Artist Stephen Henderson lives in the wild marshes on England’s eastern shore, carving elegant avian figures from the driftwood he finds near his home
Artist Stephen Henderson lives on the coast of Essex, searching the shores for driftwood and carving beautiful sculptures inspired by the wildlife of the saltmarshes.
“By growing up on the Essex marshes, I developed a love of wildlife”
Out of water washes wood, drift deposits on the tideline. Out of salt flit silvered fish; out of air feathered flocks appear.
This is the Essex archipelago, liminal land where the tides rise and fall several metres 700 times and more a year. Down here are 25 square miles of oozing, dazzling, effervescent mud, among the cord grass and sea lavender, sea blite and purslane, rare hog’s fennel flowering still. Around the rim of the bowl is a farm on a hill, a church tower and a woodland, a silent motor car. This is a characteristic of our wild places: you can feel far away, even though the economy presses in.
There is a 16th-century brick house, salt-eroded, wind-wrought, at the water’s edge. It was once a bargemen’s pub, the King’s Head, where ale was drawn from barrel in candlelit surrounds; it was smugglers’ territory, too. Thames barges slid over the shallow marsh. Moored at the farm dock, they were loaded with crop and straw for London.
Artist and sculptor Stephen Henderson was born here, grew up on the marsh, and now works wood into pose and gesture, the suggestion of story. This sculptured bird was here before; this fish will live on after its capture. Each figurine is individual, not a type. If you want a perfect model, look in an identification guide. For here is courtship, motherhood, predation and personality. In the real world, there is no single perfect feather, no one curve of bill. “In my work, I hope in some way to capture a gesture or attitude that will resonate with the viewer,” says Stephen. “I’m not pursuing correct anatomical detail, more trying to represent my own emotional response to a chosen subject.”
Stephen’s father Nigel Henderson was a London artist, who came to Essex in the early 1950s with his wife Judith, a niece of Virginia Woolf. Eduardo Paolozzi came, too. He and Nigel were both godfathers of Pop Art
and co-founders of the Independent Group of radical young artists and writers. The marsh was a draw: it shone light and freedom. This was Stephen’s family inspiration – an encouragement to break boundaries, to be different.
Then there was the swamp. Stephen stalked and shot wildfowl from an early age, out with fog before sunrise, the salting snow-dusted, teals and wigeon flighting fast. All were eaten. Marsh and father taught him much: most importantly, an attentiveness to the world. Stephen says, “I learned from my father the importance of trusting my own eyes as well as taking delight in finding discarded objects.”
Stephen fashioned furniture for 25 years, and carved and sculpted part-time. Then the studio called – craft was set aside for art. This was an important moment. Seamus Heaney wrote poetry for a decade before he dared called himself a poet. ‘Art’ was a big word, with heft. Stephen’s other influence was Guy Taplin, Wivenhoe woodsman, passionate birdman of another Essex marsh, who helped Stephen build on the experience of childhood. Thus Birds and Fish was born, Stephen’s studio-made artworks.
Place and prospect matters. High tide washes at the base of the studio: a north-facing wall of windows, metalrimmed, frost-cold in winter. On the bench are a band saw and chisel, drill and bit, pencil and pincers. There is a menagerie: trophy fish, shore birds scattered, great herring gull, little owl, kingfisher, heroic whale, the older figures light-powdered with sawdust. And beyond the windows, curlew calling, hawk hunting, a blue flash above the creek. Inside are 20 sculptures on the go.
Nothing stays the same at the marsh. All is shape-shifting. A cormorant wrestles flapping sea bass; a hobby races over curdled clay, field ploughed but not yet harrowed. Teal lean into wind, a flash no more, cloud bright. Lapwings wheeze on the wind.
FORM FROM MOVEMENT
Out of this lagoon have emerged wooden creatures, which were at first block or post, plank or pallet. Out of wood comes the form of a bird, with grain lines instead of feathers. A knot works for an eye, then migrates as the sculptor works. The wood is flamed with a plumber’s torch, smoothed to a sheen to take emulsion paint and stained with wax. Other salvaged materials work, too: a hot-water tank and corrugated iron, with metal armature disarranged, become a
“For me, the marshes are a rich and constant source of inspiration”
wooden fish or bird silvered with leaf. Scale and feather appear, beak and plume, as the body stands on stilt-legs of twisted metal.
These saltmarshes are dynamic: plants go in and out of salty tide. These natural rhythms must be respected. Yet, what has changed over a lifetime: there were elegant elms standing tall in farmland hedges. Otters were common, then poisoned; but now they have returned. Grey seals are apparent now fish have returned to North Sea. There were never egret nor buzzard, but both are now settled. On summer nights, with windows wide, comes an active, lapping sound – the clicking beaks of a hundred ducks on the mud below, sucking up shrimp and fish fry, mollusc and marine worm. Stephen’s life is dominated by water, by bird and fish.
“You can learn a lot in the country by sitting still and doing nothing,” wrote Samuel Bensusan, laureate of the Essex marshes. Stephen remembers well “sunrise on icy winter mornings, tucked into a muddy creek with nothing but the weather and the sounds of birds in the rising dawn. These were magical moments and made a powerful impression on me.”
The wind veers, the rain eases, then pelts down again. The tides move ceaselessly, emptying and refilling the creeks. In a gimcrack lodge on a nearby island – ligger boards wrapped in chicken wire leading the way – the comments of long-gone visitors are revealing: magic, they also say. Their desire is also for a simple life; an escape, where there is nothing to do.
Somehow, people find it hard to do nothing at home. Yet here, deep in the marshes, is that potential. It is being somewhere – not exactly doing nothing – that matters. Nearby is the setting for Arthur Ransome’s Secret Water – five Swallow children alone with a blank map of an Essex island: they were to make their own mark. What parents today would leave children so unsupervised?
The hours pass; nothing stays the same. The decades pass, sea levels will be forced up by climate change. Today the breath of sea marsh and salt water flows around bird and fish. Their spirits have been cast in driftwood, now to last forever.
ABOVE Pieces of driftwood become the material for Stephen’s sculptures ABOVE RIGHT The habitat of the Essex marshes is ideal for common teal
ABOVE Stephen scours the Essex mudflats and saltmarshes for discarded objects to reuse ABOVE RIGHT A curlew provides inspiration to the artist
Jules Pretty is professor of environment and society at University of Essex, and author of This Luminous Coast (2011), The Edge of Extinction (2014) and The East Country (Cornell, 2017).
FROM LEFT Curlews, avocets, hoopoes, gulls and more... the menagerie of species brought to life by Stephen Henderson (www.birdsandfish.co.uk)