Above the courtyard of C Hoare & Co, a serene space inside the Fleet Street bank, a majestic bronze eagle, wings aloft, stands poised to swoop (pictured below). With similar vigilance, a bronze Guardian presides over the lobby of Marshall Wace’s offices in the Strand’s Adelphi Building. Both installations represent the ongoing mission of sculptor David Williams-Ellis to ‘humanise’ corporate spaces.
‘Figurative sculpture softens a building and engages people in a way abstract work can’t,’ says Williams-Ellis from his Cumbria home. He lives and sculpts in a dramatic red stone house that resembles a medieval fortification crossed with a Tuscan folly. It stands on a steep escarpment looking out over gardens and sheep fields to the Pennines beyond. It’s a beautiful wild setting, far from the cement, steel and glass corporate towers that his sculpture often enhances.
‘Big office blocks, while being architecturally adventurous, can often feel sterile places, so a sculpture can offer something organic that breaks up those hard lines and make the people who go in and out every day smile and feel a sense of personal connection to an otherwise anonymous environment,’ he says.
To prove his point, Williams-Ellis shows me a small maquette of The Watcher, a naked man crouching on a slender pillar. The Watcher was commissioned for the Swire Hong Kong headquarters and gained instant notoriety for being inauspiciously placed outside the building’s glass-walled restaurant. ‘You can see why they didn’t want him there,’ Williams-Ellis chuckles.
‘I wanted to achieve a bird-like, perching quality but unfortunately, the way he was squatting with his bottom facing the rather important restaurant caused an uproar and we had to move his position. I won’t tell you the nickname the Chinese gave him, but he still makes everyone who goes in there smile.’
He shows me a photograph of the IFC building in Shanghai. ‘These tower blocks may look different from the outside, but once in them you can be confused as to which block you’re in. So helping people give the building a name and humanising them can be useful,’ he explains. For the IFC lobby, he created The Leapers (pictured top), six figures stretching and dancing from tall poles, set against the windows looking out over Shanghai. ‘I wanted to give the area where people enter the building something to relate to and some movement and energy.’
Movement is what distinguishes Williams-Ellis’s work. He strives to imbue his work with an animating energy that thrusts it way beyond the ornamental. It’s what has earned him a global reputation and a one-man show at London’s Portland Gallery, which ran in December. Since his last solo show in 2002, Williams-Ellis has been sculpting for clients, private and corporate, from Tokyo to Mykonos — a period he describes as one of ‘intense learning’.
Now he has channelled what he has learnt into his latest exhibition, entitled Elemental. His new work is inspired by the impact of the wild, unpredictable weather on the landscape around him. Several of his new pieces are Umbrella Girls, female figures struggling to hang on to their umbrellas in stormy gusts or sheltering beneath them in gentler showers (pictured below).
Williams-Ellis prefers sculpting the female form because women’s bodies lack the bulky musculature of male bodies that he says ‘impedes a sense of fluidity and flow’. Narghes Sorgato Michail, who owns an art and antiquities gallery in Milan, has been collecting and selling Williams-Ellis’s work for over ten years. When I visit her gallery, three of his sculptures are on display, including an Umbrella Girl. Michail believes Williams-Ellis has ‘the soul of an Italian woman’ and tells me that it’s mainly women who buy his work: ‘He understands the mood and sensation of women. Women relate to the emotions he can express in his work.’
Yet it would be a mistake to associate Williams-Ellis’s graceful, slender female forms with art that appeals primarily to women. In fact, the bulk of his collectors are international male financiers, such as Ian Wace or Alex Thursby, CEO of the National Bank of Abu Dhabi. I went to film The Muses, two of Williams-Ellis’s latest works, being installed at Thursby’s home. Weighing nearly 750kg each, the figures were being winched into place by crane. Thursby and his wife, Jane, already have two Williams-Ellis heads in their garden and a big silver salmon on a coffee table in their sitting room and are planning to build their Antigua house around another of his sculptures.
The Muses, on which Williams-Ellis began working in 2013, represent a departure from most of his figures, which leap, prance and dance as if straining against their bronze bounds. Conversely, his muses are still, seated, stonily solid. They were inspired by Gauguin’s Polynesian paintings. ‘The women relate to each other. When you walk between them the tension is palpable,’ says Williams-Ellis. ‘They’re like great gate pillars to an extraordinary world.’ Certainly they add exotic theatricality to the Thursbys’ northern English garden. ‘We’ve had a life of living in other countries, so we love the fact they’re a little bit of East meets West,’ says Jane.
‘The two young ladies have a Balinese, Pacific, South American feel all mixed in and we just fell in love with them,’ says Alex. ‘We’ve become a little bit hooked on David and bought a few other things which are extraordinarily refreshing to have in your little space. David is an incredibly creative person and he uses both the positives and negatives that happen to all of us to create something new. And his work suits absolutely any climate.’
Much of Williams-Ellis’s sculpture may look conventional, yet he is also creating more mysterious figures with indefinable headdresses, which reveal his fascination for ethnic art.
‘I’ve travelled a lot and have always been interested by Egyptian, Mayan, North American, Inuit, African, South East Asian art,’ he says. ‘I love working with hair but sometimes you need another solution, a slightly abstract quality. The headdresses of The Guardians or The Muses don’t match any one culture but are inspired by lot of different things. You can change something enormously without making them look kitsch or gimmicky. It’s very easy to put a hat on and make them a little bit sweet, but I don’t think you can say The Guardians or The Muses are sweet. They’re big, strong, tough.’
Also distinguishing Williams-Ellis’s work currently is his experimentation with patination. He is inspired by the Benin Bronzes (largely held by the British Museum) and the earthy, textured look of long-buried, ancient sculpture. ‘I loved the coppery verdigris and deep, flaky reds and yellows as those West African sculptures came out of the ground,’ he says. ‘I wanted to create the feeling that my sculptures had been buried thousands of years and then dug up like Etruscan or Greek figures. I love the excitement of using strong colours and I don’t think there’s anyone else using colour the way I’m working with it at the moment.’
Elemental will dispel any suspicion that Williams-Ellis is merely a classical, figurative sculpture. When I visited his foundry, the figures emerging from the furnace were in searing fire-hot reds, chalky whites, rich ochres and cobalt blues. His sculpture displays contemporary boldness underpinned by a sure grasp of classical form. It defies easy classification and gives it a thrilling versatility, allied to the audacity and risk of his craft — qualities which the entrepreneurs and financiers who commission his sculptures surely appreciate.