World renowned sculptor James Butler tell Mike Ashton about his greatest works and what inspired them
Approaching the Butlers’ farmhouse up a nondescript track (directions “turn right by the wheelie bins”), the first hint of the monumental experience to follow is a small collection of statues including a young girl, resting dogs, striking cubist figures and a unicorn.
You arrive in the yard to be confronted by a giant statue of William Shakespeare; a temporary resident at the farm until a suitable location can be agreed by the body which commissioned a memorial worthy of Warwickshire’s most famous son.
Waiting to greet you is one of today’s foremost figurative sculptors, James Butler. Dwarfed by the bard, and approaching 85, James remains as productive and enthusiastic as ever. A proud but unassuming man with a defiant twinkle in his eye, he shares his barns with lifelike sculptural portraits of military, historical and celebrity characters. Married to Angie, and with five daughters inspiration is never far away.
Some of his pieces are small but incredibly detailed; a hint of a much larger vision. Many appear as if they are about to speak, but it is the works on a massive scale that make you gaze in awe. It’s as if you are travelling in time, on a stroll through a bronze Who’s Who.
Every sculpture has a story and James can recount each in the clearest detail. His ability to capture the soul and personality of a character is as important as creating their likeness.
Looking at one particularly rusty and crude metal framework, it’s hard to imagine that with the addition of some simple clay, it would be transformed into one of Europe’s most poignant monuments.
Born in London, James lived most of his early life in Kent. After leaving Maidstone School of Art, he moved back to the capital to study at St. Martin’s School of Art and the Royal College of Art before spending ten years as a stone carver with Master Mason Gerald Giudici, becoming responsible for many carvings throughout London today, including the Queen Beasts in Kew Gardens.
Recalling the first time he ever held clay, James said: “I’d always wanted to be a painter. At college we used to try a bit of everything – painting, architecture, lettering, costume and life drawing, modelling in clay and carving in stone.
“I’d never even touched clay, but the first day I did I had that feeling that I could handle it well, and just thought ‘this is something I can do’. I’ve been so lucky that I’ve done something related to sculpture for most of my life.”
He went on to teach at the City and Guilds of London Art School and was a visiting tutor to the Royal Academy Schools. He was elected a member of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1964.
Work with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Madame Tussauds followed, but the turning point in his career came in 1969 when he received a call asking if he could produce a major statue of “a Commonwealth Leader”.
After a shortlisting process he was delighted to be commissioned to make a portrait statue of President Jomo Kenyatta, a major force in world politics at the time and considered the founding father of the Kenyan nation. It was a challenge that led to James spending a month shadowing the President, having been granted unprecedented access to observe and photograph his subject.
James describes his first meeting with the formidable president as a magical moment: “He walked in to the room through the French windows, shook my hand and asked me in his deep, resonant voice what I wanted from him.
“Somewhat taken aback, I asked him to sit down. He sat with ease, hands folded on his walking stick. It seemed a natural pose; dignified and statesmanlike, so I decided there and then to portray him as I saw him.”
The resulting 12 foot tall figure, seated high on a plinth in the centre of Nairobi remains a major landmark to this day.
Further commissions soon followed and James’ many monuments and memorials began to appear as far afield as, Zambia, Saudi Arabia, France, Singapore, Madeira and the USA. His smaller bronzes grace private collections across the world. In 2008, aged 77, James was awarded the MBE for services to art.
Many have admired his works, most unaware of the identity of the sculptor. In London the Fleet Air Arm Memorial in Victoria Embankment Gardens depicts a pilot with the wings of Daedalus, an emotionally charged winged figure with an air of tragedy, arms outspread and head slightly bowed. His Field Marshal Earl Alexander of Tunis stands proudly in the Wellington Barracks in Birdcage Walk.
Another London landmark, passed by thousands every day, is the statue of pioneering underground engineer James Henry Greathead outside Bank tube station. Unveiled by the Lord Mayor of London in 1994, its huge plinth creatively incorporates a ventilation shaft for the station below.
His Rainbow Division Memorial, a thought-provoking statue at site of the Battle of the Croix Rouge Farm, was described by the London Standard as “Infused with nobility and pathos” and “should be taken as a major work”. Memorial to the Green Howards, a seated figure of a contemplative soldier in Normandy was described as ‘one of the most moving war memorials of our time’.
There is no doubting the talent, experience and sheer hard work that goes into each sculpture, some taking a year from start to finish. Starting with simple sketches, a small maquette then brings the concept to life for both James and his client. Each step increases in stature as he works through the ancient but complicated lost wax process – where a bronze replica is created, identical in every detail to the original clay figure. A fascinating description of the process involved in creating the Croix Rouge Farm Memorial can be found on James’ website.
However good the production process, it is no replacement for the artist’s vision. James portrayed the remarkable opera singer Joan Sutherland exactly as he first saw her in Switzerland, walking down the stairs, hair blowing back like “the figurehead of a ship.” The resulting bust is an iconic piece that no amount of further study could have improved.
While best known for colossal figures, he is equally capable of creating the most delicate work. His 50 pence coin commemorating Roger Bannister’s 4 minute mile now sells for many times its face value among collectors, as does his 2005 Crown marking the bicentenary of Lord Nelson’s death. James joined a select group when he was asked to design the current Great Seal of the Realm, used to symbolise the Sovereign's approval of important state documents.
Showing no signs of slowing down, James is certainly open to receiving further commissions. He is currently working on a range of sculptures of children, dancers and female nudes.
Members who would like to find out more, or would like to discuss commissioning their own work, can contact James via his website www.jamesbutler-ra.com email firstname.lastname@example.org or tel: 01926 641938,
First published in CLA Land & Business Magazine June 2016
(C) Country Land & Business Association 2016