Craftsman's skills take wing with new commission

AN OSPREY swoops down to catch a fish from the lake below. But wait, look closer, what's that gleam in the spring sunshine? This magnificent bird of prey is made of stainless steel.

It will be officially unveiled later this month by Professor Sir Ronald Cooke, chairman of the Arboretum Trust, Kew at Castle Howard. They commissioned it from a local craftsman and artist, James Morris.

James, 39, has had a workshop at nearby Terrington for the last 15 years. Not that you'd know. James is not very good at talking about himself or his business.

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"It's just not me to boast about my work," admits James. "But even I've realised that it would be silly to get this commission and not turn up to the opening ceremony." Breathing a sigh of relief that he's finally going to step forward to take the credit that's long overdue will be James's wife Kate. Together with sons Wilf, two, and newborn Toby, they'll be in the crowd on the big day.

"She'll have a job to keep Wilf in the pushchair, he's mad about birds," says James. "He'll want to examine it."

If he did (and could read) he'd see his name engraved underneath.

"I used to mark my work with my name, but now the boys' go on them. I've got this romantic notion that when I'm dead and gone they'll go on a trail, hopefully enjoying a few beers, and find as many pieces as they can."

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Some of Wilf's enthusiasm for birds has rubbed off on James. "I've always enjoyed seeing nature close-up," he says. "But I've never been a binoculars kind of bird watcher. Now, I realise, it could happen very easily. I could say we only had a pair because of Wilf …"

One of the first things he'd go and spot himself is an osprey. "I've watched hours of film footage about them, but never actually seen one," he admits. "That's got to be an ambition now."

James left Malton Secondary School at the age of 16 and spent the first six months trying unsuccessfully to mend lorries at a haulage yard. "My dad was in charge of maintenance and was convinced he could make a spanner man out of me," says James. "It's no exaggeration to say it was a disaster. I'd enjoyed art and technical drawing at school so went off to art college in York to try and find out if I was any good."

He eventually passed with flying colours and was invited to return as a

part-time teacher.

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"It was the perfect springboard for me. I had two days' worth of regular income and the rest of the time free to set up my own business, Sculpsteel. My very first commission was from the boss at the haulage company for an art nouveau staircase in his barn conversion. From then I tried my hand at anything and everything. Weather vanes, railings – all the usual blacksmith's work but with a modern design twist."

A forge is an important part of his kit. But James also uses the latest in welding gear, lathes and laser cutting in the former farm shed that is his base, where he's assisted by Alex Egerton.

"I'm very lucky in that I can't get to work early enough," says James.

"There can't be many people who enjoy their job as much as me."

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James is full of admiration for conventional blacksmithing skills. But he admits his preferred approach is to bring together traditional and modern methods.

"Every piece of work that comes out of this shed has its own set of plans. Everything is unique, a complete one-off. We're not hammering out the same designs for a mass market."

Visitors to nearby Yorkshire Lavender may have spotted his unusual field of cricketing "men". Residents at BUPA's care homes have had their day brightened by his artwork. A challenging recent commission was to come a trophy for a Drax-sponsored cricket match using stainless steel from the power station. "The idea was that it was from recycled material, so somebody came in with an old pipe off one of the boilers. It was a beast of a job, making it back into a sheet of steel so we could start to do something with it."

Most of James's material comes from a Leeds company, arriving in flat sheets and bars. "Although it's hellish hard to work with – one scratch and you're in trouble – it appeals to me that, although man-made to a degree, stainless steel is basically modified rock.

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"There's also a good feeling to be had from the fact that whatever you make is going to last forever. Unless the osprey falls into the lake and gets buried in silt and forgotten, there's no reason why it won't be there in a 100 years."

Apart from his ambition to do more large pieces of public sculpture, one of the reasons why James was so keen to make the osprey was that he knew he would be working on smaller stuff (table footballers 12.5cm by 6cm to be exact) for Subbuteo in the run-up to this year's World Cup.

"If you buy a standard Subbuteo table football set it comes with plastic goals. "But there are a phenomenal number of enthusiasts who want to upgrade and get better, stainless steel goals. I am that man who makes them and they go all around the world, selling for just shy of 40 a pair. If you're really into Subbuteo, you don't just want one pair of good goals, you need championship goals, European cup goals, the options are endless.

"We've just started making gold ones – it's a powder coat finish not the real stuff – to commemorate the World Cup. When the call first came from Subbuteo, I thought it was someone winding me up. I had no idea what a massive business the game is." On the Subbuteo website James's creations are glowingly referred to as "the best table football goals to be found anywhere in the world".

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Judging by the reception his osprey has received, this is a Yorkshireman with no own goals to worry about.

James Morris 01653 648033, www.sculpsteel.

Arboretum factfile

The Arboretum Trust, Kew at Castle Howard, is a registered charity. This 127 acre arboretum on the Castle Howard Estate began planting in 1975, with the intention of creating one of the most important collections of specimen trees in the United Kingdom.

It is a joint venture between Castle Howard and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

The trust was established in 1997, opened to the public for the first time in 1999, and has a visitor centre and caf.

The arboretum is open to the public every day from the start of

March to the end of November, from 10am to 6pm. Last admissions 4pm.

For further information telephone 01653 648598