July 12 2008
The Scottish sculptor Alexander Stoddart, a resolute Classicist, has long been cold-shouldered by the modern art world. He did not go quietly but argued his case and, at last, his classical figures from past and present are gaining patrons and increased public exposure. By Clive Aslet
Have we got the time right, I wonder as I meet Alexander Stoddart, Scotland's great classical sculptor. I do not mean the hour of the interview. My doubts dawn on the era we are in when Stoddart opens the door of his studio - we have gone back to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, c1900, or even earlier. In the 1830s the contents of Antonio Canova's studio in Rome were turned into a museum in his home town of Possagno, in the Veneto. Crowded with different plaster casts - deities, thinkers, poets, medallions, stray limbs - Stoddart's studio, an unheated shed in Paisley University, looks very similar.
With his corduroy jacket, tortoiseshell glasses, Simon Schama-ish manner, and hair a colour that matches the name he is known by - Sandy - the sculptor could easily be mistaken for one of the professors at Paisley were it not for his clodhopping workman's boots. But even academics would find it hard to keep up with his classical and biblical references. He reads Schopenhauer for pleasure, thinks Wagner is the greatest artist who ever lived and encodes messages in his sculptures that only the most erudite of Classicists could crack.
What he insists on calling the 'contemporal', rather than contemporary, arts establishment cold-shoulders him as a mere 'maker'. At least that is better than the reception he got as a student at Glasgow School of Art in the 1970s. Graffiti in the lavatories labelled him as a fascist because he refused to veer from the figurative path. Yet it seems that the museum world is catching up with him, to judge from Tate Britain's recent Return of the Gods exhibition, its first to focus on the full range of British neoclassical sculpture.
Recently Stoddart has won a degree of success and acclaim. Two honorary doctorates and an honorary professorship have come his way. Earlier this month his statue of Adam Smith was unveiled on Edinburgh's Royal Mile, opposite the City Chambers, by the Adam Smith Institute. This is the distant pair to the seated David Hume, which has sat in front of the High Court building since 1996. Initially controversy raged over Stoddart's decision to present Hume in a toga; literal-minded critics thought it looked cold for Edinburgh.
To Stoddart it would be unthinkable to show a philosopher in anything other than drapery, a tribute to the timelessness of their thought. Smith, as a philosopher who is best known as an economist, is shown clothed, but with drapery in the form of an academic gown thrown over one shoulder. Now - to Stoddart's fury - the Hume statue has become something of an icon, since university students began rubbing his toe for good luck before exams.
In London Stoddart completed a programme of sculpture for the new Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace in 2002. It includes a 70ft bas relief, two trumpeting angels and a 'symbolic' portrait of the Queen. Because the work was made in the year of the Jubilee, Stoddart sought to combine the Queen's appearance in the year of her accession with how she looks now, in a timeless image that manages also to suggest something of her father, George VI.
Stoddart's practice of encoding classical references in his sculpture is shown in the herm of Priapus that was installed in Vincent Square, London, last summer. Priapus, the Greek fertility god, is shown in rustic mode, 'as though he was appearing on Gardeners' Question Time'. One hand carries a pair of shears, in acknowledgement of the nearby Royal Horticultural Society. There is a learned inscription about shepherds, the gist of which is that the modern world has gone to pot.
Further evidence comes from a drawer in Stoddart's study. From it he produces a phallus. This should have been attached to the herm, as it would have been in the Classical era, but Stoddart, anticipating objections by the planners, did not think he could get away with it. 'Girls go around half-naked, there is lewdness and innuendo everywhere, children dress like prostitutes to go to school,' he fulminates, 'but you can't show Priapus with a phallus.'
The herm is one of the guests at Stoddart's plastercast soirée. A giant and tempestuous head of the Celtic poet Ossian eyes John Witherspoon, the Paisley divine and president of Princeton University, who signed the Declaration of Independence; medallions hang beside portrait busts, Immanuel Kant - a commission from Lady Rothermere - loiters broodingly.
The artist has begun a pantheon of heads of 'fellow travellers' in Classicism, whose plaster likenesses look down from a high shelf on the studio wall. They include practising architects such as Robert Adam and John Simpson, the philosopher Roger Scruton and the architectural historian David Watkin.
