Astronomer Royal Pt 1

Monday 9 July 2018

As a portrait artist who works in wood, it can be argued that because of the hard work involved, these works can take an extraordinary amount of time to complete. It occurred to me that the portraits I do in chalk and charcoal were perhaps a more immediate way of working and to this end, decided whilst in Westminster Abbey for the unveiling of the Harrison Memorial by HRH Prince Philip before a packed audience of Horological and nautical notaries, that perhaps a fitting way of marking the occasion and honouring the achievement, would be by doing a series of portraits of the remarkable group of academics and scholars responsible for John (Longitude) Harrison being finally and fittingly honoured after 300 years.

This could include those whom I have got to know pretty well in the years since I carved the Longitude sculpture such as Andrew King, Jonathan Betts, Will Andrewes, Dava Sobel, and of course, Professor Sir Arnold Wolfendale, the XIVth Astronomer Royal who together with Dava, had instigated and pushed the event to finally happen.


The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) have been aware of my work for some time, in fact I am a registered artist with them and because of these portraits, it was arranged to go down to meet with a view to their acquiring them. Professor Sir Arnold Wolfendale and Andrew King, Harrison scholar, were due at that meeting, unfortunately we chose the day of the big winds – it took us 29 hours to get there and poor Sir Arnold couldn't get to us at all so turned back, but Andrew gave his full support to the project. Despite that, the meeting was successful and the portraits have been 'ring fenced' for the NPG.

It was at this meeting that I was asked if I had thought of using my own medium of wood. Very few artists work in this way, and now wood is the new fashionable, sustainable and renewable resource, in line with 'green' policies. It was because of the huge volume of work, time and financial commitment that I had initially discounted this, but of course, this was the obvious thing to do, besides, I have already produced a bust of Andrew King in wood so had, as it were, a good start with the series.

Having gained permission from all parties, I immediately set about the task with Sir Arnold and spent a delightful weekend with him to do the preliminary sketches and take the reference photographs. The sculpture of him is exactly the same size as the one of Andrew King – this portrait denotes Andrew with one arm extended and holding something that denotes what he is and about, in this case, a Harrison compass. My intention is to show all the 'Longitude' individuals in much the same attitude so that the works will stand in their own right as portraits but when they are brought together on a circular table, each of their achievements will be as a toast to the great man, John Harrison. Each will feature their separate elements but becoming something else when brought together.

To begin

I determined the size and timber of the Sir Arnold bust by referencing it with the Harrison King sculpture, which is one-and-a-half times life-size, and in limewood (Tilius spp). It is often difficult to source lime in suitable quantities, but we are very fortunate in this part of Lincolnshire to have a major supplier on the doorstep in SH Somerscales Ltd, telephone 01469 560704 – they are centred amongst the vast Yarborough estate forests and ship quality timber throughout the British Isles. Stuart Somerscales has always been supportive and interested in my work, and was most generous with the lime – the result is some really clear quality timber to work with. Good timber for us carvers is knot and shake free, with a good and consistent colour. He really knows his timber and if I make a botch of it, it will not be the fault of the wood. All the timber is thicknessed through at the same time so that they are exactly the same. This will ensure that we do not have any accumulation of errors in the gluing-up process, though in this case, it is not so critical.

The pattern

Woodcarving is an art that relies on good, solid planning and sequencing to achieve vision. In portrait work, after I have gained the best attitude to determine the complex character of this gifted and much admired man, all is a mechanical process, until the final cut, of course, where everything can be gained or lost. Part of this process is to take the photos correctly. Essentially, form an imagined circle around a perfectly still subject – photographs should be taken from all eight 45 degree angles, plus one from the top of the head, as well as the necessary detailed shots of ears, nose, eye, hair etc, that may be of use.

The general attitude is then drawn directly onto a piece of board at exactly the right size to get a feel for the form and to see if it works (see photo 2). From this, a very basic front and profile view is done on paper (see photos 3-4) and it is on the front view that the thickness of the timber is superimposed, about 70mm (2 3/4in). This will give me a basis for the actual patterns of the slices I am to make – the length and width can be ascertained from the profile view. This will ensure that my block will be the right size with minimum of wastage.

I use the new foaming glues only one slice at a time as they do have a tendency to sideslip out of position, but are far more immediate, especially on the grab, and we can work on them quicker. Effectively, the tree is put back almost as it was – this will help by keeping all the movement in the same direction, a form of stress relieving (see photo 5).

We now have a block that will correspond with the slices on the drawings (see photo 6), although I do have to add an arm, which I have left until later because it will hamper me when I come to carve the intimate detail of the face.

Next, the profile and the front view are drawn on to the block using a soft pencil to guide us for the roughing (see photos 7-8).


If we cut all away in profile and all away from the front view, we are only doing what we would do on the bandsaw but on smaller pieces (see photo 9). To help with this, an electric chainsaw has been adapted. Although I do enjoy the process of roughing, this can be unnecessarily hard work so any mechanical help is for the better. Chainsaws have a reservoir of oil, and oil thrown about the workshop is not very desirable so instead, use one of the PTFE sprays for lubricating bicycle chains – at frequent intervals and in small doses, this works pretty well.

The general roughing is refined using a 50mm (2in) alongee carving gouge as well as a saw (see photos 10-14). I defined the area where the spectacles are to fall with a large No.9 sweep gouge. I avoided chopping it in at a sharp angle, as this would give no room for the slight adjustments necessary when we tweak for likeness. At this stage, we are generalising the shape (see photo 15).

The bow tie, typical of the man, is set in the same way (see photo 16), and further refinements done (see photos 17-18).

Extra wood is added (see photos 19-20) and the work is slowly progressed using the 45 degree reference photographs taken at the outset. These have been processed on the computer in black and white and are continually referred to (see photos 21-23) – with Sir Arnold understandably unable to sit for weeks in the same position for me, these photographs, together with the sketches done at the initial sitting, are all we have to work from, and of course it would be impossible to progress without them as they are indeed, extremely useful points of reference.

We now have the bust formed and roughed to a stage where we can begin the refinements that will hopefully bring a likeness of this great man, which we will look at in further detail in the next part.