Graham Ibbeson has created portraits of everyone from Fred Trueman to Laurel and Hardy and now Don Revie. He talks to Chris Bond.
WHEN Graham Ibbeson’s statue of Eric Morecambe was unveiled by the Queen in 1999, the Duke of Edinburgh turned to the crowd and said: “What do you think of it so far?” at which point Eric’s daughter, Gail, replied, “rubbish” causing everyone to burst out laughing.
It was, up to that point, the most high-profile sculpture of Ibbeson’s career and is said to be the most photographed public statue in the north west of England. Since then, the Barnsley-born sculptor has carved a name for himself with his public portraits of Laurel and Hardy, Fred Trueman and Dickie Bird, and next weekend Don Revie becomes the latest sporting icon to be immortalised in bronze.
Ibbeson’s statue of the former Leeds United manager is officially unveiled at Elland Road and will no doubt draw a big crowd with fans keen to reminisce on the club’s glory days. It probably won’t be the first time they will have seen one of Ibbeson’s sculptures. His work can be found in more than 30 towns and cities up and down the country, including Leeds which is home to his statue of Second World pilot Arthur Aaron, who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for saving the lives of his crew despite being fatally wounded.
And Ibbeson is a man in demand right now. As well as the Revie statue, which will be unveiled by members of the 1972 FA cup winning team, he’s recently completed a five-metre high sculpture at Hadleigh, in Essex, to commemorate the 2012 mountain bike Olympics. His statue of Hull’s David Whitfield has finally been given the go-ahead to be put up opposite the Hull New Theatre where the tenor played numerous times during his 1950s heyday. He’s also been working on his newly-published biography, co-written with John Threlkeld. The People’s Sculptor – Bronze, Clay and Life, is a detailed and colourful account of his life, capturing the story of the miner’s son who rose to become one of Britain’s most acclaimed sculptors.
The last time I visited Ibbeson at his Barnsley home he was just starting work on his Fred Trueman sculpture. That was five years ago, since when he has added to his already prolific output. “I live around these things,” he says, “they’re part and parcel of my character and my family’s character but when I look back I don’t think I’ve made enough.”
His reputation as a sculptor stretches far beyond our shores and yet he didn’t start out with a burning ambition to be one. Born and brought up in Cudworth, a few miles outside Barnsley, he comes from a family of miners so was perhaps destined to work with his hands, just not in the way they did.
After leaving school shortly before his 15th birthday with no qualifications, he worked briefly as an apprentice electrician with the National Coal Board, before applying to study at Barnsley Art College. He trained as a figurative artist but it was while studying in Chesterfield that a Polish tutor taught him to look at the world through the eyes of a sculptor. “He was the one who looked at my drawings and said to me, ‘you’re a sculptor’ which I hadn’t thought about before then.”
This gave him the focus he needed. “I started off doing garden gnomes because that’s all I knew about sculpture back then. I did this family of gnomes and in the end I plucked up the courage to do life-size figures.” He went on to gain a first class honours degree from Trent Polytechnic, before embarking on a Fine Art masters degree at the Royal College of Art, in London, studying alongside future Turner Prize winners Tony Cragg and Richard Deacon.
He returned to Barnsley in the late 70s, by which time he had a wife and young family. As a teenager, he couldn’t wait to escape his hometown but his childhood memories of the community he grew up in have inspired much if his work, including the Little Barnsley Buddha and the Grimethorpe Flyer, both of which are an affectionate nod to his working class roots.
“When you’re a kid and you tie cardboard wings to your arms it’s inevitable you’re going to come a cropper, but it’s about naive optimism and that desire to escape,” he explains. “But I think a lot of what I do comes from the town I was born and bred in. People think the men were hard, but the women were tough, too, and that idea of the strong, domineering woman is picture-postcard stuff but I try and turn it into a gag. But at the same time that gag actually disguises the fact that life was hard for people. My grandfather spent every working day on his back digging coal in Grimethorpe Colliery.”
Ibbeson has two main planks to his work, the serious fine artwork that often carries a strong social message and what he calls his “gags” – visual narratives underpinned by humour. He has always ploughed his own furrow, drawing inspiration from comic books and pop artists like Peter Blake and Eduardo Paolozzi as much as fellow sculptors. “I went to see a big Henry Moore exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park years ago and the power of his work in the landscape took my breath away. But my real influences were the Dandy and Beano, which were based on dumplings from a secondary modern school. People don’t believe me when I say this, but I like that kind of humour and I still use it as a tool.”
The process of creating a work of art from scratch is an intense one. “I can look at something and I know exactly why I made it but I can’t remember the process of making it, because for me the idea is more important. The narrative, or the gag, is in some ways more important than the sculpture.”
He uses his family, particularly his wife, Carol, and their children as models for many of the characters in his work. “It’s been pointed out that I make families with my sculptures and that’s what a lot of them are about, the relationships between parents and children and brothers and sisters. I’ve been making families all my life – real ones as well as sculptures.”
People might think this sounds an easy life but Ibbeson has suffered for his art. “I’ve toiled with it over the years and physically it’s made me ill at times. I had a knee replacement operation and I’ve got a dodgy back.” It reached a point in 2000 when he was working on his Arthur Aaron statue, that he feared he might have to quit.
“That’s a very personal piece to me. I was feeling ill and I thought it was going to be the last sculpture I did so I threw everything at it, including a love heart for my wife and portraits of my kids. So I’m very proud of that one.”
Thankfully, he recovered and during the past decade has produced some of his most popular public work. “The most successful one I’ve done is probably Laurel and Hardy. There’s a lot of love and affection gone into that and every time I look at it I smile, whereas with Cary Grant I’ve done a portrait of a cool guy who I don’t have any affinity with.”
So what makes a great statue? Ibbeson believes it’s about capturing something of the subject’s character.
“With Don Revie, it was the way he looked. He had a characterful face and when I picture him I think of his mop of wavy hair and his sheepskin jacket. I was up and down scaffolding less than six months after I’d had a knee operation modelling Don Revie, but when I finished and I stood back from it, I thought ‘that’s Don Revie’. There’s a tipping point where you know you’ve got it in the bag, but up until that point it’s stressful.”
Ibbeson turned 60 last year but feels he still has plenty to offer. “If I was doing the Eric Morecambe statue again I would do if differently. I think any artist worth his salt has got to keep on pushing themselves otherwise what’s the point? If people want to look at my work on one level that’s fine, but if they can see something else then I’m pleased because there is always something behind it that’s rolled around the gags.
“I call my sculptures ‘gags’ but they’re more than that, just as a lot of gags are more than just gags. A Les Dawson monologue with a punchline right at the end is more than a joke, it’s a piece of prose.”
Once the Revie statue is unveiled, he plans to concentrate on his own work again. “Maybe it’s an age thing, but I don’t want anybody telling me what to do because the thrill for me is making people smile. So when they go into an art gallery rather than scratching their chins, I want them to enjoy it.”
The People’s Sculptor – Bronze, Clay and Life, published by Pen and Sword, is out now, priced £19.99. To order a copy through the Yorkshire Post Bookshop, call 0800 0153232 or go online at www.yorkshirepost bookshop.co.uk. Postage and packing costs £2.85.