A look at the career of Hertfordshire sculptor Derek Howarth
PUBLISHED: 00:00 21 May 2020
Credit: flab lstr / Alamy Stock Photo
Connecting Henry Moore, James Bond and the Prince of Wales, Hertfordshire sculptor Derek Howarth has forged a singular career
In the mid-Sixties, Derek Howarth landed perhaps the best job for a young British sculptor at the time, assisting Henry Moore at his studio in the secluded Herts village of Perry Green. Mr Moore, as his assistants were expected to call him (though Derek was eventually invited to call him Henry), was an elderly man by then and, just like the Renaissance masters, used assistants to do the physical work of realising his semi-abstract monumental bronze sculptures.
And they were assistants, not students – expected to find solutions by drawing on their creative knowledge (Derek, born in Cheshire, had studied sculpture at Manchester College of Art and Design). On one occasion, Moore asked Derek to drill and mount a series of knuckle-sized bronzes. ‘I asked him if he had a pillar drill,’ he recalls. ‘He just looked at me and asked, “Did Michelangelo have a pillar drill?”.’
This left Derek with a problem, as putting the bronzes in a vice could damage the patina. In the end, he used laths and a mould of clay and plaster to protect them while they were held firm and drilled. When Moore asked him how he’d solved the problem, Derek told him, ‘You’ll have to ask Michelangelo’.
A new material
A new phase of Derek’s career began with his discovery of polystyrene. It was being used in small ways to make objects, but he saw its possibilities as a light, versatile material for large pieces and introduced it to Moore.
Derek studied the manufacturing process of stringing together, or polymerizing, styrene, a building-block chemical which he describes as ‘like packing 18 policemen into a phone box’. He had to largely invent his own techniques to apply it to sculpture though.
‘A lot of it came from the building industry, and the equipment was cobbled together. Eventually, I managed to create a varyac (a variable transformer) that would take the voltage needed.’
Polystyrene is very light, but Derek came up with processes for making the surface hard and able to be painted. ‘Jaws would drop when people saw it. They’d say, “I always wanted to know what you did with ceiling tiles”.’
Lights, camera, action!
Henry Moore became interested in the possibilities of polystyrene, and Derek went back now and then to train his assistants in its use. By now, though, he had his own studio and his own artistic vision. He also had a family to support. Fortunately, his skills in quickly creating large sculptures were easily transferable to the stage and he was in demand, first in the theatre, then in TV and film.
The light weight and versatility of polystyrene allowed him to create sets and props far more quickly and accurately than with traditional methods. He initially worked for the BBC, creating sets for everything from Doctor Who to Top of the Pops.
Derek and his family moved to Radlett, bringing the world-famous Elstree Studios on to their doorstep. Here Derek worked on a wide range of films, both renowned and less so. It didn’t make much difference to him however – ‘A job’s a job,’ he says, ‘and the price is still the same.’
Creating flim sets and props was a very different approach to sculpture. ‘You normally expect sculpture to last at least 2,000 years. These aren’t like that. They only need to last two or three weeks.’
They do last on film however. Do you remember the vast and imposing statue of Kali that was the centrepiece of the temple in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom? That came courtesy of Derek and his polystyrene. So did a decorative artichoke at the bottom of a bannister James Bond slid down during a fight in 1983’s Octopussy. To avoid the looming injury to his nether regions, Roger Moore shot it away.
Work for films and TV wasn’t always easy, though. ‘We were at the designer’s whim,’ Derek says. ‘Sometimes we’d only have half a day, and I’d have to work through the night. If the designer said that’s what he wanted, that’s what he got.’
One of Derek’s early commissions was highly unusual and memorable. In 1969, Prince Charles was to be invested as Prince of Wales at Caernarvon Castle. The eyes of the world were due on the event – but, with very little time to go, it was realised that the set was too bare to come over well on TV. Fortunately, someone on the team knew of Derek and how quickly he could produce items to order. It was still tight, but Derek came up with the spectacular royal coat of arms that formed the set’s centrepiece. It’s unlikely any of the countless millions of viewers guessed it was made of polystyrene.
Looking back, Derek acknowledges he maybe didn’t make as much of the royal opportunity as he might. Having booked a family holiday to Spain, he turned down an invitation to the after-event party.
By the Nineties, the UK film industry had declined, and Derek’s bread-and-butter work was coming mainly from commercials, both here and in countries such as France, Spain and Luxembourg. He also took frequent commissions to enlarge other sculptors’ works, a skill he’d learnt thoroughly during his time at Perry Green, but which many artists today lack.
Today at the age of 80 he lives with his wife Margaret in the village of Datchworth. Instead of winding down into retirement though, he’s returned to his first love of sculpture and is busy with new projects, using flint forms that he finds in chalk quarries and putting them together to create figurative combinations of form in space.
An exhibition of his work is being hosted by Mardleybury Gallery, an innovative and eclectic gallery that champions Hertfordshire artists, just down the road from his home. This includes two large figures outside the gallery, She’s got a Ticket to Ride and The Curate’s Egg. The gallery is currently closed due to the emergency coronavirus measures, but will be welcoming visitors when restrictions are lifted.
Letting space speak
Derek, like Moore, is a modernist sculptor, and regards much modern art as too obsessed with shock and awe, rather than informing or amazing.
‘I believe in sculpture making a specific statement and just that, rather than smacking people between the eyes. I say what I need with the least possible fuss, by reducing the material and letting the space speak.’ Space is crucial for Derek, as it was for Moore, as is the relationships between forms. He likes to allow the exploration of enclosed space by producing pairs of forms, which he describes as ‘togetherness’, that can be moved around to constantly create new relationships. He says the space around an object creates the statement, producing a ‘vocabulary of conversation or dispute’. He uses his work to ask fundamental questions: What is form and what is space? And why is form valid in space? ‘It’s like contemporary dance,’ he says, ‘emphasising the meanings found in poses and gestures, which are crucial to how we interact. You only have to watch the body language of how young relationships form, where the distance between the people and the use of territory and parameters define the stage the relationship has reached.’ In the end, though, Derek doesn’t regard it as enough to have great ideas — there has to be the technique to back it up.
‘A lot of modern sculptors don’t bother to learn the basics, the way I did under Henry Moore. They just hire someone to construct their idea and see that as creating art.’ A sculpture, Derek believes, should be the point where ideas and technique meet. And Derek Howarth still has plenty more of both. ‘Work is hard,’ he says, ‘but no work is harder.’
For news on the Derek Howarth exhibition at Mardleybury Gallery in Datchworth, see mardleyburygallery.co.uk