In preparation of his book on Sophie Ryder, Jonathan Bennington researched the artist’s topics, subjects and themes in addition to conducting extensive interviews with the artist. Published by Lund Humphries, in association with Berkeley Square Gallery.
This is the first book on British artist Sophie Ryder. Jonathan Benington examines the inspiration behind her work, its unusual techniques, and its public reception. First-hand insights into studio practice, interspersed with interview material and personal observations make for a revealing account of the artist and her work. A small segment is covered below:
Where do you get your inspiration?
“I don’t sit and contemplate what it is I am trying to achieve. My head is full of ideas all the time. It is part of my life. I don’t plan anything I just comes. When a new idea starts developing in my work, I’m not always sure why it is happening. It could be something that occurred years before which triggers off ideas, which started filtering their way into my work gradually over months or years.”
How do you start a new idea?
“I start making a new piece by developing ideas in different media I might, for instance make a large sculpture before making a smaller piece of the same idea and a drawing or collage may follow on from that. There is no logical order in the way I work.”
Why is the Hare predominant in your work?
“The Hare predominates in my work at the moment and the first question people ask is, why hares? Well, I find it difficult answering that question because I don’t really know the answer. It’s the same as asking me why I make sculpture, and the answer is, because I feel driven to. So it’s difficult to always pin down reasons. My introduction to hares was when my lurcher dog would proudly bring hares home and drop them at my feet. Nothing much I could do about that, except that now, if I want a peaceful walk with my present lurcher, we go on roads and not fields.”
How did the ‘Lady Hare’ emerge?
“The pieces I made started off as upright versions of the hare, in full animal form, and now they have developed into half human and half hare. I needed a figure to go with the minotaur – a human female figure with an animal head. The hare head seemed to work perfectly, the ears simulating a mane of hair. She feels right to me, as if she had always existed in myth and legend, like the minotaur. The myth exists for the hare itself, and that all adds to its magical qualities but doesn’t have much to do with my work.”
How did ‘Temple to the 200 Rabbits’ evolve?
“Several years ago I was with my family in the South of France. One very hot afternoon, the farmer proudly took me to see the animals he was breeding for eating. He led me into a dark room with a low ceiling and only one little window with a shaft of sunlight shining through. There in front of me were hundreds of rabbits – some dead, some living, some hopping. The outcome of this experience was that I felt driven to record it in some way.”
“A year or so later, I made sketches and started making plaster hares, ten to begin with. I continued to make drawings, collages and prints on the subject, but until I could solve the problem of how to make more of them (I had the figure of 150 in mind) I decided to put the project on hold.”
“In 1995, my family and I went to Mexico for two months where we stayed in a village called Tepoztlan. Rising above the village was a mountain and, right at the top of it, the ‘Teposteko’1 – Temple to the 200 Rabbits. I was amazed – the surprise sent shock waves through me. There was nothing to suggest rabbits at all, only a small stone pyramid with three tiers, no floors even. There were a very few worn hieroglyphics, that was all. I was so excited, though, and started work as soon as we climbed back down the mountain.”
“The only material available to me was clay. There was no question that there had to be 200 rabbits now, not 150, and that the piece would be called Temple to the 200 Rabbits. I made the small clay temple in a pottery in Cuarnevaca and the little layers of hares in the studio.”
“On my return to England I decided to take moulds from the ten hares and then experiment with different materials before choosing what to cast them in. Iron would have been my first choice, and bronze my second, both were too expensive. The next idea was cement, they were too heavy, and the ears too vulnerable. Plaster was an option but again too fragile. In the end I decided on fibreglass resin. They would be light, resistant to knocks, and I could achieve the colour I wanted by adding iron filings to the surface and helping them to rust by painting on acid.”
Peter Osborne Interviews Sophie Ryder
The Director of Osborne Samuel, a London gallery representing Sophie Ryder interviewed her on a visit to her studio.
I know that you are a workaholic and get bored if you are not busy, so I presume your working day is very full. Do you have a schedule or do you take each day as it comes?
“No, I have a schedule that has gradually changed over the years, partly due to the arrival of the girls and partly, most recently, to my renewed passion for playing the piano. So, before I go to the studio in the mornings I see the girls, practice the piano for an hour and attack some paperwork. Harry takes the children to school and I work from 10 until 1. Then it’s lunch and I come back over at 1.40 and listen to the Archers and the Afternoon Play whilst I am working. I have Radio 4 on all the time except when it’s the Money Programme and Gardeners Question time when I have to put music on. At 4 the children come home from school, they come and say hello and then go again. The afternoon is my best working time because people tend to ring in the morning and I have to run across the house. It’s also very peaceful in the afternoon and between 2 and 4 is definitely my best time. I carry on working until 6 in the summer; a bit later because the children are having fun outside.”
