In 2007, my purpose-built studio next to my house in Oxfordshire was finished. It was a pivotal moment for me, as finally I had the space and equipment needed to tackle pieces at a large scale, like deer sculptures. Not only is the studio light and airy with a high ceiling, but it is also kitted out with a freezer and a system of hoists and pulleys. This means I can store and hang carcasses for study, and build large armatures, both essential to the way I work.
Artists have always striven to correlate underlying anatomical form with outward appearance, and dissecting animals to study their anatomy has a long tradition in art. From Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, through Rembrandt, to George Stubbs – whose paintings and engravings of animals, particularly horses, derived their anatomical exactitude and realism from the studies he made from equine carcasses hung up and dissected in his barn.
The first sculpture I made in the studio was my Bronze Stag Life Size 2008. I got permission to transport a carcass from Scotland in my van, strung it up, and was able to really get to grips with its anatomy. Being able to study the carcass of a deer enabled me to fully understand how the animal works, how the skeleton and musculature beneath the surface of its skin enable posture and movement. I was honoured when some of my sculptures were chosen as part of the Olympics Public Art displayed in London in 2012, and my bronze stag sculpture was placed in Grosvenor Square outside the old American Embassy.
Deer have always been part of our landscape and our lives. Researchers at Cardiff University have found they were central to life in Britain from the end of the last Ice Age about 11,000 years ago to the arrival of the first late Stone Age farmers. Every part of the deer provided food, materials, tools, decoration or art. Deer appear in the earliest cave paintings. They were revered in Pagan and Celtic mythology. Deer crop up in the Domesday Book and the Magna Carta and featured on the Bayeux Tapestry. They became important symbols in heraldry and popular culture.
There are six species of deer that live in the British Isles. The Norman conquest brought Fallow deer to our islands. Reeves’ muntjac, Chinese water deer and Sika deer came later, in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Roe deer, like the larger Red deer, are truly indigenous and it is a special experience to see them in the wild.
Seeing a proud Red stag rounding up his hinds inspired me to make my stag sculpture. It was the beginning of the rut on the hills of the West Coast of Scotland. Going up the hill in the Highlands is one of my favourite things. I love being out there in the great outdoors, fully immersed in nature. It is a privilege to help with the management of the wild deer herds.
Of course, I was also inspired by Landseer’s famous Monarch of the Glen and I thought of that painting again some years later when I decided to sculpt Red Deer Stag 2012 and Red Deer Hind 2012. I was up in Scotland again during the rut. The clash of antlers and the roar of the stags competing for mating rights, echoed from the hills. Camouflaged behind a rock, I was able to get up close to the animals. I remember a huge stag, coming into feed, walking past me no more than five meters away. How such a heavy animal can travel through the forest in total silence is a mystery. I didn’t know it was coming from behind until it nearly trod on me! Like Africa has her ‘Big 5’ animals, the deer would surely be one of Britain’s ‘Big 5’.
I spent a few mornings stalking with my camera. Then I set up my tools outside the estate larder and sculpted a stag and a hind. They were fresh in my memory and the sculpting felt easy.
Once a declining population, numbers of Red deer in the UK have risen thanks to concerted conservation efforts. So too have Roe deer. Now it is not so unusual to see them when out walking in the countryside. Quick and graceful, they live in woodland and are mostly active at dawn and dusk. They are elegant nimble creatures and will flee with a bounding gait when alarmed.
It was the different stages of that characteristic springing gait that I wanted to capture when I made a pair of Roe buck deer sculptures in 2012. Roe Buck Jumping 2012 shows the animal’s legs tucked under, capturing both the ease and physicality of its movement. Roe Buck Jumping Outstretched 2012 shows the deer caught in a graceful leap, legs extended. The Roe deer smaller scale was great for mark making and I was able to work the clay expressively.
In 2015, I made a series of Roe deer sculptures in a variety of characteristic poses. Roe deer are not as sociable as other breeds. They are small and shy and live in small groups rather than large herds. As well as Roe Buck Head, the collection includes Roe Buck, Roe Buck Fawn Standing, Roe Doe and Roe Doe Fawn Sitting. I wanted to depict what we see in the wild, a typical family ensemble. Although they have found welcome homes with collectors all over the world, I envisaged them in a British country garden. They would also look quite natural in a small woodland. Composition can include an element of surprise. The viewer might question whether they have actually stumbled upon real animals…
I am currently sculpting two Fallow deer in my studio. They will soon emerge from the foundry ready to join the rest of my bronze deer sculptures.