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.”

From the sizzling Grange Hill sausage to the colour and thrill of the fairground

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Artist Bob Cosford photographs by Hattie Miles .

I’m sitting in a suburban garden in Bournemouth talking to the man who created the Grange Hill flying sausage. The banger, which appeared in the comic book style title credits of the long- running TV school drama, has followed artist and illustrator Bob Cosford for more than 40 years.

He shrugs: “That title sequence will without a doubt be what I’m remembered for,” he tells me. And here we have the fundamental artist’s dilemma. Create anything that really captures the public’s imagination and it will stick. To this day you can buy a Grange Hill sausage mug, poster, even a t-shirt. But it was creating this iconic title sequences that set Bob on his professional path.

Joining the BBC straight from Art College in the early 1970s, Bob was soon on a path that would bring him a shed-load of awards and critical acclaim. He was nominated for a BAFTA, worked on TV dramas like Dennis Potter’s Pennies From Heaven and a raft of popular television series in the 1980s that included Nanny starring Wendy Craig, Bird of Prey with Richard Griffith, and Angels which was dubbed the Z-Cars of nursing.

He worked as a graphic designer and spent many years around Camden and Soho as a creative director for film and TV and ad agencies. It’s an impressive CV but that famous ‘flying sausage’ invariably comes up again and again. Bob is philosophical and recently told fan site Grange Hill Gold that he’s not only proud of the sausage but very flattered that his work has been so well received. “I’ve never actually seen an episode of Grange Hill,” he confesses to me. “The titles were for the first series ever made and the programme went out at 4.50pm, so I would have either been working or down the pub at that time.”

Continue reading “From the sizzling Grange Hill sausage to the colour and thrill of the fairground”

A town transformed by art

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Richard Wood’s ‘harbourside’ Holiday Homes

We went back to the old home town for the 60th birthday party of a young friend at the weekend. There were lots of reminders of why I love Folkestone. I was born and brought up in the town, went to school there, met and married Hattie there and cut my journalistic teeth on the local newspaper. Though we’ve returned many times since we haven’t actually lived in Folkestone for more than 30 years. It is full of good memories though, particularly of the local arts scene.  Inevitably I suppose most of the writers, artists, musicians and actors I used to know have moved on but great to find the old place still full of character and artistic energy. Continue reading “A town transformed by art”

Pages of the Sea – lamenting the madness of 1914-1918 and the boys who never came home

Folkestone, Sunday 11th November, 2018: An amazing day. We woke early in a hotel built on the old brickfields and headed for the sands. Found what was probably the last parking space in town and made our way in pouring rain to join  Danny Boyle and lots of other people on the beach to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armistice that marked the the end of the terrible conflict that was the First World War.

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Wilfred Owen

Boyle’s Pages of the Sea project saw portraits of soldiers who never returned from the battlefields in France etched in the sand at low-water on beaches around the UK. They remained briefly as a poignant reminder of the sacrifice made by so many until their images were erased forever by the incoming tide. Continue reading “Pages of the Sea – lamenting the madness of 1914-1918 and the boys who never came home”

Dorothea’s dustbowl migrants and Tom McGuinness on Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup

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Migrant Mother the photograph of itinerant pea-picker Florence Thompson and her children taken in California in 1936 that catapulted Dorothea Lange to international fame

A couple of weeks ago I found myself at London’s Barbican viewing The Politics of Seeing – an exhibition of superb and often troubling photographs by pioneering American photographer Dorothea Lange.

Across the gallery, admiring Lange’s iconic studies of Oklahoma dustbowl migrants in California in the 1930s, was a man who I was fairly convinced was Manfred Mann and Blues Band guitarist Tom McGuinness. I wasn’t sure though and short of wandering over and asking, I couldn’t figure out a way of finding out. Continue reading “Dorothea’s dustbowl migrants and Tom McGuinness on Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup”

Meeting Modernism at the Russell-Cotes

 

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A Dorset Landscape  by Leslie Moffat Ward (1930)  All images: Russell-Cotes Gallery & Museum

By Jeremy Miles

When Victorian art collector Sir Merton Russell-Cotes bequeathed his lavish cliff-top home, East Cliff Hall, and its huge collection of paintings and sculptures to the people of Bournemouth he created an intriguing problem. He was a fearfully hard act to follow. The collection that he and his wife Annie had spent decades acquiring was idiosyncratic and wide-ranging. Magnificent paintings shared wall space with those that were considered minor and mediocre, but somehow it all worked. It was a collection that reflected Sir Merton’s flamboyant style and generosity of spirit.

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Arthur Bradbury’s 1935 painting Pamela

But it also highlighted the fact that he had been a man of his age, born into the era of Empire. By the time of his death in 1921 the contemporary art world had moved on. Post First World War sensibilities were open to radical change and though public taste, as ever, lagged a few years behind the artistic vanguard, eventually the inevitable happened and Victorian art fell seriously out of fashion.