“It can get freezing in the studio in the winter, so I change what I work on depending on the weather. Funnily enough, I tend to make bigger things when it’s cold because it’s more difficult and you have to keep moving. That’s why I never make collages in winter, because it’s too cold to sit still and they would also take too long to dry. I should also do plaster in the summer because it freezes in the winter. During this past winter when I was making the big Minotaur and Hare, the plaster froze as I was making it. It was unbelievably cold and there was one day when it actually had half an inch of ice all over the Minotaur and Hare and I couldn’t get through it with a pickaxe. When we came back from Mexico it was completely wet and powdery and wasn’t setting and I thought it was going to be a disaster but actually it has dried out now, thank goodness!”
Do you stop working at the weekend?
“I didn’t used to but I do now because of the girls. I don’t stop thinking though and I have ideas and can’t wait to get back to the studio on Monday morning to carry them out. During the week, the children know that I am at work and finish at 6.00 p.m. so if they disturb me during that time I’m afraid I’m not particularly friendly. Sometimes after that time or at weekends I make it a big special treat for them to come into the studio and muck around. They love it. Weekends are really their time and I will now only go into the studio on a Saturday or Sunday when I have something really exciting on. Maud loves to come in here and she will sit for hours making things.”
Were you the same when you were a child?
“Yes, I used to make weird things out of loo rolls and tissues. I also remember sitting in my room for hours and hours drawing. Endlessly filling up sketch books full of the same thing again and again. I covered whole pages in families of bumble bees and fish with the daddy wearing a bowler hat and carrying an umbrella, mummy wearing an apron and four little babies. They would all be saying things with speech bubbles coming out of their mouths.”
Were your mother and father artistic?
“My mother used to take old jewellery that was broken and make new pieces out of the old. My grandfather was friends with Bonnard and was brilliant at drawing. He used to make sketches and tell amazing, fantastical stories which were complete fantasy but which we really believed. My brother was a sculptor. He was killed in a car accident but he used to make traditional, classical pieces – very Michelangelo. My father wasn’t at all artistic. He was a journalist who started the Fleet Street Letter. He was very English and traditional in his outlook and really would have preferred me to go to university so that I could get a ‘proper’ job.”
I know that your mother is French, did you grow up in France?
“No, but we used to spend really long summers there. We still have the house and go there every year.”
So have you always regarded yourself as somebody who would end up as an artist?
“Yes, when I was 15 I asked my mother to let me leave school because I wasn’t getting anywhere. But I had set my heart on going to art school and as I needed exams to do this I went to a crammer for a year and got all the qualifications I needed.”
Did you have any idea what direction you wanted to go in or if you wanted to specialise?
“I have always considered myself an artist not a painter or a sculptor or anything in particular. I have always enjoyed experimenting with different media. I never realised that when you went to art school you had to be one thing or the other. I had been at Kingston doing a foundation course which covered everything and I thought that was what you were allowed to do when you went onto a diploma course – I didn’t realise that you had to paint if you said you were on the painting course. Hence, I joined the Painting Faculty at the Royal Academy Schools and only produced one painting in all the time I was there. I was only 17 when I started, so I was quite young.”
I was making things the whole time but not doing anything they were expecting me to do. After the first six months, Willi Soukop, the Head of Sculpture, asked me to join the sculpture department. So in September I installed myself in the studio and began work. Unfortunately, Willi became ill and left and Brian Neal took over. He was furious when he saw me in the studios with all my wire and threw me out on the grounds that I was too young and not doing a post-graduate degree. I found another studio, sneaked time with the welding equipment and filled the space with the work I was doing at the time – a quarter life-size aeroplane and a quarter life-size double decker bus. In the end I didn’t really have a tutor and I don’t think they could make head nor tail of me. I think they thought I was a rebel. However, I got a painting diploma at the end of it!”
Besides the bus and the aeroplane, what other work did you do?
” I used Bear as my model. Bear was the dog Harry and I had at the time. He was a lurcher and very intelligent. I couldn’t leave him at home so I said that I had to take him in to the schools every day because he was my model. Peter Greenham, who was wonderful, thought that this was fine as long as he was very well behaved. He was. He used to come in every day with me. He would run alongside my bike as I cycled from Holland Park to the Academy. At lunchtime he would go on his own, to see Bill the local newspaper seller in Vigo Street and collect a copy of The Standard for Mick, the porter.”
