Tessa Campbell Fraser - the sculptor on very famous clients and being able to shape destiny

The Chris Blackhurst Interview: ‘People have a view of what they should look like. Animals don’t have that’ she says

Chris Blackhurst
Monday 14 April 2014 08:10

Occasionally, this job throws up a genuine treat. One is to leave the centre of London by train on a typically frenetic, Friday, and little more than 30 minutes later be in a tranquil setting, surrounded by objects of rare calm and beauty.

I’m at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire, the residence of the Marquess of Salisbury. Near the main house are sculptures spread out across the lawns. This is the just-opened Great British Sculpture Show 2014 (it lasts until 30 September). Most are large bronzes.

Among the most striking are a life-size Highland cow and calf by Tessa Campbell Fraser. They display the level of detail and realisation of nature for which she is renowned.

Campbell Fraser has five works in the exhibition: these, called Highland Cow and Highland Calf; Equus, a horse’s head made from iron resin; Polar Dance, an androgynous dancer atop a polar bear; and Bishop and Bear, a smaller sculpture, of a polar bear and a bishop facing each other.

Polar Dance stood outside the Natural History Museum in London for a year, where it attracted attention and plaudits. The 300-kilo bronze is allegorical, symbolising the relationship between man and the environment.

Campbell-Fraser chose the polar bear because, as she said: “If we don’t get this balance right it could become extinct.”

It confirmed her as a rising star, commissioned by the Queen and Prince Fahd of Saudi Arabia and other collectors, winner of several awards, exhibitor at the Royal Academy and Sculpture at Goodwood, and Fellow of the Royal Society of British Sculptors. She was born in 1967, and is married to the impressionist Rory Bremner. They have two daughters, Ava and Lila.

Bremner is with us. As we walk along, we’re chatting about the Oscar Pistorius trial. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, he does a brilliant Pistorius exchange with the chief prosecuting barrister.

What’s it like being married to him? She laughs.

“Actually, it’s really come in useful twice in my career. We were in the Masai Mara, and I’d got a commission to do three life-sized hippos in mud for a park in Denmark. I’d found the hippos and I wanted to do the two males with their mouths open, ready to attack, but they were having none of it. They were just sitting in the water, not doing anything. Then Rory made the noise of a male hippo, and they opened their mouths, looking for him. It was brilliant.”

On another occasion, she says, her brief was of a life-sized bronze stag for the head office of William Grant & Son, the whisky distillers. They spotted a stag in the wild, but it chose to lie down.

“Rory did the roar of another stag and it got up and looked around.”

Tessa grew up in Scotland. “I came to London, to the Chelsea School of Art. I specialised in interior design, creating designs for fabrics, but I didn’t enjoy it.”

She travelled, and then landed a commission to paint a racehorse.

Discovering a gift for equestrian painting, she quickly established herself as a leader in the field, commissioned by the Queen to paint Shirley Heights, the Derby winner.

“I can do portraits of people but I get so sick with nerves the night before. The thing about people is they have a firm view of how they are, how they should look, whereas animals don’t have that. And spending time with an animal is different – it’s a period of complete peace. With Shirley Heights, he was in stud for the Queen at Sandringham, and I sat with him for ages in the field and stables – it felt very special.”

In 1996, she switched to sculpting.

“I’d had 10 years of painting racehorses and I loved it. But the end came when Prince Fahd, who owned Generous that had won the Derby and lots of races, asked me to paint him, and then asked me to paint all his other 200 racehorses. I couldn’t face it, I realised I was in danger of turning into a horse-painting factory.”

Sculpting was accidental.

“I fell into it in an odd way. When I was 23, the Queen commissioned me to paint her and her dogs.

“I was very nervous – I was only 23. I took two cameras and shot rolls of film to develop, but then one of the cameras jammed and we couldn’t get the roll out.

“I’d got pictures of the Queen with some of her dogs but not all of them together – there were some in one shot but not another. So I modelled them in miniature with modelling wax.I realised then that loved it – I loved the way the light shines in a different way and you see it differently. It feels more free than painting. With sculpting, you’re more able to know how things fit together, when they’re working. I love painting and drawing, but I find sculpting more natural.”

Her first commissioned sculpture was for a Danish client.

“I had a bizarre dream, I’ve no idea why, about elephants at a watering hole. I told him about it and he said, ‘marvellous, why not sculpt it?”

She’d just had her second child when she was invited to create a new piece for the Natural History Museum.

“That was when I did Polar Dance. I think because I’d had Lila, I was more aware of global warming – having a child makes you think about the planet and how we’re going to leave it. The polar bear was the obvious symbol and I wanted to express its relationship with man, how the relationship is harmonious.”

So the dancer is balancing on the bear, but the dancer is also guiding the bear.

We head towards Bishop and Bear. The bear is looking at the bishop accusingly; the bishop appears apologetic.

Why a bishop?

“I wanted something or somebody that said wars and religion, the things that are so destructive.”

It’s as if this is a confessional moment: the bishop expressing his sorrow for the ills of mankind; his friend, the bear, listening intently.

“Good sculpture isn’t just about the object but the space around it,” she says. “It’s why Henry Moore was so impressive – he realised it. Barbara Hepworth did as well. Here, I’m trying to say there is a bigger picture, that isn’t this bishop and bear, but the world, and our need to preserve it.”

I could stay all day, lost in thought at Hatfield House. Sadly, all too soon, I must get back on the train and return to King’s Cross.

The CV: Tessa Campbell Fraser

Born: 1967

Married: to Rory Bremner, they have two daughters

Once: sculpted her Tesco delivery man in the nude after he told her he was a life model.

Most famous client: The Queen. “I do private pieces for her, of her corgis. They’re not seen by anybody, they’re special to her. She’s very knowledgable, interested in materials and shape – whether the dog is too fat or too thin.”

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