Best of Bri­tish

A master­class in plas­ter

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Contents -

SCULP­TOR GE­OF­FREY PRE­STON says that the seeds of his pas­sion were sown when he saw the fan-vaulted ceil­ing of Wells Cathe­dral. ‘It was my favourite place as a child,’ he re­calls.

Later, he stud­ied sculp­ture at Hornsey Col­lege of Art, and went on to work as di­rec­tor of The Con­ser­va­tion Prac­tice where, in 1993, he re­stored the fa­mously charred re­mains of Up­park House in West Sus­sex, which had been partly de­stroyed by a fire in 1989.

Since then Pre­ston has built a port­fo­lio of dec­o­ra­tive plas­ter­work – from curlicues to bas-re­lief nudes and, unusu­ally, a free­stand­ing Pe­ga­sus for May­fair night­club Annabel’s. Each of his de­signs is an ode to 18th-cen­tury ro­coco art. ‘I’ve al­ways loved Jean-bap­tis­tes­iméon Chardin, An­toine Wat­teau and Jean-hon­oré Frag­o­nard,’ he ex­plains.

Pre­ston’s days start in his se­cluded Devon­shire work­shop, with a cup of cof­fee, drunk while lis­ten­ing to the ra­dio, be­fore he be­gins work. Each of his pan­els can take sev­eral months to com­plete and be­gins with a visit to the site where the plas­ter­work will even­tu­ally be dis­played.

First, he sketches the in­te­rior of the build­ing at a tenth of its size, us­ing a pen­cil and pa­per, then he out­lines his sculp­ture on top of it. ‘A plas­ter­work can’t be moved like a pic­ture, which makes [the process] nerve-rack­ing,’ he ex­plains. ‘The owner most likely has very valu­able paint­ings or fur­ni­ture and our work then forms the back­ground to that.’

Next, Pre­ston and his five as­sis­tants cre­ate a model of the pan­els us­ing clay. It can take some time to get the clay ver­sions right, so dur­ing the process he reg­u­larly sprays the clay with wa­ter, and cov­ers it with spe­cial­ist cloths at night, to keep it soft and mal­leable.

When he is sat­is­fied with the clay de­sign, Pre­ston coats it with liq­uid sil­i­cone and leaves it to set for 24 hours. This forms a mould. ‘Then you’re ready to pour in your liq­uid plas­ter,’ he ex­plains.

The fi­nal part of the process is done quickly as it takes just ‘min­utes for the plas­ter to set’. The moulds are laid flat, the plas­ter is poured in, then lay­ers of hes­sian and wooden lathes are im­me­di­ately placed on top to strengthen it.

Once set, Pre­ston vis­its the home of the client to in­stal the work. ‘Clients usu­ally visit the work­shop to see how it’s pro­gress­ing,’ he says, but while the grand re­veal is rarely a sur­prise, it is still thrilling. ‘There is great sat­is­fac­tion in walk­ing into the room with the client when the fur­nish­ings are back, and it’s now part of their home. For me, that’s of­ten a heart-stop­ping mo­ment.’ ge­of­freypre­ston.co.uk

In­ter­view by Rob­bie Hodges. Pho­to­graphs by Robert Darch

From top Ge­of­frey Pre­ston in his stu­dio with his Pe­ga­sus sculp­ture, com­mis­sioned by Annabel’s night­club; tools of the trade; a par­rot mould­ing in progress.

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