The strange world of sculptor and self-styled ‘rebellious old sod’ Geoffrey Dashwood

Two huge Harris Hawks outside sculptor Geoffrey Dashwood’s Hampshire home

Here’s another one I did earlier. Well several years back actually. Probably around 2012. It was written for the now long-gone Compass Magazine and offered an intriguing insight into the curious world of New Forest sculptor Geoffrey Dashwood. Thought it was worth revisiting.

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By Jeremy Miles

Internationally renowned wildlife sculptor Geoffrey Dashwood is an anomaly in an art world full of pretensions and psycho-babble. His works – stunning sculptures of birds – sell across the world, often for tens of thousands of pounds, yet he would rather have teeth pulled than have to play the gallery game. He prefers to work remotely at his home deep in the Hampshire countryside outside Ringwood. Perched on the edge of an escarpment with views for 30 miles across Hampshire and Dorset, it’s an otherworldly place.

Surrounded by monumental bronze sculptures – a one-and-half ton,12 foot tall Peregrine falcon dominates the entrance – the Dashwood home is a marvel to behold.  As you walk across the lawn there are are two huge Harris hawks, a barn owl, a tern, a great crested grebe and a frog. A massive Mandarin drake sits on a plinth in the middle of a pond: “We built the pond for the sculpture rather than the other way around,” says the 66-year-old artist matter-of-factly.

Nestling amidst ancient forest, the natural setting of this house is astonishing too. He points to a huge gnarled old oak which is believed to be 700 years old. “Incredible to think that that was an acorn in about 1300,” he says. 

The site is even believed to have been used for beacons warning of the approach of the Spanish Armada.  Dashwood has lived there with his wife Val and three sons Leo, Max and James for 17 years. He says he really can’t imagine being anywhere else.

Despite his international reputation  and prices that range from £2,000 to £250,000, he eschews most private views and even tries to avoid discussing works with potential buyers. “I’m a rebellious old sod,”he told me as we looked around the huge studio and home gallery that he has built in a barn just yards from his front door. Sucking on a liquorice paper roll-up and swearing like a proverbial trooper, he warmed to his theme. “I don’t do commissions because to be honest I am too awkward and bloody-minded. They all too often end in tears because the person commissioning the piece and the artist have a different idea about the end result. So it’s very, very simple. I just do exactly what I want to do and then offer the work for sale.”

Chippy and uncompromising he may be but Geoffrey Dashwood’s prickly exterior clearly masks a sensitive soul who deeply cares that his work is an honest response to the natural world that he loves. Hampshire born and bred, he has a rare affinity with the New Forest and in his youth worked there as a keeper.  Although he won a scholarship to art school in Southampton when he was just 15-years-old, he dropped out within weeks. “I hated it,” he says. The Forestry Commission provided the only job he could hang onto. “Basically I‘m absolutely unemployable,” he explains. 

Doing artwork for forestry brochures provided some personal satisfaction. He seized the moment and left to go freelance. Amazingly Dashwood didn’t turn to sculpture until he was in his mid 30s. He modelled a tiny English partridge and loved the whole process. With a £5,000 loan from the kind of bank manager that doesn’t exist anymore he made a series of bronze castings and touted his work around upmarket outlets in London – Harrods, Aspreys, Garrards and the galleries of Cork Street. 

Thinking about it now he says he’s amazed that he had the nerve to walk into such elitist emporiums and demand to see the bronze buyer. Somehow it paid off. He was on his way. Initially he concentrated on miniatures but then moved on to life-size and monumental sculptures. The one-man shows and international reputation soon followed.

He has successfully experimented with abstracting the fine detail of the birds down to studies of pure sculptural form. He has also explored the effects that can be achieved with multi-coloured patinas. He recalls eyebrows being raised when he asked at the foundry that he used what would happen if he splattered a mixture of all three commonly used chemicals –  liver sulphate, ferric nitrate and cupric nitrate – on his bronzes.

“They were horrified. They said ‘You can’t do that’ and I just said ‘Oh yeah, and where’s the book that says I can’t?’ We went ahead and it was brilliant. It’s incredible that no one had ever done that before, but that’s the conservatism of the art world for you.”

He knows he’s been lucky, gaining a rare reputation and enjoying success despite a stubborn refusal to bend to the whims of either clients or art professionals. 

“I’ve had a very self-indulgent life,” says Dashwood. “The extraordinary thing is that logically choosing to do this kind of sculpture should have involved a compromise between what I want to do and what the market price demands. I discovered that the more self-indulgent I became the more the market would rise to it.”

Author: Jeremy Miles

Writer, journalist, photographer, arts and theatre publicist and occasional art historian.

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