Did he actually sit for you?
“Yes, he would sit in any position I asked him to. He was amazing – I would say “sit there”, and he wouldn’t move. He was the most amazing, wonderful dog I have ever had. A real character and friend.”
So you finished art school with a painting diploma. Did things start happening for you immediately, or did you struggle in the first years after college?
“I was very lucky. I started to find clients immediately. My degree show was a sell out and I was commissioned to go to Virginia, U.S.A. to make two large horses out of steel rods. That was my first experience of making large sculptures.”
“On my return Edward Totah approached me and asked if he could take some work to the Zurich Art Fair. He sold out on the first night, became very excited and offered me a show. In that same year, 1986, I was offered a three month residency at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. A small group of artists had been selected by Elisabeth Frink and from that short list I was chosen. It has all grown from there really.”
Did you enjoy your time in Yorkshire?
“Yes – it was fantastic. It was the most exciting thing that had happened in my career at that point. I hadn’t entered for it and the competition was strong, so I was delighted to win it. Then, the residency itself was great. The weather just happened to be fantastic and I was living in a caravan with Bear that was really nice. Peter Murray at the Sculpture Park was a really good person to work with and it was just a beautiful place. In addition, there were lots of friendly people and everybody seemed happy to talk and ask questions. I was able to complete a lot of work as well and left them two sheep and a large horse for the Park. I rarely title my work with more than a description of the piece because I prefer people to make up their own minds, but this was different. I called that horse Son of York because as I was making it, Henry Moore died and he came from that part of Yorkshire and I felt it would be good to name the horse in honour of him. It has definitely been my favourite residency.”
Where else have you had residencies?
” I’ve been to Grizedale Forest twice and the Forest of Dean. Unfortunately, the work I completed for the Forest of Dean called The River Crossing collapsed due to over enthusiastic visitors. It was a sculpture of a group of deer crossing a river but the public were so keen on touching the animals and riding on their backs that the wire soon began to give way and collapse. I gave them a new one to replace it.”
Obviously, you are known best for your animal sculpture but do you consider yourself an animal sculptor?
“No, not in the purest sense. I sculpt characters and beings – the dogs, the hares, the minotaurs – are all characters beyond animal form. That’s what interests me – I am not interested in making a replica. I haven’t sat down and studied anatomy and bone structure. I just look at the way a dog moves, a hare jumps and translate it into my work. I know that many people think they are life-like – that is a great compliment but that response comes from the impression the work gives, not the anatomical skill, because if you put a real hare next to one of mine you would see the great differences.”
Your work seems very joyful – a word used by many of the visitors to the gallery when they see your hares or minotaurs. Are they right?
“I like things to be fun and full of life. I don’t care what Gilbert and George say, that art shouldn’t be nice – I don’t see why it shouldn’t be. I think my minotaurs are sweet and charming and the young minotaurs are playful. I need to respond to the characters I produce.”
Over the past few years you have used minotaurs a great deal. Where did the inspiration for that character come from?
“I know it sounds mad, but I’m not quite sure where it came from initially. I do remember making a minotaur about twenty years ago but it didn’t work because the structure wasn’t right. I just didn’t know why I had made it. It was a minotaur sniffing a daisy, just like the ones that I have recently made. I think there must have been a poem or something about a minotaur sniffing a daisy. It must be somewhere in my subconscious.”
“I do remember that as a child I loved Picasso. When I was eight although I didn’t know much about Picasso I do remember being really upset that he had died and that I hadn’t met him. So perhaps my love of his work had something to do with the use of the minotaur.”
One of the first pieces I remember seeing of yours was a wire horse outside the Bath Contemporary Art Fair and since then I have been intrigued by your use of wire as a sculptural medium. As far as I know you were the first person to use wire in this way. How did it come about?”
“I suppose this first started when I was doing my foundation course at Kingston Polytechnic. I made wire armatures for clay figures – I decided that I liked these and began to experiment with them. Then I went to France and while a friend of mine was mending a fence, I made a scarecrow out of some wire. Then I came back, met Harry and Bear and that was when I made my first dog. I suppose it went on from there. The first works were much more like drawings – very simple, linear forms. They were like 3-D drawings in space and gradually they have got more and more complex. Now they are very solid.”