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Interview with Martin Jennings

Martin at the foundry with his commemoration to the armaments workers in World Wars I and II ‘Women of Steel’, now installed in front of Sheffield’s City Hall. Image ©Steve Russell Studios

“My first real experience with sculpture was to saw some blocks of stone in half in a sculptor’s workshop in Oxford. Ridiculous bearing in mind I was doing an academic degree at the time but I came to the conclusion that actually, carving stone was the most exciting thing I could possibly do with my life – which was not what my father wanted to hear.”

Martin Jennings is a sculptor and maker of statues, many of which are positioned around the UK in public places, from St Paul’s Cathedral to railway stations and town squares. His characters are interpreted with such dedication, skill and sensitivity that he has become one of our foremost public statue makers. I met him when I worked at Pangolin Editions, the foundry where his sculptures are cast into bronze. Started by husband and wife team Rungwe Kingdon and Claude Koenig in 1985, Pangolin has become the largest and most recognised and respected arts foundry in Europe. Martin was definitely one of my favourite artists – so I have asked him whether I could interview him for this blog.

R – Could you tell me a bit about how you began making sculptures?

M – Initially I was interested in carving lettering inscriptions because I had a background in calligraphy from school and it was something I did at university as well. When I had finished my degree I went to art school, to the City and Guilds in London and I studied lettering, calligraphy and lettercutting in stone. I left the course halfway through because I was too impatient – I’d had too many years of education and I wanted to crack on with my life. So I apprenticed myself to a craftsman and then for the next twenty years or so I made the majority of my living designing and carving inscriptions for gravestones, monuments, wall tablets, architectural inscriptions and opening tablets and only gradually built up experience with portrait sculpture. I did some evening classes in London, built on those and started getting commissions for portrait busts. One of the first ones I did was of Ted Heath; that led to a commission to do the Queen Mother for St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Ted Heath’s bust was one of the first pieces Pangolin cast for me, in fact no – I started with Claude and Rungwe when they were in the tiny extension at the back of Rungwe’s father’s house. Their daughter had just been born and she was in a pram, being kept warm by the kiln. So I’ve pretty much been with them since they started, 1985 I think it was.

R – How did you get to know about them, were they the only people casting in bronze in the Oxford area at the time?

M – I was recommended Steve Hurst to cast a piece of work but he said he wasn’t really doing it at the time but that I should go and speak to these young newbies and see if they were any good at it. It went from there. So the big sculptures that I’ve made, the monuments and statues, have all progressed out of the earlier work which initially was lettering and inscriptions, then portrait heads modelled in clay and cast in bronze.

R – So you worked in clay rather than stone for the portrait heads and busts?

M – Yes. All my previous work had been in stone. I model all my sculptures in clay. Pangolin make an armature for me, from my maquette and then I model them full size in clay in the studio – then they are cast in bronze. But they’re usually parked on stone plinths or in stone landscaping or paving. There’s always an inscription element to it too, particularly if I’m making statues of authors, like John Betjeman or Philip Larkin or Charles Dickens. If you don’t use their words…

R – You mentioned your father earlier; if I remember correctly you made a sculpture of a surgeon a few years ago and I think there was some connection with your father?

M – You’re right, yes. I had a phone call one day from the hospital in East Grinstead, asking me whether or not I’d be interested in making a statue of the second world war plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe. They said ‘you’ll never have heard of him but he was a celebrated plastic surgeon in the second world war who patched up all these fighter pilots’ and I said to them ‘well it’s funny you should ask, actually my father was one of his patients.’ At the end of the second world war, my father, who wasn’t a fighter pilot – he was a tank commander – was badly burned in a battle in Holland and he pitched up at McIndoe’s hospital in East Grinstead and was cared for there intermittently for the next two or three years and given various skin grafts and operations. So they leapt at this – they said this is fate and you’re obviously the man for the job. So I made the statue of him which now stands in the middle of East Grinstead.

