HEART OF STONE
Sculptor Emily Young may no longer live in England, having found contentment in an Italian convent, but she carries the memories of its stones in her spirit — and in her art
When John Ruskin visited the out-of-the-way church of Madonna dell’Orto in the Cannaregio district to write an entry for The Stones of Venice, he came away more interested in the Tintoretto paintings than the medieval or monastic architecture. But such was even their neglected condition that he noted that no visitor was likely ‘to derive any pleasure from them’.
Over 150 years later, that certainly cannot be said of the remarkable exhibition put on in the cloisters of the church during the Venice Biennale by British sculptor Emily Young (represented by the Fine Art Society). Entitled We Are Stone’s Children, the show — Young’s first major European exhibition — had such buzz that many of the world’s top collectors, critics and curators forwent an entire morning or afternoon (not to mention lunch on a collector’s superyacht moored beside the Giardini) just to trek out to the run-down Venetian quarter where the main feature of the empty squares are ugly washing lines hung out with clothes.
Read more on art and collecting from Spear’s
It is no coincidence that Young chose to stage her exhibition in the cloisters of an obscure and unfashionable church, just set back from the fondamenta which even seasoned Venetian art tourists have trouble locating. Yet there is also something uplifting — more authentic — about this scrappy district. The canals are more open and stretch wider. There is less sense of architectural and social claustrophobia — there is more space, hardly any people, both more darkness and more light.
Young, 61, is an attractive woman with short, dark hair, sharp blue eyes and a self-assured presence. She is graceful but blunt. She chooses to work in stone, she says, because it is the most physical, healing and enduring of all art materials. For Young, who began her career training as a painter, stones are the ‘children’ of the earth.
Her giant half-finished heads (compared to Michelangelo, Moore and Rodin) are the dramatis personae of ancient earth and nature. The slabs or lumps she chooses to work with — whether given to her by the owner of a local quarry close to her home on the Tuscan coast, shipped over from Iran or Pakistan or simply picked up off the side of the road in Italy — have lives in themselves. ‘Stones tell their own stories,’ says Young. ‘I try to give stones a face, and their own voice.’
Stones in the blood
In her eloquently grand and ambitious sculpture, stone is invested with the same sacred quality that she has felt it possesses ever since being taken on long walks to see ancient stone circles and henges in Wiltshire as a girl by her father, the late Lord Kennet. Young, who was brought up in Holland Park and Wiltshire, comes from a bohemian, intellectual family of artists, campaigners, travellers and politicians. As the second Baron Kennet, her father Wayland was an influential left-wing politician, as well as a highly regarded journalist for Encounter and the Observer, particularly known for his environmental campaigning and work on behalf of what is now called the Campaign to Protect Rural England.
Lord Kennet was an iconoclast who was closely involved with the Avebury Society and was chairman for many years of the Stonehenge Alliance. He was also an important social commentator and philosopher: his Sixties work Eros Denied became a charter of the sexual revolution. His 1972 essay ‘Preservation’ helped the conservation lobby and planning campaigners at a time when much of British landscape and many of its ancient buildings were being demolished by philistine planning laws. He campaigned to protect the countryside in a way reminiscent of William Morris, and he shared with Morris the fundamental belief that the beauty of the countryside — and that of ancient stone circles like Avebury — was intrinsically priceless and that it had the power to redeem and heal society by virtue of beauty alone. Young believes in that today, and it is partly her manifesto, ‘because beauty is in its essence good for you’.
She chooses to live these days not in the whirligig of London or even in Wiltshire, but inside a sprawling ruin of a convent in the remote hills around Santa Croce not far from Grosseto near the Tuscan coast. When I head up the dusty and bumpy drive, her shirtless and bearded brother Thoby — the current Lord Kennet, and a Lib Dem supporter — greets me as he mows the rugged and stony lawn with a Victorian-looking mower. He also doubles up as house cook and pasta-maker. Such bohemian understatement is typical of the Young family.
The convent was bought from a stage-set designer friend who used it to host operas. There is a temporary swimming pool in the back garden and a stage where her son Arthur — whose late father was musician Simon Jeffes, founder of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, which Arthur now fronts — is due to play a gig with his band the night after I come over. Young clearly could not be happier to have found her spiritual home; that it is a semi-ruin is even better.
Ruins allow the imagination to create whatever the visitor wants to create, one reason why so many artists have been drawn to them as a source of inspiration, and also why Young spends hours polishing her seemingly unfinished heads and figures but never creating perfectly figurative heads. She prefers to let each individual’s imagination work at finishing a piece so each work means something different and unique to every person.
Young’s studio in Italy is mostly outdoor — a large line of half-finished giant heads and slabs of stone sit on pallets, looking like an 18th-century architectural salvage yard. Inside, her studio is decked out like a cross between an operating theatre in a Second World War field hospital and the ruined villa The English Patient is set in.
