My animal kingdom

Emma Stothard with her Swaledale sheep sculptures

Emma Stothard with her Swaledale sheep sculptures

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Fifteen years ago, Emma Stothard was an art teacher with a dream of being a sculptor. Now her works grace a Michelin-star restaurant, the grounds of stately homes and, at the end of the month, two Chelsea Flower Show gardens. Sarah Freeman reports.

Perched on a hill in an outbuilding of a working farm, Emma Stothard’s studio might not have central heating or room to swing the proverbial cat, but it does at least ensure she’s close to her subject matter.

“I work to the sound of cows mooing,” says the Whitby artist, who, since giving up her day job as a teacher more than a decade ago, has established herself as one of the country’s leading animal sculptors. Right on cue, one of the herd obliges. “What it might lack in space, it makes up for in atmosphere,” she adds.

Working in both willow and steel wire, the menagerie of animals which has trotted out of Emma’s various studios over the years have included various Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs, dozens of hens, cockerels and pheasants and enough deer to form their own herd. Currently she’s putting the finishing touches to a trio of Swaledale sheep which next week will be seen grazing in Welcome to Yorkshire’s Tour de France inspired garden at the Chelsea Flower show.

“Apologies, there’s not much room in here for two,” says Emma, manoeuvering the studio’s one stool in between said sheep and a group of willow deer which are awaiting transportation to their new home. “I’m really excited about this particular commission, I like the idea of taking a little piece of Yorkshire south. The idea is to promote the county as the destination for the Grand Depart next year and the design will basically show what the peleton will look like as it flashes past some of the county’s most iconic countryside. My three little sheep are just a small part of the picture and I can’t wait to get down there and see the whole site come together.

“I’m actually involved in two gardens this year and the other couldn’t be more different to what Welcome to Yorkshire is planning. It’s called As Nature Intended by the garden designer Jamie Dunston and it’s much more of an abstract approach to landscaping. For that I’ve created a series of willow structures which will sit on a crop of winter barley.”

Emma says she can trace her love of the natural world back to her childhood in East Yorkshire. Growing up in a village in Holderness she could often be found drawing the countryside which surrounded the family home close to Spurn Point and the North Sea. After leaving school she went onto study art at college in Grimsby and later, while an undergraduate at university in Southampton, she began to experiment with different forms.

“One of the friends I met there was already working in willow and it was she who introduced me to it. I loved it instantly,” says Emma. “It’s incredibly flexible and it really lends itself to animal forms. I was hooked and really wanted to learn more. There’s an area in the South West known for producing the very best willow, so I moved down there for a while to learn not just about traditional weaving methods, but also the whole growing process.”

Making a living from art is notoriously difficult and, having spent some time in a commune in Lancashire, which Emma admits was an extension of her student days, she left to complete her teaching qualifications. However, the idea of being a full-time sculptor never went away and after a number of years educating students in the finer points of perspective and foreshortening, she had a now or never moment.

“I’d started teaching in West Yorkshire, but moved to Whitby because I wanted 
to be near the sea,” she says. “I’d got a job in the art department of Whitby Community College and whenever there was a chance to get the students using willow, I grabbed it. I really enjoyed teaching, but there came a point where I had to choose. I couldn’t do both and I knew that if I didn’t have a go at sculpting full time I would regret it.”

That was in 2001, which proved to be something of a momentous year. Not only did Emma give up a regular income to pursue her dream of being an artist, but she also met her future husband, the chef Rob Green, who was also about to embark on a new and potentially risky venture.

“We both wanted to work for ourselves and while I was establishing myself as an artist, he was looking to open his own restaurant,” says Emma. “Starting two businesses from scratch at the same time sounds like madness now, but we are both pretty determined.”

Green’s of Whitby opened its doors just a short stroll from the town’s famous swing bridge and quickly carved out an enviable reputation for a menu which championed local produce. The restaurant trade is not for the faint-hearted and in those early years the couple lived above the business with Emma helping out front-of-house, fitting the odd commission in between services.

Things ticked along, but then in 2006 Emma decided to send a letter to Prince Charles at his home in Highgrove. “When I first started the business I got support from the Prince’s Trust,” she says. “The grant the organisation gave me helped to pay for some tools and the rent on my first workshop so when the Trust was coming up to its 30th anniversary I decided to write to Prince Charles offering him to make him a sculpture as a thank-you present.”

Highgrove said “yes” and Emma set to work making a willow sculpture of the Prince’s beloved Jack Russell Tigga. It was to be the start of a fruitful relationship with Highgrove and last Christmas saw her produce a range of pheasants, hens and cockerels for the estate’s shop. Closer to home, Emma has also staged exhibitions at Rievaulx Terrace near the imposing abbey ruins and Nunnington Hall, near Helmsley, and caught the attention of the likes of Raymond Blanc who commissioned a number of pieces for grounds of his Michelin-star restaurant Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire.

“When I went down there he kept calling me Jenny, but he was really charming and well, he’s Raymond Blanc so as far as I’m concerned he can call me anything he wants. He’s now got one of my truffling pigs in the mushroom valley, a group of hares in the wild meadow orchard and various other animals popping up around the grounds. I want them to look as naturalistic as possible.

“None of the animals have facial features as such, but they do have a real personality. That’s partly due to the material, which can really capture the muscle tone and it’s like anything, the more you do, the better you get. Just to get your work out there and into places where people can see it takes an awful lot of hard work and a little bit of luck, but the last three years have 
been incredible. When I set up the business 12 years ago I could never have imagined that things would have turned out so well.”

Emma now has less time to spend at the restaurant and works at the studio most days. Each of her creations starts life at the small studio and once finished the willow pieces are given a coating of linseed and turpentine to help them weather the elements while the metal work is sent to Hull to be galvanised. “There’s always such a sense of satisfaction whenever I finish a piece,” she says. “There are times up here when it’s absolutely freezing and during the winter there were some days when I thought it couldn’t possibly get any colder, but I can’t complain, I’m doing what I love.”

The Chelsea Flower Show runs from May 21 to 25. Emma’s exhibitions at Rievaulx Terrace and Nunnington Hall both run until November. For more details visit www.emmastothard.com

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