Best of British
A masterclass in plaster
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
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.