Archibald McIndoe with his RAF ‘guinea pig’. The Guinea Pig club, comprised of former patients of McIndoe’s on whom he performed innovative skin grafting and facial reconstruction techniques, continued to hold annual meetings until 2007.

It needed to tell the story not only of the surgeon but of his relationship to his patients, so it seemed essential that it should include two figures; the surgeon and a kind of generic patient, who was in RAF uniform – because McIndoe was a surgeon to the RAF – but I included a personal element, recalling my father when I modelled the burned hands. It was a very moving thing to be asked to do, really. It’s particularly good making these things for small towns, where people are often particularly proud of their local heroes.

R – In terms of interpreting your subject, what does the material mean to you? Do you ever feel there are materials other than clay or bronze that you would like to work with, or experiment in any way?

M – You do have to cast sculptures into very hard materials when they’re going to be in public places – I’m less interested in changing material than I am in making the images relevant to the subject and relevant to the time they are made in. So for example the George Orwell statue outside the BBC – it was still a bronze figure on a stone plinth which is a very traditional form of commemoration but I was able to suggest that the plinth was a kind of soap box rather than a plinth; so he’s leaning forward a lot from it which changes the apparent function of the block underneath him. It’s as if he’s only been raised up in order that he can preach down to you – which I don’t mean in a derogatory sense, but there was an engagingly sort of preachy side to him – so he’s jamming his cigarette forward and leaning forward on his plinth like he’s going to fall off it, almost.

If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear – George Orwell on his soap box, outside the BBC

So yes, in terms of experiment it’s more to do with forms and shapes; trying to drag a very old-fashioned, very traditional art form into the twenty first century, without undermining all those qualities which people expect of them. So for example again the Mary Seacole statue – the notion of projecting her shadow onto a big bronze disc behind her sets up various ideas that are associated with her to do with her racial heritage and her history and make a nod in the direction of the monument being relevant to us now.

R – And so you went to the Crimea.

M – We went to the Crimea and scanned the ground near the site where she set up her base during the Crimean war. The attempt there was to place her – by placing her shadow against a reproduction of the ground on which she once stood it seemed possible to hint at ideas about the historical relevance of making monuments today to figures from the past. Public sculptures need not just be a sort of pastiche but something that actually echoes with modern sensibilities. So for me the issue is not about the materials that I’m using but the forms that I make.

“I trust that England will not forget one who nursed the sick, who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them and who performed the last offices for some of her illustrious dead.” The inscribed words of Sir William Howard Russell, Mary Seacole’s contemporary and Crimean war correspondent. Image ©Steve Russell Studios

R – You put a lot of dedication into researching Mary Seacole – going over to the Crimea – do you commit that level of dedication to all your projects?

M – I do really. You do have to research them. With the authors, strangely enough it’s not just the biographies but it’s actually reading their work – you’ve got to “take the temperature” of the individual. You’ve got to get the mood right and each subject is different. For example with the John Betjeman statue, just reading all his poetry absolutely cemented the right mood for the sculpture. And then reading the biography is almost peripheral to that, though of course you do that as well. While you are making a piece you really are living with your subject. Sometimes it feels similar to how actors talk about the part they’re playing. You’ve got to keep a certain amount of detachment but you also lean towards your subject – if you don’t empathise with them, you won’t humanise the piece.

R – So you spend a lot of time not only making the sculpture but getting to know the subject as well?

M – Of course, when you’re making a statue almost all of your subjects are dead – you’ve got to look at a lot of pictures of them, watch film footage of them if there is some. Making the statue of Ronnie Barker – really the research couldn’t have been more entertaining – I watched a whole lot of old episodes of Porridge. You’re certainly in their company for the duration of the time you make the piece.

R – In terms of research, do you or did you have to spend a lot of time studying anatomy?

