Still life? not for this artist

Animal magic At 80, Sally Arnup’s joy at capturing animals in bronze has not dimmed. Stephanie ferguson met her

We’re in the mould room at the studios of York sculptor Sally Arnup and the cocoons from which her creations emerge are stacked floor to ceiling. The moulds, some plaster, some fibreglass, have shaped the molten metal into a collection of some of the finest animal bronzes in the world.

Sally Arnup, 81 next birthday and still bursting with creative energy – “ I work every day except Sunday” – has an international reputation for her highly distinctive work, so minutely observed that you half expect the tiny new-born lamb in her showroom to bleat or the huge swan to stretch its wings and glide off.

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She has been a leading animalier sculptor for the past 40 years and it helps that she loves to be surrounded by creatures.

Her famous life-size bronze of a red deer hart stands at bay on the lawn of her home in Holtby, while her flock of English game pecks around the garden and wild birds flit among the feeders.

Bellini the pointer and Rembrandt the border terrier bark a noisy greeting to visitors, owls roost in their aviary. In the studio there’s a trio of more surprising pets, cute guineas pigs called Pinky, Small and 85% (because he’s chocolate colour) which provide background squeaks while Sally is at work.

The Arnup workshops will be the star stop on the York Open Studios tenth anniversary next month and she will be giving talks on the process of bronze casting. To mark the anniversary, all previous exhibitors have been invited to take part, from potters to stained glass artists, rag rug makers to an ornamental blacksmith.

A programme of talks, workshops and events will offer a chance to glimpse behind the scenes of York’s creative community, and there will also be the chance to discover more about York Glaziers’ Trust, the oldest and largest specialist stained glass conservation studio in the country.

But a visit to Sally Arnup’s sculptures is a must. Light floods into the studio over various works in progress. A little wax pig is covered over ready for her tools to spring into action. A bronze dog, freshly cast, awaits a final burnish. There’s a photo of a dead hare on the wall, the corpse happily absent. Its life-size image has already gone to the foundry.

The gallery next door is a bronze menagerie of horses, hounds, sheep, cats, frogs and birds with titles like Labrador Rampant, Foxhound Leaping Fence and Crane Dancing. Work is mostly life size in limited editions and made to commission. There’s a giant Irish wolfhound lying in the next room, so lifelike you have to pat him.

“The owner saw my work in Yorkshire and I went to Canada to do the dog,” Sally explains, wrapped warmly in jeans and a navy fleece. “He’s very heavy and had to be shipped out to Alberta.” The sculpture, which also went on show at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, would set you back a cool £24,000.

Next to that is a cow’s head, like something from ancient Crete, a wonderful burnished gold, with curling horns and long eyelashes. “I did that in Slovenia. A group of us, ten potters and sculptors from all over world went in 2009.”

She always works from life: no sketches or photos. Like a human camera, she captures her subjects immediately in clay or wax to make the preliminary working model, or maquette. She obviously has an empathy with her sitters as their personalities leap from the metal. Racing greyhounds, trotting Arab colts, wriggling terriers, they all ooze life.

The work is intricate: feathers and fur deftly modelled and hugely tactile. From the majestic mute swan made for the Vintners Company in London, centrepiece of her retrospective exhibition last year at the Bowes Museum, to the enchanting little Listening Blackbird in silver, every piece tells a tale.

“The blackbird was rescued from a cat,” she explains. “I worked on the swan at a sanctuary on the Thames where they rescue birds which fly into overhead wires. They gave me a couple and they came back in the Volvo, sitting on the back seat.”

The swans then waddled into the studio to pose, but eventually, immortalised in bronze, flew away. Her life-size calf on show in the yard at the King’s Manor in York was also modelled from the real thing. “ I was given a bull calf which I hand-reared. In fact three calves were used for that sculpture.”

