My house portraits in clay are made over about six or eight weeks, in stages. First I make a rough sketch, then a working drawing in meticulous detail, working out the different planes or levels for constructing the portrait. Next, I roll out slabs of clay in different thicknesses, one for each plane.
Then I transfer the drawing, or the appropriate section of it, to the clay, one layer at a time.
And then I start to build the portrait up, layer by layer, and detail by detail carving the roofline and the tiles, impressing and incising features like windows, adding surface detail like windowsills, door-cases and foliage, like Burgh House’s wisteria. I include as much detail as possible because every detail helps in achieving a likeness.
Then, when the clay-work is complete, I allow the portrait to dry over several weeks. The drying has to be carefully controlled to avoid warping or cracking, as the different thicknesses of the clay portrait will dry (and shrink as they dry) at different rates.
Once dry, the next stage is decorating all the areas that will be under glaze in the finished portrait – windows, gloss paintwork, metalwork like railings – all this is done with carefully mixed underglaze oxides and a brush, again in as much detail as possible. The portrait is in a very fragile state at this point, fully dried but still raw clay, porous, crumbly and delicate, so it needs careful handling. Once the underglaze decoration is dry, I carefully place the portrait on the kiln shelf on a bed of sand for its first firing – to 1000 degrees, over ten hours. Then I have to wait a couple of days for the kiln to cool enough for me to lift out the biscuit-fired portrait, still faintly warm.
And then I do the second stage of decorating – everything else, including brickwork, roof tiles and stonework, foliage and the ground level of the base. This stage of decorating often takes ages – I love painting brickwork and getting the look of the house’s bricks and pointing, or its stonework in as much detail as possible, with all the variations, repairs and sometimes scars or marks of the building’s history. After this I glaze the windows and paintwork with a couple of coats of a brush-on glaze, that will be clear when fired, but at this stage is like thick milk, and quite tricky to place accurately on a small window.
Then the portrait goes back in the kiln for its second firing, to mature the glaze and seal the colour. This firing is to 1040 degrees for terracotta portraits, or 1260 degrees for stoneware ones – and then there’s the wait again for the kiln to cool enough to open. Open it too soon and there’s a real risk of cracking the clay or ruining the glaze with an unwanted craquelure effect – looking like broken windows. So I’m very patient!
Once the portrait’s safely through its glaze firing, I have only the finishing touches left to do: sometimes adjustments to the colour of brickwork or foliage, as the oxides change colour as they mature with the glaze in the firing, so I’m often doing a third stage of decorating at this point. And then I turn the portrait over onto a cushion to letter the inscription on its flat back with a brush, and thread a brass hanging wire through a slot I cut into the back of the first slab right at the start. And then I sign the portrait, and it’s ready to go to its new home.
Last year, Country Life magazine did a feature on my work, and my house portraits have appeared in many publications over the years, including Country Living, The Times and the Guardian. I usually have a waiting list for commissions, but possible subjects for a portrait never fail to interest me.
And I still make each portrait in exactly the same way as my first one in 1986, an individual study of a house, looking closely, seeking for its essence and true character, in order to catch a true likeness. You can see a selection of my favourite subjects over the years here – and more about the commissioning process here.
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