10 February 2014
Golly how gratifying when one of one’s long-shots hits the button!
In the early 1980’s I bought a three-foot sculpture off the floor of a small studio in backstreet Oxford. It was one of those instant purchases, rarely made, occasionally golden. The little chap was made of cement fondue, and since it seemed from his posture that he was intended for the garden, the artist kindly waterproofed him, and made a solid plinth for him to rest on, which he did, under a Siberian pea tree, Caragana arborescens to the cognoscenti. I called him Claude because he reminded me of Debussy’s Prelude L’apres-midi d’un faune.
Nowadays Claude reposes at the end of a shelf, too valuable and fragile to live outdoors. I have promised the artist not to picture this piece of juvenalia for you; after all, it’s up to posterity to discover the roots of full-blown talent.
The creator of little Claude, Martin Jennings, is now an established figure on the artistic scene, with a substantial body of work to his credit. His latest commission to be unveiled has caused something of a stir; it is the seated figure of Charles Dickens (above). The ceremony took place on February 7th in Portsmouth, the author’s birthplace. It is the first full-sized statue of Dickens in the UK – a fact that will probably surprise you as much as it did me. Apparently, he stipulated in his Will that he wanted no monument:
“I rest my claims to the remembrance of my country on my published works.”
Likewise, he wished to be buried quietly in Rochester but is, in fact, resting in Westminster Abbey alongside Hardy and Kipling.
This desire for post mortem obscurity is all very well, but if you place yourself in the public eye as every artist must, and does (putting lights under bushels are not traits common to the majority of artists), then you must take the flak that goes with it. Even to not having your last wishes observed. No-one can possibly claim that Dickens avoided fame in his lifetime.
Martin Jennings is the fourth son of 11 children. His father was a World War 2 war hero, decorated with an MC following a tank battle in Holland in 1944. After graduating from Oxford University, Jennings went to Art College then chose to study letter carving. (One does not expect to be moved to tears by letters carved in stone – moved not by what the words actually say, but how they are formed to say them: this artist’s actual lettering makes one brim, so beautiful is it.) He worked on slate and limestone, and still chooses to include words with his sculptures; a happy combination.
From letters Jennings progressed to portrait and figure sculpture. Two great British sculptors, Charles Sargeant Jagger and Hamo Thornycroft, both turn of the 19th/20th century sculptors, influenced his work.
Can these influences be traced in his subsequent work, perhaps in what has become a London landmark, the statue of John Betjeman (right) that strolled onto St Pancras International Railway station in 2007? A Yorkshire journalist observed that you would have thought the artist had “embalmed the poet in bronze, so lifelike is it.” It is a statue full of natural humanity: the hand grabs the hat about to fly off, a bootlace is undone, the mackintosh is dishevelled.
Betjeman was a hugely popular poet and this has become a hugely popular work of art. Philip Larkin, another poet, was commissioned for the concourse at Hull railway station, some 160 miles from London. Once again this is a statue of animated movement. Larkin strides along, perhaps afraid to miss his train, full of energetic purpose.
Now the inimitable Dickens has come home to Portsmouth and what a warm welcome he received. Folk from far and wide were there, as far afield as Australia and America. Pickwickians came on penny-farthings, and ladies arrived in Victorian costume. Among the large crowd were several Mayors, Councillors and lots of schoolchildren. The actor Edward Fox, ably helped by the nine year-old great-great-great grandson of the author, Oliver Dickens (below), did the business of unveiling.
The more than life-size bronze shows a Dickens leaning with one arm on a spiral of his books, one hand holds an open book, the head is alert, the face oh so familiar. There is a cloak, draping one side of the statue; almost like the curtain of a theatre revealing one of the author’s own characters. It is a strong, dramatic representation, and Dickens, I feel, would not only approve – he would be delighted.
Will this portrayal prove as popular as Jennings’ sculpted authors, Betjeman and Larkin? It matters little. Inevitably children will climb on him, sit on his knee, stroke his beard. They will want their selfies taken with the creator of Oliver Twist, Scrooge and Tiny Tim. And the arch story-teller, the heart-twister, the master of suspense would relish this new spotlight, and the chance to introduce a new generation of readers to his dear old favourites.
For more of Jennings’ work, see www.martinjennings.com.