And then there’s the event horse, Three Cups, which was ridden by Richard Meade, and came to pose in the studio. “He was very peaceful, eating his food ,“ she recalls. “ If he’d reared or kicked there would have been a bit of a crash of glass.”

Among the huge animals and showcases of smaller sculptures there’s also a rather cherubic baby. “That’s my grandson William”, Sally smiles. “He’s 15 now.”

Throughout her career Sally has travelled the world and her bronzes have been on show at leading venues from Bermuda to Paris, Florence to New York. She is acknowledged as one of the foremost exponents in her field and her work is regularly chosen by the Royal Academy.

She models in clay, from which the moulds are taken, for the traditional lost wax process of casting into bronze. When the pieces return from the foundry, intricately detailed but dull, s he finishes them and patinates them by hand, with wet and dry paper, like rubbing down car paintwork. It’s tough, but a labour of love.

It all began when she was given some modelling clay at her Montessori school when she was two and a half. “Before I knew it I wanted to be a sculptor,” she says over a bacon sandwich.

At 13 she was at Camberwell School of Art, then, via Kingston, where she met her late husband, Mick, she went on to the Royal College of Art Sculpture School under John Skeaping. She knew Elizabeth Frink and Jacob Epstein, the sculptor she most admires.

“ He was given the use of John Skeaping’s studio at the college because it was 22ft high and he was working on something big, I think the Christ in Majesty for Llandaff Cathedral.

“I used to hang round outside in the corridor in the hope he would fall over me. I used to go to his house in Hyde Park. They were a very unusual family.”

Mick Arnup, who was once vice principal and head of foundation at York School of Art, while Sally was head of sculpture, died in 2008.

They worked closely together at Holtby and have a highly creative family.

“Mick was a painter who turned to pottery; Ben a landscape artist who turned to pottery and Tobias turned from being a painter to forensic art therapy, ” she says.

Daughter Hannah is also a ceramicist in Ireland while Rebecca, who has learning difficulties, enjoys finger painting. Sally’s grandchildren William, 15, Luke, 13, and Maeve, 13, have also inherited artistic flair as their sketches of the guinea pigs testify.

As the dogs loll on their bed, I look out at the giant stag in the garden. The measurements were taken from the largest deer that has ever been shot in parkland, Sally explains. “I went to Lotherton Hall and I was able to go in the deer paddock to make the maquette. It was lovely to get to know them a bit.”

What next? “I’m waiting to do another lamb, I want to do a Ryeland.”

Does she have a special rapport with her sitters?

“Up to a point there’ s communication between me and the animals. In terms of sculpture I prefer animals to people.”

A keen fan of Rudyard Kipling and of South Asian crafts, she would also l ike to visit India if an opportunity arose. But she draws the line at sculpting an elephant.

“I’ve got a friend who did an elephant in her front living room and then couldn’t find a way to get it out. The had to come from the foundry to cut it up.”

The Arnup client list reads like Debrett’s and she has work in private and public collections across Yorkshire. She comes ‘ highly recommended’ not least by the Countess of Halifax who has six of her sculptures at Garrowby.

She has also worked by royal appointment, casting a silver leopard for the Queen and a life-size bronze for Prince Philip of his Fell pony, Storm.

Did she have a leopard in the studio, I wonder? “No, I went to Flamingoland to see one,” she says. But I went to Windsor Castle to do the horse and worked in the stables.

“I’ve met Prince Philip a number of times. He presented me with my degree. I also had lunch with the Queen the year she opened Tate Modern. She’s got a wonderful collection of Leonardos at Windsor.”

As the Royal wedding approaches might she be called on to create a couple of corgis in bronze for a gift? “I wouldn’t mind. But they look as if they could nip you.”

• Sally’s talks on bronze casting are on April 2 and 9. Studios will be open across York from April 1-3 and April 8-10, Fridays 6-9pm; Saturdays 10am-6pm; Sundays 11am-5pm. Information 01904 706123 or www.yorkopenstudios.co.uk or www.sallyarnup.co.uk