Monday 27 April 2015

A Brief History of Sculpture (or, rather, of A Sculpture) by Louisa Young

Many are the strange places to which our writing leads us. Last week it led me to a four-day sculpture course for maxillo-facial reconstructive surgeons. (Those who know my books will know that historical maxillo-facial reconstruction is rather key to them.) The idea is that as the surgeons' training tends to the scientific and the two-dimensional, it is a good idea to let them build a human head from scratch, out of clay, so as to learn the true nature of the shape of a head, hands-on. The pioneers of this type of surgery in the UK, Major Harold Gillies and Sir Henry Tonks, were both trained artists - Tonks was a professor at the Slade School of Art, as well as a surgeon. Many of you will have seen the profoundly moving pastel portraits he made during the time Gillies ran the Queen's Hospital at Sidcup for the facially injured of WW1, as a record rather than as, specifically, art. Here is one -  

Gillies employed sculptors as well to make masks of the wounded men out of plaster, so he could design their surgery without having to pester them all the time. My grandmother, at the time a successful portrait sculptor in London, was one who worked with him. (My sister Emily Young is a sculptor too. I am curious about sculpture and women.) Gillies entirely recognised the importance of art - his first book, published in 1919, was called The Principles and Art of Plastic Surgery. I won't go on again about the injuries and the soldiers and the genius of those times; today's story is more about the importance of art for reconstructive surgeons, and history trickling down. And why is art important? Because it really makes you look, and it records what you see. Including, in sculpture, seeing with your fingers. Purely practically, sketches were a lot less faff than photography at that time, and still today a skilful diagram or model saves a thousand misunderstood words of explanation.

We all pitched up at a school near Harley Street, and the portrait sculptor Luke Shepherd took us in hand. First he showed us a beautiful pre-Roman terracotta head of  a lady. Not this one, but this sort of thing. Get some clay, sculpt it, fire it . . . the techniques haven't changed much. It's an innate, isn't it, the desire to replicate ourselves?  

The surgeons included three consultants, one of them 'the best nose man in London', and a surgeon from the Jordanian military. The trainee surgeons included three beautiful young women - one Egyptian, one from York, one Chinese and pregnant, and a young man who after a day's sculpting was going on to do the nightshift in a hospital which shall remain nameless.  

We started by wrapping newspaper in a plastic bag, and taping it to a wooden stand. Then you stick a stick though it. Not so ancient, but I seem to remember people used to do it with chicken wire, so of course techniques change a little. 

Then you wrap it in clay. 

Of course you need a lady. Ours is called Hannah; she is a paragon of patience. We measure her with calipers, from her temporo-mandibular joint (just in front of the ear) to her other temporo-mandibular joint. Then from her temporo-mandibular joint to the tip of her nose, then from her other temporo-mandibular joint to the tip of her nose. Humans can be wonky. It's lucky we are, or how would we tell each other apart? 

Put a small black dot on each point you measure. Write down ALL the measurements. Clip the stick to length, so each end of the stick represent a temporo-mandibular joint. Measure the angle and distance to her eyes - draw the line. Mark where the eye will be.

Then measure out to where the tip of her nose would be . . . a point, in the air, as yet unrecognised, unacknowledged. 

And the same with the chin. The points in space become points on the end of a piece of clay.

Measure her again. And again. And again. Measure every angle and plane as you come to it. 'If your work is well done,' Luke says, quoting the French sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, 'resemblance will come of its own accord.' I like this phrase. I suspect it can apply to writing as well.  

Did ancient sculptors work like this? We know that painters didn't recognise perspective till the 14th century, but sculptors seemed to know the difference between a mask and a head - which is more than I do, at the start. It had never occurred to me that a mouth is curved like a jaw, the middle further forward than the ends. But of course it is! I cry now. But it had never cross my mind. Eyes too. They're practically diagonal. We smile as we work. We are learning stuff.

We give them temporary ears, for guidance - see below. I feel she is verging on a perfect likeness. One of our consultants is a top ear man. Later he explains to us how to make an ear - a real one - from scratch, by carving it out of a piece of rib, and growing it under the skin. 

Oh. Maybe not such a perfect likeness. Also she seems to have had a sex change while I wasn't looking. 