What attracts Young to stone is the sense of eternal — that whatever human features, whatever scowl or cry she carves into the ancient stone will survive us and live on for thousands of years — as opposed to the sort of fashionable fad for abstract art practised by so many of her contemporaries. That is art which is reduced to the level of ‘fashion accessory’ and which is defined and valued partly as a result of its disposability.
‘Every piece of stone I choose to work with is rooted in the earth. The earth is just the crust. Deep inside that — I didn’t know it then, when I was a young girl out on my walks with my father — you’ve got your iron, nickel, crystal. So we’re really just this tiny little creature on the surface. The crust is so thin compared to the bulk of the planet. So these huge, beautiful stones definitely haunted me — and some of the huge stones actually looked like people, so perhaps, yes, that’s where I got some of my ideas from.’
At this point, Young points to one of her largest pieces — Red Mountain Head, carved from Dolomitic limestone — and then takes a closer look at Earth Song before adding: ‘Some of my work does have elements of the shapes of some of the stones at Avebury. Although I don’t live there any more, I still feel a deep connection.’
Young’s interest in the elemental quality of stone is all part of her artistic quest to use stone as her medium not just to explore our own origins but also to remind us of who we are, where we have come from and where we are going. She is the master of the ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’ school of poetic art.
But it is the sort of fear that stands side by side with beauty that also redeems and restores the human spirit. ‘It takes diamonds to cut it,’ she says. ‘I can hurl myself at a piece of stone, full strength, with hammer and chisel, and not a lot happens. I do that a few times and it will accept a small mark. It’s strong and it has a cold dark heart.’
Her monumental head circle inside the cloister of the Madonna dell’Orto is a stone communion of place and beauty in exactly the way that Ruskin admired the stones of Venice. With Young’s beliefs that the human soul can be redeemed by beauty and that art can — and should — have a moral quality and purpose, her work is both moral hymn and dance to the eternal music of stone. When her Venice show was moved to London in September at the Fine Art Society, Financial Times art critic Jackie Wullschlager anointed Young as ‘Britain’s greatest living sculptor’, adding that her show ‘achieved new grandeur and depth’.
My first encounter with Young’s work had come while I was walking through Berkeley Square a few years ago, when she had an exhibition of her work scattered across the lawns. Her work had an immediately arresting presence. What she liked about the Madonna dell’Orto space is that she had to work within certain constrictions of form, due to the practicalities of getting the huge stone heads all the way to Venice.
At one point, the barge on which some of her heads were being transported to the church almost capsized, adding an operatic quality to the staging of the show. But showing her art in churches has always held appeal for Young. For her, art is a serious business; it is not a mere commercial fad. This discipline of form also attracted her to other commissions, often in churches, such as the crypt of St Pancras Church in London or her work at the Imperial War Museum.
Young comes from the tradition of the artisan who likes to work closely with the natural environment — the Henry Moore or Eric Gill tradition — and that is indeed one reason why she chooses to live in Italy, because her convent is so close to the ancient quarries that provided stone and marble for the buildings of classical Rome. ‘I found that a friend was selling his house and I thought I couldn’t possibly buy it, and then it turned out that there was all this stone just up the hill, so that has become the stone I work with. Because that’s what people always do — they will adapt themselves to their surroundings, the environment around them. That’s where we live, so that’s what we have to use. There’s a strong thing also about control, and humans love to control their environment, so I go out and I find something that is right there and I use it for my work.’
Having shut herself away in Tuscany, what effect had this had on her work? ‘I just love it because it’s really quiet. But I couldn’t live here if I wasn’t working and bringing things back to London, and hopefully New York, Berlin, Shanghai. I think that justifies my little piece of paradise. I am also opening it up to the public. This place has got a peacefulness, how delightful that is. That should be available to everybody and it’s not.’
The other thing that attracted Young to the convent as a place for her studio is that it was ‘sort of crumbling away’ but also a celebration of architectural survival. ‘Stone things endure,’ she says. ‘That’s one of the great things about stone. It goes on and on and on. In Roman times, if you wanted to make something last, and you want to talk to posterity, you used stone. I’m very aware of posterity, and a lot of people aren’t, and I think a lot of people are going to look back at our culture and say, “What a waste.”‘
Could she ever see herself coming back to live in England — returning to her stone roots? Is she always going to be living in self-imposed artistic exile? She shakes her head. ‘England is too busy now — anywhere you go there’s a golden electric glow, the sodium glow at night. When we were children the thing my parents loved to do with all of us was to haul us around fabulous churches and museums, and visit those wonderful stone circle sites — but that’s lost today in so many ways in England. But beauty can save the world.’
When she was a teenager in Holland Park, living in JM Barrie’s house, Emily went to school with Anjelica Huston and was such a wild teenage presence that she apparently inspired the Pink Floyd song See Emily Play. But her life is very different today. Yet while Britain may have lost the woman now regarded as this country’s greatest living sculptor, her mineral- and time-forged art looks here to stay — for many centuries, if Young’s fans are right.