A trip to British Sculptor John Farnham's Studio
by Yvette Conner | June 17, 2016
John Farnham is a Hertfordshire-based sculptor, known for his works in stone and bronze. Like Henry Moore, for whom Farnham was an assistant for many years, John’s sculptures evoke natural forms and colours. John has exhibited widely in the UK, including solo exhibitions at the Camden Arts Centre and the Royal Institute of British Architects, and also abroad at the Alte Hofmuehle in Austria and the Arhus Kunstforening af 1847 in Denmark. He lives with his wife Lotte, also an artist and printmaker, and their cat Luther.
I visited John Farnham and his wife Lotte at their house in Braughing on a sunny Wednesday morning in May. We’d been postponing it for a while, waiting for a sunny day in order to take the best photographs of his sculptures and studio. It turned out to be the first really warm day of the year.
John’s home is not far from Perry Green, a small Hertfordshire village famous for being the location of Henry Moore’s house and studio. In 1960 John became one of his principal assistants, staying there until Moore’s death in 1986. Despite remaining there as a sculptor conservator until 2007, it was while working with Moore that he began to sculpt himself, in both stone and bronze.
John built his studio in his garden, which on the day of our visit was in full bloom with wildflowers. The studio is suited to work year round. The winter studio is where John works on smaller pieces when the weather is too cold to use the larger space. It is crammed with shelves of finished and half-finished pieces, works in progress, found objects, photographs and all other manner of materials you would expect to find in a working artist’s studio.
"I keep everything," John explains, picking up items at random from the shelf and showing me, "you find something you haven’t looked at in years and something will suggest itself to you." Picking up a six-way hand sculpture, John describes it as a worry sculpture, "whatever way you put it, it’ll find a way to go." I ask if he ever draws, "not very often. I might scribble an idea down so it’s not forgotten. I start with a piece of stone, not a complete idea." I ask if his process is more of an evolution to the final piece, "I don’t want to analyse it," John explains, "one thing I never want to do is analyse my work."
Walking through a narrow corridor and into the summer workshop, we were greeted by a nude manikin, whose sister, seated on a bench outside the studio, greets passers-by from the road. This part of the workshop is far larger, with a huge sliding door facing the house to let in plenty of light. This was pulled wide open, filling the workshop with bright spring sunshine.
It is here that John works on his large sculptures, mostly in stone and bronze. It allows him the space to stand back and look, a process he emphasises that's vital to the sculpting process, "You carve a little, then have a coffee or something and you look at it," John explained, "it’s key to step back and look from different angles. It’s a slow process; it takes days of work just to get there."
Each type of stone has unique characteristics, something John has an in-depth knowledge of. He explains to me that alabaster turns translucent in the sun, while soapstone is so soft it can be cut with a wood chisel. Moving around the studio and picking up each half-finished sculpture to show me, John explains his working process.
"You clean the stone and something suggests itself to you." On the plinth is a piece of marble, the beginnings of Mexican Frog, a figure group inspired by traditional Mexican art. John works with the ingrained colour on the surface by cutting the rock away. He draws directly onto the stone with charcoal, the closest he really gets to drawing a plan. For John, stone is not static but part of a spontaneous process. Rather than planning a piece, he works with the natural properties of the material; its colour, malleability, its shape.
Likewise, his sculptures are not made to be static. Instead, they change drastically from different angles, a quality that reminds me very much of Moore’s fluid shapes. On the central plinth is the "Fist of Horus", carved from Ancaster stone, quarried in Lincolnshire. Next to it are two miniature versions, both shaped out of plasticine but with subtle differences, showing the evolution of the sculpture. As with the drawing directly onto the stone surface, the origin of such solid forms is fluid and organic.
Working in bronze requires a completely different mind-set. All of John’s pieces start out as plaster models, no larger than 15-18 cm. These are then enlarged, something that John learnt to do himself when first working for Moore. When he is happy with the final shape, the casting into bronze requires careful collaboration with the foundry. They make the decision over which casting method should be used: wax or sand. And then it is down to John to treat the bronze to reach the rich red lustre that makes this material so enduring.
John shows me "Bear Form", a large bronze piece he's currently working on. This was cast in several parts like a car, he explains. His job as the artist is first to machine it, to smooth down the surface of the bronze before wet and dry sanding it. This prepares the surface for patination. Call me naive, but I had presumed that the aged look bronze was natural, or the original colour of the metal. Apparently I am very much mistaken, as John takes me through each of the chemicals which can colour bronze from an orangey-red to emerald green. "Natural ageing takes years and years and usually turns a dirty black. And it depends on how long you’ve got to wait!"
John’s garden is where his monumental outdoor sculptures really come to life. "Crescent Moon" is a particular favourite of mine, and I’m not the only one; a large bronze version is in Kirk Douglas's California collection. Dominating the space is the huge steel cockerel, christened by John as "Cock of the North". "It was always meant to be a vicious, animal type. So when the sun shines and you get a shadow down there he is aggressive, because this bit looks like a prehistoric animal attacking you."
Prehistoric, definitely. But aggressive? Certainly not. I struggle to find anything too aggressive in John’s often-sensual sculptures. With a strong foundation built with one of the heavyweights of British twentieth century sculpture, John has moved on to incorporate his own ideas on art and the figure with an acute deftness.
For more information, visit John's website.