Malmesbury AbbeyThe basic course was for two years, there was an intake of around thirty. Ten students were offered a third year of study, I was eleventh on the list BUT somebody dropped out, so there I was with another year. Of course I was overjoyed but Eric had finished his three years, we got engaged, he gave me the ring on the banks of the River Avon at Bath. He took his Bergen rucksack and set out to hitch hike round Europe for a year.
It had been noticed that I had an aptitude for three dimensional work and it was suggested that I should keep painting but take up sculpture as my main study. Before the holidays I was sent to Malmesbury Abbey to make a large drawing in chalk and charcoal ,of the wonderful relief sculpture just inside the main porch. I found it very moving…still do. It started my love affair with the sculpture and other work of this period.
We were always given an assignment to do in the long summer holiday, mine was to go round Surrey making drawings of all the effigies. I had no proper home to go to only a series of dingy bed sits with my mother. It was so hard to get anywhere to live in those days. It was a bit embarrassing for me because sometimes ‘Uncle Joe’ , her lover would be there and at other times she was on her own. My parents had divorced because of my mothers affair (but I had good reason to believe that my father had had a liaison too.) Uncle Joe refused to leave his wife so he had the best of both worlds.
At that time she was living in Fasset Road, Kingston and working for the Min. of Ag. and Fish in Tolworth on the Kingston by pass. She had the shared use of a bathroom with a terrifying gas geyser that made sudden great gurgling noises and threatened to go off like a bomb. I cycled to so many villages on my mission. I was usually the only one in the church and I just loved the smell of old churches and the quiet time spent drawing these personages…I almost felt that I was getting closely in touch with the Middle Ages, that they would get up off their bases and start to talk. I still can’t resist a good effigy and am delighted when I find a new one to draw.
When the new term started I worked in the sculpture studio in the lofty riding school building at the bottom of Corsham Court front Drive. My tutor was Kenneth Armitage but I can’t remember a huge amount about him except (like plenty of other people) he spent time in The Pack Horse not very far away. He was quite laid back, I vaguely remember making an abstract plaster form. Whilst I was there he was replaced by Bernard Meadows who subsequently became Head of Sculpture at the Royal College of Art. He was a big shock because he was very disciplined, you had to be there on time in the morning and at the start of the afternoon session. He brought in a life model and we learnt how to make proper armatures. Our pieces were about a quarter life size, we made the general shape out of solid clay then painstakingly added tiny pieces with the thumb as we built up the forms that we saw on the body. I enjoyed the process of hard looking then building.
We then learnt how to make a plaster cast from our clay model. Mine had about four pieces. We had thin ribbons of metal about two inches wide which were cut to the right size then pressed into the clay to make walls. We were taught the right way to mix the plaster by sprinkling it until it formed a sort of mountain in the water. In order to prevent air bubbles you put your mixing hand in very gently and mixed the plaster under the surface of the water. It could start going off (i.e. going from fluid to cream) quite quickly. The first layers of plaster were thrown against the clay once again to stop air bubbles, after that you could smooth it on. It was a delightfully messy process, there was something magical about the way you could feel the liquid plaster getting hotter. Plaster went everywhere, all over your clothes, your hair, your shoes. That’s wasn’t the end though, as that was just the mould… which then had to be coated with shellac and soft soap, the separate mould pieces bound together then filled with more plaster. After a while the mould was chipped off and if you were lucky you had a beautiful plaster replica of your clay model in every detail. I know that later art students had the opportunity to have their pieces cast in bronze rather than plaster.
In our last term we were given a project to complete. I was sent to Dorchester abbey, in Oxfordshire to draw and record the dimensions of an effigy of a recumbent knight who is drawing his sword. The abbey remains one of my favourite church buildings, it seems to be full of light and the stone itself is pale. Apart from the knight it has another great treasure, a Tree of Jesse window. Jesse is lying at the bottom of the window and the uprights and tracery have little figures of his family, it’s very unusual. Dorchester was only a few miles from where I was born and I wrote to my father asking if I could stay, he didn’t reply.
Back at college I had to make a life size replica in plaster of the knight for my final exhibition. I did it, but I really didn’t enjoy it, there was nothing exciting or particularly creative about it, it was a bit of a chore. As I might have indicated Corsham was usually rather poor on teaching technique… the emphasis was more on empirical learning…after that experience I think I’m rather glad, though there have been times when I have regretted it.