6 Jun

Head for the hills

Nic Fiddian-Green’s stunning sculptures of horses are highly valued around the world in public and private collections. He tells Amanda Fisher why he is happiest working in his studio deep in the Surrey Hills

Although brought up in the peace and quiet of the English countryside, surrounded by horses, contemporary artist Nic Fiddian-Green stumbled upon the inspiration for his famous equine sculptures quite by chance in the hurly-burly of central London.

Nic was a student at Chelsea School of Art, browsing the British Museum’s collection of Elgin Marbles when he caught sight of the Great Horse of Selene – Greek Goddess of the Moon – in the form of an isolated head taken from the east pediment of the Parthenon in Athens.

Carved from marble around 438 BC by a master craftsman using the classical Greek principles of grace, beauty, serenity and harmony to create the scene of Selene’s team of horses, drawing her chariot below the horizon at dusk, the unexpected encounter with the power and grandeur of that ancient horse’s head had an immediate and lasting lightening-bolt effect on the 20 year-old Nic.
Thirty-three years on, he recalls that it was as if the head had been carved by the gods as a lesson in balance, harmony and proportion, so right in every respect that Selene’s horse was to become the benchmark for all the work Nic would produce over the next three decades. “The quality embodied in the horse represents an animal that has changed the life of man through the centuries,” Nic says, “almost the very first piece of sculpture of many thousands of years ago was a carved head of a horse.”

Nic’s sculptural pieces representing the shape and sensitivity of a horse’s head are spectacular, stunning and size-wise monumental. They can be found dotting the British landscape, in glorious settings such as Chatsworth, Glyndebourne Opera House, Goodwood and Royal Ascot Race Courses and Wellington School. Examples also dominate busy city centres around the world – including Still Water in London where the 33-foot-high head of a horse dips its lips to sip calmly from a vast trough at the heart of the urban auto-jungle that encircles Marble Arch.

“Monumental work has an impact on the landscape both urban and rural and can change the atmosphere of the surrounding air,” says Nic. “It inspires me and surprises me still when I see these gigantic pieces in the landscape, so different from when I begin them in my studio.”

Nic at work in his studio on ‘Artemis, I will look beyond for a distant land’

Nic at work in his studio on ‘Artemis, I will look beyond for a distant land’

Nic’s studio is set up in a large east-facing shed near his home in the rolling hills near Godalming, where he lives with his wife, Henrietta, and four children, along with the horses all six enjoy riding together through the unspoilt surrounding Surrey countryside.

Nic feels that being able to live and work in such a peaceful, rural location is important. “We are isolated on a windswept hill, surrounded by little else but nature. This has been a place of inspiration for 30 years and luckily I’ve plenty of space there.”

He likes to start work around 5.30am: “because of the quality of the morning light playing over the quiet fields,” and often uses his family’s horses as models. The Marble Arch sculpture, based on his wife’s horse Sebastian, is one of his ‘Horse at Water’ compositions, with which Nic has been experimenting since 1983. The work is a tribute to Sebastian who nearly died from poisoning but was nursed back to health by Henrietta. At the time, Nic was ill himself, having been diagnosed with Leukaemia. He’d been due to start work on a private commission, but it would be three years before the piece called ‘Mawari’ – his first rendition of the ‘Horse at Water’ series – was completed. The colossal 27-foot-high sculpture was displayed at Marble Arch temporarily while waiting for planning permission to be granted for it to be erected at Sir Anthony and Lady Bamford’s Daylesford estate in Gloucestershire. It proved so popular with the public that Westminster City Council ordered the larger permanent version we admire today.

Although Nic’s gigantic sculpted heads are hewn from many different materials, all start life as sketches, but not in the conventional sense.  “The act of drawing is not an important part of the process as my preparatory work is always sketched in clay,” Nic explains.

“I employ many mediums, but each lend themselves to a different feeling that I want to express through the
horse’s head. I use bronze, lead, marble, Lapis Lazuli, and Indian soapstone among others. I love working the wet clay
on a gigantic horse’s head where I can create a broad gestural surface, or the more precise use of plaster or soapstone, less forgiving materials, but just as interesting, or whittling a tiny Lapis head in the palm of my hand requiring yet another
form of discipline. It is often the material itself that suggest the form to me.”

“We are isolated on a windswept hill, surrounded by little else but nature. This has been a place of inspiration for 30 years” 

The process of making a sculpture varies with commissions taking anything from one week to a year. “Depending on the scale, as much of my time is spent contemplating and planning as actually up ladders and scaffolding working the clay.”

When casting his bronzes, Nic uses a technique known as the ‘lost-wax method’. He works for several weeks on the clay model, before taking a mould. Wax is painted on the inside of the mould, then a ceramic shell is put around the wax and both are fired in a kiln. The heat melts out the wax, leaving the shell into which liquid bronze is poured to create an accurate reproduction of the original clay model. When the shell is removed, the bronze statue is revealed, ready to be finished by hand, smoothing and polishing away rough areas.

Nic’s landmark sculpture of a 35ft high horse head on a stone pedestal stood for a short time on Trundle Hill above Goodwood Racecourse, looking over the Solent to the Isle of Wight. It is now at Ellerston in the Great Dividing range in NSW Australia, and is Nic’s favourite sculpture.

“Inspired directly by the Ancient Greeks, the piece is otherwise known as  ‘Artemis’ or ‘Look Beyond for a Distant Land’,” Nic says. But the one location Nic feels best suits the size and subject of a work he’s undertaken is in England.  “I suppose the piece at Marble Arch, which has had a great reaction from the public and passersby in a very positive way. It is a really remarkable site; not an attractive position on the face of it, but people tell me they feel the space has been transformed for the better by having my sculpture there.”

His most recent work is also city-centred – a giant 16-foot-high horse’s head inspired by the horses of the Chinese Han Dynasty commissioned by Swire Properties in Hong Kong to stand in an ornamental garden at One Island East.

Nic has exhibited his sculptures in major galleries in Paris, New York, Sydney, Philadelphia and Dublin – occasionally giving live demonstrations.

“I have worked alone all of my life,” Nic says, “but have recently enjoyed demonstrating some of the techniques I use at pop-up exhibition spaces with the Sladmore Gallery in London, both at Masterpiece London and at the gallery on Bruton Place. These were hugely popular as people seem fascinated by the processes and the ‘making’ of my sculpture.”

Working live, Nic’s aware of people’s instant reactions. “I think somebody recently described my work as expressing a sense of serenity. I hope that the encounter that people have might be uplifting, perhaps inspiring in a good way, and also calming as they sense the calm spirituality of the pieces, a stillness, and grace.”

So what’s Nic latest project? “At present I am working on miniature works in stone, particularly semi precious lapis lazuli, amethyst, malachite and Indian soapstone, though my main focus will always be my larger sculpture,” he reveals.

“My London gallery and I plan to have a series of open days at my studio and the surrounding hills and valleys later this year showing many of my monumental pieces in the landscape.”

So watch this space to find out exactly when and where you’ll be able to see Nic’s works exhibited in the natural setting of the Surrey countryside.