M – Early on, years ago, yes. Although you have to keep referring back to the books to find out what’s going on anatomically with every pose that you choose and if possible get a model to take up the pose so that the whole thing articulates properly. But you do have to have a base interest in it and at least a grounding of life drawing, which I did a lot of in the early years and attempt to keep doing as often as I can now.

R – So you still draw?

M – Yes, absolutely – drawing is the absolute root of it. It’s not just research in that you get really to examine the human figure in front of you but the way that you draw then gets transposed into the clay modelling. So it’s almost like you are repeating the same movements that you would do if you were drawing an object or person in front of you. And I like sculptures to have evidence of the drawing in them, so that it doesn’t have all its working methods covered up and disguised. So anything that I make will be covered in marks and scratches, it won’t be a smooth, finished surface but it will show its working methods – like we were always told to do when we did O-level maths, with all the crossings out.

“And in the shadowless unclouded glare, Deep blue above us fades to whiteness where, A misty sealine meets the wash of air.” John Betjeman at St. Pancras.

R – That’s what gives it character, as well. So do you tend to work quite hard on drawing a subject before you begin sculpting or does it coincide for a while?

M – I find that the business of sculpting something and drawing something is almost indistinguishable – I do usually draw ideas and plans for a sculpture early on and then I’ll print out a lot of photographs of the subject, even take photographs of myself in certain poses and work out the articulation. When you’re making the maquette for your sculpture you’re not only expressing the idea but you’re working out the form. You’re just working from drawings, from your knowledge and memory as well as from the images in front of you. So it coincides for a while. And of course one has a body oneself so you can physically feel what it might be like to take up a certain pose. Some of that I hope goes into each sculpture. For example when I made the sculpture of Archibald McIndoe with the burned pilot sitting below him, McIndoe has his hands on his shoulders – the representation of the pilot was definitely meant to be the representation of somebody in pain. When you feel like you’re in physical pain you do things with your feet that one might not think about but actually one’s feet can tense up in strange positions – and so I crossed over this character’s feet in a way that suggested the tension in his body. That’s something that you work out from imagining yourself into the position of your subject. It has to come from your own senses and feelings, as well as from a cool, observational position.

Sir Archibald McIndoe, Surgeon 1900 – 1960. He led a pioneering team whose treatment gave the lives back to severely burned airmen of The Guinea Pig Club and other casualties of World War II.
East Grinstead – The Town That Did Not Stare.

R – It’s literally a monumental undertaking – have you ever been tempted to ‘cheat’ and have something digitally printed out, instead of working with clay from the beginning?

M – I don’t think 3D digital printing is cheating. The whole of the disc behind Mary Seacole was created digitally. We scanned a rock face and then that was used to create a circular image digitally – that was then printed out at a large scale and then it was cast. I was entirely happy with doing it that way – that seemed to me to be a pragmatic solution to a difficult process and it was a genuine record of what was there, which I couldn’t possibly have reproduced by another method.

R – So these methods have their place?

M – They definitely have their place. I’ve also made one sculpture using 3D digital enlargement and I wouldn’t regard it as a form of cheating to do so, but it didn’t work for me because I was scaling up from too small a maquette and the same piece enlarged just didn’t work quite as well as it did at a small scale. So I’m not sure when I’ll next use this process. Not because I regard it as cheating, but because I haven’t had enough success with it yet.

R – When you have a commission or a concept for a new work, how much do you plan it in advance or once you start working on it, can it change?

M – It can change but you have to have an idea at the beginning. Everything I make is in answer to a commission from a group of people who then have to get planning permission and jump through a whole bunch of public administrative hoops in order to have something made, so the proposal has to be pretty watertight at the beginning. The commissioners have to have a scale model, know what that scale is and be able to see from that model precisely what they’ll get. Once you’ve got the go ahead you can tweak something. With George Orwell I moved the angle of his arm and I changed the open hand to a fist. And of course you can change things like the drapery but you’re fundamentally providing the same idea that you had in the beginning. So the idea is very important and you have to stick with it. With Mary Seacole I presented the idea in 2009 and it wasn’t unveiled until 2016. There were seven years of fundraising. Your idea has to be compelling enough not only for other people but for you still to believe in it all those years later, so it’s important to get it right.

Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth. This is a maquette of the full size monument which was installed in Guildhall Square, Portsmouth on what would have been Dickens’s 202nd birthday. Image ©Steve Russell Studios

R – Mary Seacole, Archibald McIndoe and other works have been the most incredible subjects. Have you ever been asked or commissioned to make a sculpture of somebody that you’ve been tempted to refuse? Have you ever refused a commission?

M – I would refuse commissions to represent people for whom I have no admiration. I might not have done earlier in my career, but you know, you have to live with this person in your imagination for a long time and if you significantly dislike them for any reason it’s a bad idea to try to represent them. So it’s not about how important the world has seen these people to be, it’s about whether or not you have sympathy with them. It doesn’t mean they have to be faultless – because nobody is – some people really do have quite a bleak side to them, but they have to be sufficiently engaging and to have enough in the way of virtue as you perceive it, or at the very least to have enough in the form of interest. I made a statue of John Radcliffe which went up last year in Oxford. He was a great benefactor to the University but the more I read about him personally the more unattractive a person he turned out to be – however there was an opportunity there to represent this quite venal and supercilious individual – it was as if you were an actor, being asked to play Iago in Othello; villains can have their own interest. But I certainly wouldn’t take on a commission to make a monument to Donald Trump.

R – Not even a blimp?

M – A blimp? Oh well, a satirical one, yes maybe.

R – Is there a period in art history that inspires or fascinates you more than others?

M – Yes, well from the point of view of statue making – old fashioned art form and everything, but these things occupy pride of place in so many cities around this country. There was a great period – the zenith of the art form in this country between about 1870 – 1930 – some really remarkable late Victorian and early twentieth century monuments went up during that time. It was started by French sculptors who came over to Britain and began teaching in the London art schools in the 1870’s. The movement culminated in the work of Charles Sargeant Jagger, the great first world war statue maker for whom I have great admiration. Then in the 1930’s and 40’s Modernism swept aside all this traditional art for a period and the art form seriously dipped – and we’ve been struggling ever since to get back to even a small percentage of the skill and quality that artists of that period had.

R – Can I ask what you are working on now? Is there anything you can tell me about it?

M – I’m working on models, drawings and proposals for a London statue and for a big military monument at the moment.

R – And when you are sculpting, can I ask how you know when something is finished – is that quite a definitive moment?

M – I can’t remember who said you never finish a work of art, you only ever abandon it – but it’s rather like that. It’s not like the final notes of a great symphony where everything is pulled together and you think – ta da! It’s like an absence of the sense that there is more to contribute, rather than a very positive sense that the thing has found its place. And then it takes quite a long time after it’s been cast and after it’s gone up in place for you to come to terms with it as a finished and settled thing. In fact as often as not I look at old pieces of work and just wish I could take them down and do some more – a bit of a curse when you work in bronze, rather a lot to ask.

Martin’s artworks, no matter how varying in subject all seem to me to share at least one quality – they are charged with the immediacy of human emotion. From Mary Seacole’s shadow cast onto the relief of her Crimean disc, giving a real sense that she is striding forward purposefully, ready to minister to injury and soothe pain – to the fatherly, intensely reassuring expression of the surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe, at home in the ‘town that did not stare’, his hands resting comfortingly on the shoulders of his injured young patient as if to say ‘you are in my hands – you’ll be just fine’ – it’s impossible to look at them and not be moved.

Mary Seacole’s shadow creates a transformative effect after dark. Image ©Steve Russell Studios

2 Replies to “Interview with Martin Jennings”

  1. Perceptive interview presenting the man and his approach to his significant subjects. The old question one always want to ask a sculptor is ‘does he believe his subject resides within the materials he is working with awaiting release by the hand / mind of the artist’ ?


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