Art in the field

Cre­at­ing a memo­rial to the equines that fell dur­ing the First World War was an emo­tional chal­lenge, as Su­san Ley­land ex­plains to Janet Men­zies

The Field - - Sporting Artist -

This time four years ago, in her stu­dio in Florence, italy, sculp­tor Su­san Ley­land was re­search­ing the ex­pe­ri­ences of horses, mules and don­keys dur­ing the First World War. in my study in Som­er­set, i was do­ing the same thing. The ar­ti­cle i wrote marked the 100th an­niver­sary of the start of the First World War. Now, Ley­land’s fin­ished sculp­ture, The War Horse Memo­rial, has just been un­veiled in As­cot to commemorate the end of that war. As Ley­land de­scribes her fouryear jour­ney to make the statue, we can all em­pathise with the chal­lenge of cre­at­ing a con­struc­tive work of art from the emo­tions she was go­ing through.

“i was asked to sub­mit draw­ings and ideas in June 2014 for a pos­si­ble war horse sculp­ture and, since then, not a day has passed with­out me work­ing on the War horse Memo­rial Pro­ject,” Ley­land ex­plains. “i took the com­mis­sion to heart from day one – it was mar­vel­lous for me as an artist to be asked to do this, but it did feel like a great re­spon­si­bil­ity.”

Orig­i­nally con­ceived by As­cot busi­ness­man Alan Carr and char­ity guru Su­san Os­borne, the War horse Memo­rial is a char­ity as well as a memo­rial and a sculp­ture, and acts as a fig­ure­head for fundrais­ing for a num­ber of char­i­ties, in­clud­ing The house­hold Cavalry Foun­da­tion and the Mane Chance Sanc­tu­ary.

in cre­at­ing the piece, Ley­land em­braced its mul­ti­ple roles: “All the artists con­sid­ered for the work had proved them­selves as sculp­tors, and i think what i was able to bring was the idea of cre­at­ing a horse that would stand for all horses. i had a re­cur­rent vi­sion of a soldier with bowed head as in The Brood­ing Soldier Cana­dian memo­rial. And this some­how linked with a photo of me on my horse in Scot­land taken on an is­land while the tide was out.”

Ley­land be­came en­thralled by sculp­ture in the 1990s, when she dis­cov­ered tra­di­tional im­pruneta ter­ra­cotta clay, which orig­i­nally dates from the Etr­uscan pe­riod. im­me­di­ately she be­gan to model horses: “i think i was re­mem­ber­ing a small col­lec­tion of white Chi­nese porce­lain horses i used to have and, of course, my life-long love of horses. i learnt by trial and er­ror. i wanted to cre­ate beau­ti­ful horses with fine legs but i found that it was tech­ni­cally im­pos­si­ble to do. One day i broke the horse’s legs, head and neck off one of my fired pieces and mounted what was left on an old piece of stone.”

Since then, Ley­land’s tech­niques have broad­ened but, even so, she wasn’t en­tirely sat­is­fied with the legs on the War horse model. “The chal­lenges have been a thou­sand-fold – but all part of the process and ar­riv­ing at the fi­nal piece. The last thing i did was to shorten all four legs of the wax ma­que­tte.”

De­spite this, Ley­land stresses that the emo­tional con­tent of the work was the most dif­fi­cult el­e­ment. “it took far more en­ergy and psy­cho­log­i­cal stress than l could ever have imag­ined. My first thoughts were to­wards the fu­ture, per­haps a horse look­ing be­yond? But the more l read about the First World War and the more pho­tos l saw, the harder it felt to por­tray the depth of pain and suf­fer­ing of an­i­mals dur­ing the war. My fi­nal ver­sion was not found un­til two years of trial to ar­rive at the sil­hou­ette, the po­si­tion. The horse as it stands is the prod­uct of all those hun­dreds of changes – go­ing to make up a horse for all horses.

“Although i did not think of per­sonal con­nec­tions when l was asked to cre­ate the War horse, i have re­cently dis­cov­ered that my grand­fa­ther, who gave me my first pony, was a vet­eri­nary on the East­ern Front, while my great-grand­fa­ther was a doc­tor on the West­ern Front.”

Ley­land com­pleted her work in the spring and, since then, has been wait­ing for the pati­na­tion to be fin­ished at the Black isle Foundry in Nairn, in­ver­ness. “i chose not to see pho­tographs of it,” she com­ments. “So i will only see the com­plete sculp­ture, as will ev­ery­body else, when it is in in­stalled on site on the heather­wood round­about in As­cot. Only then will l know or feel if l have done jus­tice to the suf­fer­ing and pain en­dured by equines dur­ing the First World War.”

The un­veil­ing of the statue is the start point for a Bri­tish sum­mer cel­e­brat­ing the horse in art. The Os­borne Stu­dio Gallery’s ex­hi­bi­tion, Cel­e­brat­ing the Turf, opens at the start of As­cot week and con­tin­ues un­til 7 July. For­mer soldier Freddy Paske will be in­cluded along with Ni­chola Ed­dery, Su­san Craw­ford, Mao Wen Biao, Katie O’sul­li­van and oth­ers. So this would cer­tainly be the time to start your equine art trail, from the War horse Memo­rial at As­cot’s heather­wood round­about and then, af­ter rac­ing, on into London for more horses.

The War Horse Memo­rial, Heather­wood round­about, As­cot, Berk­shire. More de­tails at www.the­warhorse­memo­rial.org

Cel­e­brat­ing the Turf, 18 June to 7 July, Os­borne Stu­dio Gallery, 2 Mot­comb Street, London SW1X 8JU. Tel: 020 7235 9667; www.osg.uk.com

it took more en­ergy and psy­cho­log­i­cal stress than i could ever have imag­ined

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