No. Terrible. We need to look from every angle, at the topology and geometry of the skin. Return to measuring. I measure the eyes. The sticks mark the inner and outer canthus, the corners of the eye, and the pupil.

There are good new words. Canthus. Philtrum. Conca, scafa, fossa, tragus, Darwin's tubicle, incisura intertragica. The ear-building consultant teaches us drawing on Day Four; he loves this last term so much he almost dances as he says it, and comes and writes it on my sketches of my drawing partner, the Jordanian military surgeon. Have you ever spent eight hours staring at and being stared at by a man you do not know who has recently been sewing people back together in Iraq and DRC? It is - surprising. You are required to stare at him, and he at you. You see each other's thoughts - not what they are, necessarily, but that you are having one. 'Why are you smiling?' 'What are you laughing at?' It is only after many hours of staring, towards the end of the day, that I see he has the little bruise on his forehead that denotes a lot of praying. His devoutness - devotion? - is right there to see. He sees me see it. He is a nice man. Not very good at drawing though.

Before and after the drawing lesson. Oh well.

Back to the sculpture. I nickname mine Cecil. He is clearly a minor Cambridge poet of the inter-war years. At the end of the day I spray him, and he goes into a bin-liner for the night.

Next Day: Good morning Cecil. You are all wrong.

Luke is an extremely good teacher. Within moments, Cecil has a softened, female brow, filled in eye-sockets, lots more flesh, and some hair.

She gets a neck. Her jaw is wrong, but he points it out. You have to look. And measure. And look and look and look and record how it all fits together, all those planes and angles, all that topography. You do that to Hannah, and then to your sculpture. Take her off her stand and look at the top of her head; kneel before her and look up her nose, the underside of the back of her head, every curve and camber. The surgeons know the names of the muscles. 

Here an academic from Essex appears to be sculpting the actual lady.

Getting there. The mouth is not flat, and nor is it just what the surgeons call 'the vermilion'. It is a muscular outcrop - most visible in sexy French film stars, the 'mouth on a stalk' pout. But we all have it to some degree. I give it to Cecil, or Cecile as she is now, and s/he becomes all the more female. 

I like still having the lines demarcating the planes and angles. It makes it look rather fifties, and kind of like I know what I'm doing.

Hair! How can you make hair out of clay? Clay is the very opposite of clay. 
Spot the difference. Hair, and ears. 

Ears. Dear god, ears.

They go in a lot further than you'd think. They are a series of helices. They have a Y shape - is that the bifid tragus? No, the tragus - well there's two of them - are the, how to explain - the bits at the bottom  above the lobe, the forward one is just behind the TMJ, the posterior is the sort of horizontal ledge just behind and below it, and the icisura intertragica is the dip in between . . . what, you're not following? This is why surgeons need to be able to draw. How swiftly I could point it out on a sketch. 

And finally, with many a Bake-Off joke, we lay down our tools and line up our host of Hannahs. Here she is, a flock of her, all in a row.

This is mine. As I said, Luke is a VERY good teacher. 

Are you still wondering about the TMJ? See the dot just by her ear? That's it. That's where we pull the stick out at the end.

Work in Progress:

And here are the surgeons at work. Bear in mind that they usually sculpt in flesh. Some of them did have to dash off occasionally for a little light operating in the course of the days, but they all without exception found it a very enlightening and useful course. As the Jordanian said, 'Few things in life sculpt its effect inside us, and this course is one of these things'.

And as I can't offer you a picture of my own deep concentration, 
here instead is a sculpting selfie

And here's our lunch. It's true what they say about medics and their diets.


Zizou Alphonse Corder, PhD said...

If you find this inspires you to do a sculpture course yourself, Luke's website is or

Carol Drinkwater said...

I am in awe of you and this, this work. I certainly couldn't attempt it. Bravo, Louisa

Roddy said...

Gripping stuff. I have not one artistic fibre in my body but can completely understand this. On paper.

Clare Mulley said...

Great stuff - my husband, Ian Wolter, is a sculptor and I have often thought about the parallels between our work as we build up and revise our portraits, working away at them (I'm a biographer). Think you produced something rather beautiful here - I've never dared step into his territory!

Katherine Langrish said...

What an extraordinary, wonderful post, Louisa. Thankyou! (would love to try this one day!)

Catherine Johnson said...

Oh what a great post!