meet the challenge of working in many materials, provided they suited the subject. Stone, wire and sheet plastic presented surmountable challenges to this artist, for whom art was "a way of doing and making things".

She was born in London in 1916, her father an accountant, W.N. Howard, her mother, Margaret, an accomplished pianist and accompanist. Ferelyth's elder sister was the novelist Jean MacGibbon, notable for such children's books as The View-Finder (1963), Hal (1974) and Three's Company (1978).

Ferelyth's parents encouraged her interest in the arts, and she attended the London County Council Central School of Arts and Crafts. Late in life she wrote how there she came under the influence of that exemplary animal draughtsman and sculptor John Skeaping, joining his Zoo Class, "and from then on I never looked back".

She spent much time at Regent's Park Zoo, drawing the animals, which she would later model. On one occasion when sketching a young gorilla she was startled to look up and find it in imitation apparently sketching her. She was entranced by gibbons' movements and calls and recalled how practical Skeaping's approach was when she explained that she wanted to model one:

He asked me how big I wanted it and what material I had in mind, then said: "You will need a coil of brass wire, a smaller coil of copper and five five-foot lengths of square section mild steel rod." He told me the name of the warehouse where I could buy these, adding: "You will need to take a tram."

One of her most notable sculptures was her Antelope (1937), also completed under Skeaping's direction, inspired by a visit to the country. It gained her the Queen's Prize, enabling it to be cast in bronze.

In the summer of 1939 she went on a student exchange visit to America, but just before her return the Second World War started and officially she became an alien, unable to travel home. She was allowed to keep her return ticket, but her passport was confiscated and she was not permitted to earn money.

Friends enabled her to find chauffeur-companion work in exchange for her keep. On one such trip a hitch-hiker produced a gun and ordered her to "keep going". With remarkable presence of mind she drove to a gas station, threw the key out of the window and ran for it. Her passenger hit her on the back of the head, but her hair-bun absorbed the blow and she escaped.

After Pearl Harbor, she was permitted to return to England. She worked in Air Ministry camouflage, then joined the WRNS, ending up as a radio mechanic with the Fleet Air Arm at Yeovilton. In 1943 she married Bill Wills, a friend from childhood who was serving in the RAF.

While in camouflage she returned to the Central School, the back of which she found damaged after bombing, with her Antelope looking out into open space. By now she was friendly with Julian Huxley, Secretary of the Zoological Society, who arranged for the Antelope to lodge at Whipsnade Zoo, where it was fixed on a plinth beside the restaurant. It was only when Fellows of the Zoological Society decided that it was not suitable that it was retrieved by its maker, eventually finding its way into a private collection, the family keeping one of three resin-bronze copies.

After the war, Ferelyth and Bill Wills settled at Petersfield, in Hampshire. Bill returned to his old school Bedales, where he trained to become a woodwork and metal teacher, in his spare time developing skills as a photographer. Between them, they were able to tackle a wide variety of projects. In their book Sculpture in Wood Ferelyth insisted that, in choosing the piece of timber:

The shape must suit the material and vice versa. It is this balance between the two, with the constant

criticism of the shape as a whole, that forms your piece of sculpture. There will be a battle between these first thoughts and the reality of your piece of wood; a battle that the wood must win if your work is not just a skilful carving, but a shape that has grown from within, like the tree from which it came.

Ferelyth showed her work at the Royal Academy and the Crafts Centre of Great Britain. She was made a fellow of the Society of Designer-Craftsmen and gave illustrated talks and demonstrations on sculpture, animal movement in art and choice of materials. Her understanding of bird flight was enhanced when in the late 1950s she became a glider pilot, while her versatility was challenged by a commission for a large, richly coloured plastic Peacock (1975) commissioned by the Koch-Light Company to display their products at exhibitions.

Two years previously, she, Bill and their daughter Jackie tackled the unusual job of organising and mounting several thousand model soldiers owned by the Earl of Pembroke, for display on the opening of Wilton House, near Salisbury.

As a sculptor, Ferelyth Wills produced figures based on the characters in Richard Adams's rabbit saga Watership Down. Her resin bronze of the rabbits' guardian gull, Kehar (1982), was commissioned for the top of the rabbit enclosure for Bristol Zoo. Her realistic Heron (1986) was placed in their ornamental pond by the actor Sir Alec Guinness and his wife.

After leaving her Petersfield studio in 1990, Wills concentrated on writing. Despite failing eyesight, she was just able to see the keyboard of her newly acquired computer. The result was the privately published The Antelope Book (1997), again with photographs by her husband, a fascinating survey of her career.

David Buckman

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