Sophie Dickens, a bright young talent
by Rosie Millard
Sophie Dickens was advised not to go to art school "It will kill you off," she was told by her school art teacher. So she went to the Courtauld Institute, where she studied the High Renaissance by day, and painted the human figure by night. "I never stopped going to life classes. I was always trying to get to grips with anatomy," she says. "But the biggest mistake I made was when I left the Courtauld. I was working at a Bond St Gallery, selling Victorian paintings to tourists. It was awful. One day, I just walked out." And into a commission from a museum in Plymouth to sculpt, of all things, the head of Walter Raleigh. Getting to grips with the eminent Elizabethan proved an epiphany. "I had to make him out off clay," she says. "Doing it was just instant happiness. It gave me the feeling of well-being which comes when you realise, immediately, that this is what you must do." Interestingly, when she looks back at her earlier paintings, she now identifies them as "the paintings of a sculptor".
She signed up for two years' training in sculpture under Clive Duncan at the John Cass Foundation in White chapel, and the anatomy course at The Slade, where she would study cadavers. Fortunately for her, figurative work was going through one of its unfashionable moments. "It was great. I was the only person in the life drawing room. So I could get the model to do whatever I wanted. I used to get one man to act just like a chicken." Gradually her passion for clay graduated to a fascination for working in the malleable yet crisp medium of wood. "I wanted the anatomy to show, but not as if the figure had been flayed," she comments. It takes confidence to combine immediacy alongside references to the art historical cannon, but Dickens pulls it off triumphantly. Icarus, Europa, a cart wheeling figure, a leaping hare, ravens in the sitting room; the fluency and dynamism of Dickens' oeuvre belies a fundamental appreciation not only in the aesthetic of living beings, but an ebullient joy regarding shape itself.
The earliest sculptures ever made, in nascent cultures throughout history, were figurative and were used to explain the inexplicable - fertility, the weather, divinity, omnipotence, powerful magic. The most important part of my education as an artist was the study of the history of art - the history of physical human expression and the manipulation of others, a means of making a non-verbal statement about who we are and what we believe, whether artist, patron or commissioning body.
For me, the wonderful thing about relating sculpture to the human figure is that nobody is excluded from it. Through the application of pieces of wood onto a steel armature I can convey emotions and preoccupations that are meaningful to me - vulnerability, spiritual energy and the Don Quixote-ness of man’s struggle with his own humanity.
My technique evolved from the traditional modeller’s practice of packing out armatures with pieces of wood before applying clay to the form. I started using curved pieces of wood, creating an interplay of concave and convex surfaces that relate to anatomy and movement. The faceted surfaces translate very well into bronze, accentuating the jutting reliefs and airy voids that inform the momentum and physicality of the sculptures.
Adam and Eve
Sophie Dickens's Adam and Eve is a masterly and extremely moving exercise in balance. The manner in which she has sculpted two monumental figures, one female, one male, in a scene of entire togetherness, allows her to explore a range of powerful and simultaneous fleeting emotions. She has created a compelling image of vulnerability and despair, which nonetheless is leavened by Adam's protective tenderness and by Eve's gesture in which shame is blended with an optimistic hint at her future maternity. The mood shifts as the viewer moves round the piece. At one moment we are overwhelmed by the weighty sorrow of the event; the next we are struck by the way in which the figures seem to leave the ground, like souls rising to heaven. This extraordinary combination of lightness and weight works through the composition, but above all through the sculptural surface. Dickens employs both jutting relief and airy voids to establish the anatomy of her figures and, still more importantly, their sacred and very human predicament.
Curator of 15th Italian Paintings, National Gallery, London
This graceful, even tender, two-figure group achieves something very unusual in the recent history of religious art by making us feel again the universal and personal meanings of human disaster. As they walk away, Adam's body inclines in grief but also shields the inconsolable Eve as she clutches at her breasts, beside herself with loss and remorse. The force of the sculptor's rendering is unsentimental but the beholder feels they should step back again, avoiding to intrude on such an intimate calamity.
Dr Alison Wright
Senior Lecturer, University College, London
Sophie Dickens Working Practice
Aided by a meticulous study of anatomy, learnt in actual clinical dissections (for artists) and drawing classes, Sophie constructs armatures in welding metal rods together like lyrical skeletal drawings on which she begins to attach or layer specifically worked pieces of wood cut on a band saw from oak panels. Using a fluid dynamic in understanding the nature of convex and concave forms she creates a muscular movement akin to the classic Eadweard Muybridge studies that have influenced her, ultimately bringing all the segments together and creating a cohesive kinematical feel of bone, muscle and sinew. She makes what can be very complex achievements seem effortless with a natural ability that gives a life and character to her work.
Sculptor and Painter
Resident in England and Mexico