Stoddart likes to have one of these personal tributes on the go as he works on the big public commissions. He does them off his own bat, without fee. Occasionally he is asked to model other heads - for example, Tony Benn: 'a great sitter, such a nice chap'. A commissioned bust costs between £15,000 and £20,000. Nearly all that Stoddart has already made can be purchased as a plaster or bronze cast, at prices ranging from £350 for a plaster relief of Aonghus Og, the Celtic god of love, in a limited edition of 200, through to £41,125 for the giant head of Ossian in bronze.
A pair of steps, wire supports, huge rolls of string, a mallet, a T-square, drills, dust, drawings for medallions, rusty iron bars, a bit of leg, rolls of yellow metal, a school guillotine, classical emblems, big green bags of clay, dust, dust, dust - this is a small flavour of the impedimenta among which Stoddart spends his day, every day. He is not one for holidays.
Plaster comes near the end of the process. The figure that Stoddart was at work on when I visited is a lifesize St Augustine, made of clay, the wire supports still poking out of his fingers. Stoddart says, 'People think that marble carving must be the most arduous part of sculpture, but it's a walkover compared to clay modelling.'
Large-scale work is still Stoddart's main focus, and it is at first a surprise that, at 48, he should say he will go on doing it for as long as he is fit. From daily manipulation of clay, his hands are as strong as a superhero's. 'There is a lot of physical lifting. Clay is a hard taskmaster. It cannot be allowed to dry out. In the winter, it must not freeze. It must remain alive, almost like a living organism, through watering and wrapping in plastic.'
St Augustine will take his place in a private chapel dedicated to St Rita, a Tuscan nun, being built 'somewhere in north Britain'. The St Augustine is being copied from a smaller model. 'What you're doing is replicating up the scale and immediacy of the small model on to a bigger scale,' Stoddart says. 'You cannot model a statue of this size freehand.' The chassis method, by which maquettes are made into larger, sometimes colossal statues, was used by the Egyptians carving the figures at Abu Simbel in the second millennium BC. Three thousand years later there is still no computer programe to replace it. Stoddart learnt it from 'dead men: nobody living could help'.
Fortunately some of the dead men, such as the Art Nouveau-ish Albert Toft and Charles Sargeant Jagger, the genius behind great First World War memorials such as the Royal Artillary Memorial in London, left their knowledge behind in books.
Stoddart's first love was music and he still plays the piano every night. Until recently he attended services at Paisley Abbey, which, as part of the Church of Scotland, is one of few Scottish churches to maintain the choral tradition. Perhaps characteristically, Stoddart has stopped going in protest against a 'dreadful glass box' that the authorities have proposed building on to the front.
That, Stoddart says, is the trouble with Scotland. 'The Reformation says smash impressive things. Scotland has become a metaphysically philistine country. That is to do with having become an abode of a people of the book.' He holds that in a word culture there is no respect for beauty and people are therefore likely to disfigure beautiful buildings with ugly glass boxes. 'Like the Jews and the Arabs, Scots worship logos. The word is on high but as everybody knows the word is a very crude instrument, because it is the handmaiden of the concept. Artists are concerned with the percept.
'That is what Felix Mendelssohn meant when he was asked, "Do you write music to represent ideas that are too vague for words?" "On the contrary," he replied, "I use music to express ideas that are too precise for words." Try to describe the Meistersingers' overture in words. It can't be done. It's a case of an axe as opposed to a crochet hook.'
The obvious thing, surely, would be to leave Scotland. But that would, in some ways, be too easy a choice. Stoddart is staying to battle it out. 'My great ambition is to do sculpture for Scotland.'
We drive to Stoddart's home, an 1860s villa in the leafy suburb of Castlehead: the 'castle' refers to the site of a Roman fort. It is crowded with statues, this time in bronze, standing on faux-marble plinths that turn out to have been made by Stoddart from plastic field drains. His wife, Catriona, used to be a nurse until their three (now teenage) girls - Clara, Sophia and Iona - arrived. Stoddart may at times, as he says, feel 'badly treated' by the arts establishment, but home-life is calm, ordered, loving and normal.
In the car on the way back to the airport, there is just time for a final rant. We are talking about the inability of the modern art world to understand the nuances of Classicism. 'The range is absolutely vast,' Stoddart declares. Too vast in fact for him to be cribbed within what he regards as the narrow limits of Britart and its successors.
He evokes an epic struggle against what he sees as suffocating little-mindedness and convention. 'I could not be confined to their stagnant pond when there was a raging Atlantic just over the shore. It's called the West, the Occident, culture. I had to be a dolphin sporting in that sea rather than an amoeba in their pond.'
Published in Telegraph.co.uk here