Artist profile: Sculptor Charles Elliott
PUBLISHED: 12:34 19 August 2019
A love of animals combined with the art of blacksmithing has made Berkhamsted's Charles Elliott an in-demand sculptor here and abroad
A few minutes' drive uphill from Berkhamsted's bustling High Street, a quiet residential road peters out, replaced by a dusty track leading to a former agricultural building overlooking the A41 on one side and some of the county's finest rural landscape on the other. The large structure retains an animal connection, however. Although no longer occupied by livestock or farm equipment, it has forging machinery and an aura of creativity radiating from Charles Elliott standing among an array of life-size metal sculptures of some of his favourite animals.
'I love horses, and equestrian sculptures are my favourite,' says the 26-year-old who grew up in nearby Cholesbury. 'I find a couple of pictures then pencil sketch the horse or draw it life-size on the floor. I also want to do highland cattle and Clydesdales.'
Charles' interest in both forging and horses dates back to his childhood and time spent with his artist-blacksmith uncle. His initial contentment with making 'little tree sculptures' eventually evolved into larger and more lucrative subjects.
'When I was 17 I had a little play in the forge and built a stag sculpture out of upcycled horseshoes. I put it out front and within a week someone came past and asked if it was up for sale. It sold for £3,500.'
The casual way Charles describes his work downplays the skill he has in representing animal anatomy, scale and proportion with lengths of steel. It is a self-taught, hands-on skill which has not benefited from any artistic training.
One of his most prestigious equine pieces, At Full Stretch, took a couple of months to create and was displayed at this year's Royal Ascot. His work will also appear at The Game Fair at Hatfield House (July 26-28), one of several shows lined up for 2019.
As well as accuracy of anatomy, retaining the right finish is a key aspect of each piece, Charles says.
'Everything we make, once finished and left, will rust. So we take them to one of the UK's biggest galvanising facilities where sculptures are dipped individually into wide acid tanks. This 'pickles' them and they are then hung to dry before being dropped into a tank of hot zinc which coats and protects them from rusting for 35 years. Algae will never settle because zinc eats it.'
All around Charles' warehouse- sized studio, numerous projects at various stages of development reflect his rapidly growing business. Piles of horseshoes are ready to be used, while 6mm lengths of metal, stashed in buckets, will be welded together to create foxes. These smaller projects also enable Charles to pass on his knowledge.
'Young guys and some of my cousins come down to help, the way me and my brother used to go to my uncle.'
Passionate as he is about animals, Charles is also commercially savvy, hence he has expanded into a range of garden sculptures of which spheres, in a range of sizes and illuminated from the inside, are popular. Each one is made from individual roughly triangular shaped pieces which are textured using a giant Massey power hammer dating to 1929. On a smaller scale, beautifully detailed copper roses are made from recycled plumbers' gas cylinders, the petals manipulated into shape by pliers.
The artist has no lack of ambition. More prestigious horse sculptures and the US market is in his sights, though the customer base for his equestrian work already extends, not only all over the UK, but in Europe and Australia too.
So what are the biggest challenges in creating his works - the scale, the material? 'Coming up with new ideas. You can create something and think it's a good idea then go online and someone has already done it.'
But not necessarily to the same standard, I suggest. He agrees, before adding, 'My favourite bit is when the sculpture is finished, just before it goes off to be galvanised. I love getting it out in the field and taking pictures.'
With his photographs attracting thousands of likes on social media, Charles confides he is keen to explore a new medium.
'I want to start doing large scale bronze commissions,' he says, before revealing a jumping clay horse currently under construction. This small sculpture, the starting point for a bronze, looks as life-like as his steel sculptures, proving, that no matter the material, an affinity with animals is at the heart of his creativity.