However Bournemouth was sitting on what was effectively a priceless time-capsule and the Russell-Cotes Art  Gallery and Museum  collection is now recognised as one of the finest complete Victorian collections in the world. That it is housed in its original home is a major bonus. Unfortunately none of this helped answer the problem of how to add to and develop the collection. The answer is found in Meeting Modernism: 20th Century Art in the Russell-Cotes Collection which runs at the museum’s galleries until 24th April.

Continue reading “Meeting Modernism at the Russell-Cotes”

Revisiting the genius of Hepworth creating thrilling new sculpture for a Modern World

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Barbara Hepworth Curved Form (Delphi) 1955 Sculpture Guarea wood, part painted, with strings. © The Hepworth Estate. Pictures courtesy of Tate Britain.

Tate Britain’s magnificent Barbara Hepworth retrospective Sculpture for a Modern World ends this weekend. If you haven’t seen it, drop everything and make a beeline for Milbank. You won’t regret it.

Not only does this show explore and celebrate Hepworth’s extraordinarily powerful work but also her position as one of Britain’s greatest artists. A leading figure of the international modern art movement of the 1930s, Hepworth would become recognised internationally as one of the most successful sculptors in the world during the 1950s and 1960s.

Continue reading “Revisiting the genius of Hepworth creating thrilling new sculpture for a Modern World”

Alphonse Mucha the art nouveau master who inspired 1960’s pyschedelic poster art

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Mucha’s poster for Sarah Bernhardt’s Gismonda

It was 120 years ago that the talented but relatively unknown young artist Alphonse Mucha was catapulted to international fame after a chance encounter in a Paris print shop found him designing a poster for superstar actress Sarah Bernhardt.

Such was the power of his work publicising her new play Gismonda that the public clamoured for copies. As soon as the image appeared on the streets of the French capital on New year’s day 1895 people were cutting them from hoardings and bribing bill-posters to hand them over. Bernhardt, at the height of her fame, immediately signed Mucha to a six year contract.

Continue reading “Alphonse Mucha the art nouveau master who inspired 1960’s pyschedelic poster art”

Mona Lisa and mad snappers

photograph by Hattie Miles ... August.2015 ... Paris ... (not) looking at the Mona Lisa
Tourists at the Louvre in Paris (not) looking at the Mona Lisa. Photograph by Hattie Miles, August 2015

A never-ending tide of humanity in t-shirts, trainers and cagouls surges ever onwards, sweeping up the grand steps of The Louvre – the one-time Parisian Royal Palace that is now one of the largest and most famous art museums in the world. These tourists –  just a few thousand of the 10 million people who visit here each year – are heading for the first floor of the Denon wing, home to an exquisite collection of French and Italian paintings. They are intent on finding La Gioconda, Leonardo da Vinci’s early 16th century masterpiece universally known as the Mona Lisa. It’s not difficult. It’s sign-posted every few metres.

Mona Lisa smiles for the cameras
Mona Lisa smiles for the cameras

As they draw close they prime their phones, iPads and cameras as a team of security guards usher them into a cordoned-off, makeshift pen. Finally in front of the relatively diminutive painting – a portrait in oils on wood-panel measuring just 30 by 21 inches and protected by bullet-proof glass – they strain to get a clear enough sight-line. Many turn their backs on this painting that once hung in Napoleon’s bed chamber to take selfies of themselves, grinning faces with the enigmatic Mona Lisa playing second fiddle  in the distant background. Few appear to have any opinion about the painting. They simply have to have it on their hand-held device before returning home. They don’t really look at the Mona Lisa at all, just view the image on the screen of their phone. They don’t discuss it either or even consider buying a postcard. Continue reading “Mona Lisa and mad snappers”

Ha ha! So David Hockney reckons that 2015’s gays are just too “boring and conservative”

Celebrations as London's 2015 Pride march makes its way along Oxford Street
Celebrations as London’s 2015 Pride march makes its way along Oxford Street

It’s a little ironic. Just weeks after David Hockney lamented the vanishing bohemian spirit of his youth and complained that gay men have become boring and conservative here I am trying to get across Oxford Street to catch the final day of his exhibition. What’s stopping me is a rainbow-coloured  tide of marching, dancing, chanting, strutting, pouting humanity. Gay, lesbian, bi and transsexual. Men and women. They are out and proud and doing their bit to give London 2015 its biggest Pride march yet.

Continue reading “Ha ha! So David Hockney reckons that 2015’s gays are just too “boring and conservative””

Hopper’s vision of an American in flux – torn between Hollywood and the acid tests

Me outside the RA Hopper show. Photograph by Hattie Miles
Me outside the RA Hopper show. Photograph by Hattie Miles

After a four month run at the Royal Academy an utterly intriguing exhibition of photographs by the late American actor, film director and artist Dennis Hopper closed at the weekend. It was called The Lost Album and featured more than 400 original prints of photographs taken by Hopper between 1961 and 1967. These images had last been seen at his first major exhibition at the Fort Worth Art Centre in Texas in 1970. They were rediscovered, packed away in a series of old boxes, after his death from cancer in 2010.

Continue reading “Hopper’s vision of an American in flux – torn between Hollywood and the acid tests”