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

Countryfile Magazine - - Contents - Words: Jules Pretty

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.


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

Photos: Craig Eas­ton

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.bird­sand­

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