Country Matters: How the elephant makers packed its trunk

Duff Hart-Davis
Friday 02 October 1992 23:02 BST

IT'S that pachyderm again] In February I described how the sculptor David Lomax was creating a life-size model of an African elephant in a foundry at Chalford, near Stroud, to a commission from the Iraqi-born businessman Selim Zilkha, who lives in Los Angeles.

At that stage the great beast was white, and made of plaster moulded on to an armature of steel rods. This week it finally emerged into the light of day, cast in bronze, and set off on its marathon journey to the west coast of America.

To describe it as a magnificent creation would do it scant justice. It is quite extraordinary - an elephant to the life, perfect in every deep wrinkle of its grey-brown skin and in the majestic serenity of its bearing. To relate that it is 12ft high and weighs 4 1/2 tons gives little idea of its bulk and splendour: it is simply huge, and has tremendous presence.

The statue owes its existence in the first place to the gambler and zoo keeper John Aspinall, who was thrilled by the nobility of a desert elephant known as the Hoarushib Bull, which he saw on a visit to Namibia. He it was who persuaded Mr Zilkha to commission a replica, in the hope that it would draw attention to the plight of elephants in general. The sculptor also went out to Namibia to observe his subject, and the figure he has fashioned is not merely a representative of the species, but a portrait from life.

The making of it was a Herculean task that lasted more than a year. First Mr Lomax laboured alone for seven months on the plaster model, which was so huge that the building and carving of it became a test as much of physical and mental stamina as of artistic skill. As he himself says, he knew what he wanted to achieve but the process of achieving it was so drawn out that his mind kept leaping ahead to other projects.

Then, in March, came the traumatic morning when his figure, so carefully modelled, had to be cut into 14 pieces for casting. 'It was a terrible moment,' he recalls. 'I'd spent a long time making it as perfect as I could. Then in went the cutters, and suddenly plaster was flying all over the place.'

The chief butcher was Rungwe Kingdom, proprietor of Pangolin Editions, the foundry in which the statue has taken shape. At one stage or another every one of his 20-strong workforce was involved in the manufacture of this, the biggest object they had ever made.

The casting itself was a titanic operation, as was the assembly and finishing of the 14 pieces of 8mm-thick bronze - trunk, ears (each weighing a quarter of a ton), tusks, tail, two shoulder sections, middle barrel, main barrel and four legs. All these had to be welded together and pinned internally, and the external joins smoothed away. So atrocious was the noise made by the finishers' hammers that much of the work was done at night, when the rest of the staff were off duty, as the clattering began to drive everyone crazy.

The removal of the monster proved an epic in itself. The firm in charge - Christal Rapid Transit, of Silchester, near Reading - had been planning for weeks. A plywood crate 4.17m-high was built, which would accommodate its cargo with only inches to spare.

Alas, the first lorry the firm hired could not squeeze through the narrow entrance into the industrial estate and after a two-hour struggle had to withdraw.

The second truck, which arrived at 8am on Monday, was the lowest possible low-loader, driven by a young man in a black T-shirt, with shoulder-length dark curls and arms smothered in tattoos. He casually let fall that he had transported live elephants for Chipperfield's circus, but that this was his first artificial passenger of that size.

On his first attempt to drive in he caught the crate on a building and knocked the back askew. For the next hour he tried to reverse in, without success. The original plan of backing right into the factory so that the statue could be lifted by the foundry's own hoist and lowered straight into the crate now appeared impossible, so a mobile crane was sent for from Gloucester. Yet at last, after several more attempts, the driver managed a forward approach, turned round in the yard, and prepared to back. The crane, already on its way, was stood down.

At 11am the foundry's high steel door rolled up and at last the elephant stood revealed in daylight, its feet anchored to a heavy steel frame that will be bolted into concrete in Los Angeles to help it withstand any earthquakes.

'Marvellous job,' said a passing local. 'You put a lead on 'e, I reckon 'e'd follow you.'

When I struck its flank with the heel of my hand, thunder sounded as if from a vast gong - as at that hair-raising moment in the Aeneid when Laocoon hurls his spear into the side of the wooden horse outside the walls of Troy. 'Stetit illa tremens', wrote Virgil: 'It stood there trembling, and the cavernous hollows of the stricken belly boomed out a groan.'

The great moment came for the statue to be hoisted. Space was cleared all round it: plaster casts of two famous horses, Desert Orchid and Northern Dancer, were unceremoniously bundled out of the way. The sculptor fell silent and walked off, barely able to watch. Heavy chains, padded with rags, were passed under his creation's neck and tail and guided into position by two men crouching on its back like little Indian mahouts. Then, by means of a control box dangling on a long electric lead, the chief technician, Alan Lawrence, gently eased the elephant into the air.

Up it went, slightly down at the head, until it was suspended three feet above the floor. Four men turned it so that its tail was to the door, and - at the fourth attempt - in crawled the lorry. A few minutes later the elephant was securely set in its travelling box, and the men from Christal moved in with their pre-cut lengths of four-by-two, their canvas belts, steel bolts, six-inch nails and jumbo rolls of bubble film to cocoon it for its journey.

Today it is standing in a shed on the docks at Southampton. The shipping company, Mann Motor Ships, hopes to load it aboard the Pegasus Diamond tomorrow, but if the crate proves too tall to pass through the entrance to the cargo deck it will have to wait for the Traviata later in the week. Thereafter it will proceed through the Panama Canal to Port Hueneme on the coast of California, and thence to Mr Zilkha's 4 1/2-acre garden at 750 Lausanne Avenue, in Los Angeles.

I hope he realises the colossal stature of the beast he has begotten. I believe he does, for although when he visited Gloucestershire it was in pieces, he also travelled to Namibia with John Aspinall to see the original bull. Whatever else he has done, he has set off a craze for life-size elephant statues, and even now Pangolin is casting two more copies, one for Kerry Packer, the Australian tycoon, and one for Sir James Goldsmith, at pounds 45,000 a throw.

I like to think that the elephant, as it basks in the Californian sun, will remember its origins in a deep, green Cotswold valley. I know that the notion is fanciful; but this study in bronze is so lifelike that one can well believe it to have the attributes of a real animal - and, as everyone knows, an elephant never forgets.

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