Issue Number: 98
Nigel Hall RA, known for the lyrical geometry of his work, finds inspiration in both landscape and music. Fiona Maddocks meets the sculptor in his light-filled London studio converted from a plumbers’ merchants.
Nigel Hall RA photographed in his studio by Eamonn McCabe
For a sculptor obsessed with geometry, Nigel Hall’s south London studio is ideal: a perfect square, with soaring pitched roof and triangular iron trusses. Its combination of lines, angles and curves harmoniously combines the elements that inspire his serene constructions, currently on show in a major, four-decade survey in the rolling landscape of Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
All around the interior of this light-filled building are examples of current and less recent work, never haphazardly placed, always inviting contemplation in their preference for spatial openness, rather than solidity or mass. Pale wood (usually birch ply lightened with white-based polish), cast iron or waxed Cor-Ten steel are favoured materials.
Interlocking circles, truncated cones, straight lines crossed to create a curve – these are identifying features. The titles give a clue: Inlet, At First Light, Sea Dawn, Mirrored, Snow Light, Within and Without.
'The triumvirate of cube, triangle and circle you see in this building echoes the entire vocabulary of my work,' Hall elaborates. 'And it has south light, which is perfect for looking at sculpture and how light plays on it in the course of a day. So I can get a sense of whether a piece is working, before it goes out into the world. No need for the painter's north facing windows. Sculpture needs the opposite.'
Hall found the building in 1991, having spent more than twenty years working in a top floor warehouse in the East End. 'I was one of the first artists in that area, going there in the late 1960s, when there were just half a dozen other studios. Now it's crammed with artists. But I needed a bigger place. South London was a foreign land, I confess. A friend found this and the moment I walked in, I knew it was for me.'
Built in 1905, the building was semi-derelict, covered in Russian vine outside, with leaking roof and buckled floor, together with remnants of ballcocks, U-bend piping and other signs of its most recent occupant – a plumbers’ merchant.
'It was pretty grim. We stripped out everything, blocked in the windows – except for one side, so that there would be no interruption to the walls – put in roller shuttered doors and constructed a work room and office within the square.'
Hall, 64, was elected a Royal Academician in 2003. Introducing himself and his work on the RA website , he describes his preferred landscapes as mountain or desert. As a young Harkness scholar, he spent time in Los Angeles, enthralled by the Mojave Desert. More recently, he has taken to spending time in the Fex Valley in the Swiss Alps near the village where Giacometti was born.
'Oddly, I only discovered this after I’d gone to rent skis from a sports shop called Giacometti, and it was the same family.' Meeting him in his unheated London studio, however, where he sits muffled against the cold, elegantly urbane in tartan scarf, woollen jersey and thick corduroy trousers, he confesses a love of city life, too. Living in Notting Hill and working in Balham, he takes pleasure in crossing the Albert Bridge morning and evening, which boasts its own geometric splendour of radial cables, angles and pagoda-like turrets.
'It’s the prettiest of bridges. But you also have a sense of green, with one park or common after another – Battersea, Clapham – all the way to Balham. I didn’t realise, at first, how much that would matter to me, in terms of boosting me for a day’s work.'
His love of sculpture springs from early childhood. His maternal grandfather was a West Country stonemason, working on cathedrals and churches in and around Bristol, where Hall grew up. 'I still have, and use, my grandfather's carving tools. His love of working with stone was what set me off as a child.' Hall's father was a printer and his mother studied embroidery at the art school that Hall would later attend – West of England College of Art, Bristol. At 92, she is still active and still embroidering.
'Encouraged by my parents, I always made things as a child, though I’ve always had a fascination with the sea and boats and ships.' For a long time, he imagined he would join the Navy. ‘The sense of empty space – whether at sea or in a landscape – is important to my way of looking. For that reason, I've found inspiration from Japanese and Chinese art. Oddly, though, when I first went to Japan and saw all those sand-dry gardens, I was rather surprised at their often limited scale. Then the sense of slowing down, at seeing how a small detail in a garden links with the landscape beyond – a tree, a distant mountain – all found its way back into my own work.'
At first, the echoes were more specific but now his ideas are pared down into quiet, characteristic geometric forms, which also find a way into his drawing. Are they sketches for sculpture? 'Absolutely not. I think of them as entirely separate.'
As well as Giacometti, he names Claude Lorrain as an influence, 'especially in the way the landscape often slips away into a pure, empty space, so you get a sense of the eye moving in a circle between foreground and background, then back to the brain.' He also draws inspiration from early French carvings by Gislebertus of Autun and the work seen nearby in the churches of Souillac and Moissac. 'They're mostly biblical scenes, reliefs, but they make you think about how, as a sculptor, it’s all a matter of making a line, an edge and a shadow, over and over again.' He also loves the work of Fernand Léger: 'I adore it all – early, late, Cubist, circus women – it’s strangely sculptural'.
Above all, though, he charts the evolution in his own work to his passion for music. 'Miles Davis – Sketches of Spain, with those wonderfully drawn out notes, or The Maids of Cadiz or Blues for Pablo – and then that whole group of John Coltrane, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Thelonious Monk… In music, it’s the idea of not being afraid to stop a note and leave a space that I most relate to. But, more than anyone, I'd have to say I admire Schubert: the great lyrical expanses, but equally the ability to compress a huge idea into a short song.'