x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

In the hands of the Scottish master

Adam Smith, David Hume and Queen Elizabeth II - all have been rendered by Alexander Stoddart, the sculptor who has carved out a niche in neoclassicism.

The Scottish sculptor Alexander Stoddart sits among his neoclassic works at his Paisley University studio in Scotland.
The Scottish sculptor Alexander Stoddart sits among his neoclassic works at his Paisley University studio in Scotland.
Have we got the time right, I wonder as I meet Alexander Stoddart, Scotland's great classical sculptor. I do not mean the hour of the interview. My doubts dawn on the era we are in when Stoddart opens the door of his studio - we seem to have gone back to the École des Beaux Arts, circa 1900, or even earlier. In the 1830s, the contents of Antonio Canova's studio in Rome were turned into a museum in his hometown of Possagno, in the Veneto. Crowded with different plaster casts - deities, thinkers, poets, medallions, stray limbs - Stoddart's studio, an unheated shed in Paisley University, looks very similar.
With his corduroy jacket, tortoiseshell glasses, Simon Schama-ish manner, and hair a colour that matches the name he is known by - Sandy - the sculptor could easily be mistaken for one of the professors at Paisley, were it not for his clodhopping workman's boots. But even academics would find it hard to keep up with his classical and biblical references. He reads Schopenhauer for pleasure, thinks Wagner is the greatest artist who ever lived and encodes messages in his sculptures that only the most erudite of classicists could crack.
What he insists on calling the "contemporal" rather than contemporary, arts establishment cold-shoulders him as a mere "maker". At least that is better than the reception he got as a student at Glasgow School of Art in the 1970s. Graffiti in the lavatories labelled him as a fascist because he refused to veer from the figurative path. Yet it seems that the museum world is catching up with him, to judge from Tate Britain's recent Return of the Gods exhibition, its first to focus on the full range of British neoclassical sculpture.
Recently, Stoddart has won a degree of success and acclaim. Two honorary doctorates and an honorary professorship have come his way. Earlier this year, his statue of Adam Smith was unveiled on Edinburgh's Royal Mile, opposite the City Chambers, by the Adam Smith Institute. This is the distant partner to the seated David Hume, which has sat in front of the High Court building since 1996. Initially, controversy raged over Stoddart's decision to present Hume in a toga; literal-minded critics thought it looked cold for Edinburgh. To Stoddart it would be unthinkable to show a philosopher in anything other than drapery, a tribute to the timelessness of their thought. Smith, as a philosopher who is best known as an economist, is shown clothed, but with drapery in the form of an academic gown thrown over one shoulder. Now - to Stoddart's fury - the Hume statue has become something of an icon, since university students began rubbing his toe for good luck before exams.
In London, Stoddart completed a programme of sculpture for the new Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace in 2002. It includes a 21 metre bas relief, two trumpeting angels and a "symbolic" portrait of the Queen. Because the work was made in the year of the Jubilee, Stoddart sought to combine the Queen's appearance in the year of her accession with how she looks now, in a timeless image that manages also to suggest something of her father, George VI.
The artist has begun a pantheon of heads of "fellow travellers" in classicism, whose plaster likenesses look down from a high shelf on the studio wall. They include practising architects, such as Robert Adam and John Simpson, the philosopher Roger Scruton and the architectural historian David Watkin. Stoddart likes to have one of these personal tributes on the go as he works on the big public commissions. He does them off his own bat, without fee. Occasionally, he is asked to model other heads - for example, Tony Benn: "a great sitter, such a nice chap".
A commissioned bust costs between £15,000 and £20,000 (Dh100,000 and 135,000). Nearly all that Stoddart has already made can be purchased as a plaster or bronze cast, at prices ranging from £350 (Dh2,369) for a plaster relief of Aonghus Og, the Celtic god of love, in a limited edition of 200, through to £41,125 (Dh278,420) for the giant head of Ossian in bronze. A pair of steps, wire supports, huge rolls of string, a mallet, a T-square, drills, dust, drawings for medallions, rusty iron bars, a bit of leg, rolls of yellow metal, a school guillotine, classical emblems, big green bags of clay, dust, dust, dust - this is a small flavour of the impedimenta among which Stoddart spends his day, every day. He is not one for holidays.
Stoddart favours the chassis method, by which maquettes are made into larger, sometimes colossal statues, was used by the Egyptians carving the figures at Abu Simbel in the second millennium BC. Three thousand years later, there is still no computer programme to replace it. He learnt it from "dead men; nobody living could help". Fortunately, some of the dead men, such as the Art Nouveau-ish Albert Toft and Charles Sargeant Jagger, the genius behind great First World War memorials such as the Royal Artillary Memorial in London, left their knowledge behind in books.
Stoddart's first love was music and he still plays the piano every night. We drive to Stoddart's home, an 1860s villa in the leafy suburb of Castlehead (the "castle" refers to the site of a Roman fort). It is crowded with statues, this time in bronze, standing on faux-marble plinths that turn out to have been made by Stoddart from plastic field drains. His wife, Catriona, used to be a nurse until their three (now teenage) girls - Clara, Sophia and Iona - arrived. Stoddart may at times, as he says, feel "badly treated" by the arts establishment, but home-life is calm, ordered, loving and normal.
In the car on the way back to the airport, there is just time for a final rant. We are talking about the inability of the modern art world to understand the nuances of classicism. "The range is absolutely vast," Stoddart declares. Too vast, in fact, for him to be cribbed within what he regards as the narrow limits of Britart and its successors. He evokes an epic struggle against what he sees as suffocating little-mindedness and convention. "I could not be confined to their stagnant pond when there was a raging Atlantic just over the shore. It's called the West, the Occident, culture. I had to be a dolphin sporting in that sea rather than an amoeba in their pond."
Clive Aslet is the editor at large of Country Life / © The Daily Telegraph / 2008