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B is for Bill

Published 1 November 2013

As Bill Woodrow RA prepares for his major retrospective at the Academy, Richard Cork talks to him about the extraordinary range of his sculpture and how one recurring theme has grown into a love of beekeeping.

  • From the Winter 2013 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Soon after glimpsing the sublime spire of Salisbury Cathedral through the train window, I find Bill Woodrow RA waiting to collect me at the station. We drive down the peaceful Avon Valley to the edge of the New Forest, where thatched roofs proliferate and cart-horses can be glimpsed in a field. But the remarkable and elegant house where Woodrow and his wife Pauline have lived for nearly six years is uncompromisingly modernist.

    It was built in 1933 as a studio for Augustus John. The Welsh painter was a friend of William Nicholson, whose son Christopher (‘Kit’) was an ambitious young architect. So John asked Kit to design the studio, and the result is an admirable early example of British architecture influenced by Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus. ‘The site was surrounded by tall trees and the studio needed to be raised into the light,’ Woodrow explains. ‘So Nicholson and his pupil, the young Hugh Casson, built it on stilts.’

    I climb up the outer spiral staircase to reach an immense and spectacular room. With windows facing in all directions and a skylight, it offers luminous views over fields where horses graze. You can even see the hives sheltering Woodrow’s family of bees. ‘About three years ago I joined the local Beekeepers Association and some of the people I met are really experienced,’ says Woodrow. ‘I got a hive, bought some bees and it’s fascinating – I love it.’

    Over lunch at a long wooden table, he invites me to sample the delicious contents of a jar labelled ‘Honey from the hives at Studio North’. I ask him when his involvement with bees began. ‘After my Tate show in 1996 I wanted to work from a theme, which I hadn’t done before,’ he recalls. ‘One day, the words “The Beekeeper” popped into my head. They stuck around, and I realised the theme was visually and conceptually very rich – the structure of the hive, equipment and protective clothing, as well as the symbiotic relationship between bees and humans. Bees get shelter and nurture and humans get honey in exchange. But humans are also frightened of them: I got stung once on my forehead, and my whole face came up like a balloon!’

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    Video: Bill Woodrow RA, Gavin Turk and Penelope Curtis discuss the show.

  • Now Woodrow is preparing for his largest exhibition so far: a major survey of his career at the RA’s Burlington Gardens galleries. How does he feel about the prospect of such exposure? ‘I’m excited about it, but not without a slight degree of nervousness,’ he says. ‘It’s the first time I’ve brought all the different elements together, so I’m really interested to see how it works. I’m getting stuff out of storage that I haven’t seen for a long time. I haven’t unwrapped everything yet, so there’s still the potential to be surprised.’

    Woodrow has long been regarded as one of the outstanding British sculptors of his generation and he is restlessly experimental. A comprehensive book on his career, published by Lund Humphries to coincide with the RA show, reveals just how various and inventive his output really is. It embraces drawing as well as sculpture. ‘Right through my school days drawing was the thing I really enjoyed,’ he recalls. ‘And it’s still important. I draw all the time.’ A new book Alphabet (RA Publications) is based on his fascinating sketchbook from 1986. ‘I had just made a sculpture called A is for Atom (1986), which has a robotic hand,’ he explains. ‘The work references modern technology, the nuclear age and indirectly the subsequent effects of radiation. Then I thought, “If A is for Atom, what’s B for?” Well, thinking about the effects of radiation, B, as in ABC, became B is for Mutant. Then, in the drawing, B became Bee, as in insect. Interestingly, I’ve just realised it’s the first bee, the first time I made a reference to bees in any of my work.’

    Humour plays a subversive role throughout the Alphabet drawings. ‘Looking back at them now, I realise they’re quite a personal reflection of my state at the time. But I never showed them, and put them in a drawer. I do like that about drawings – you don’t know where they’re going to end up.’

    The same could be said of the earliest sculpture in Woodrow’s RA show. Called Ear-Ring for Ablah, it was made in 1969 while he was a student at St Martin’s School of Art, London. Woodrow explains how his friend and fellow artist Roger Ackling ‘knew this student called Ablah and we used to knock about a bit in a group. We were walking along the street one day and I found this ear-ring on the pavement. So I said to Ablah: “Oh, here’s an ear-ring for you”.’ Woodrow made a simplified sculpture of an ear, hung the found object from its lobe, and gave it to Ablah. He had no idea what happened to the piece. ‘Then,’ he continues, ‘about two or three years ago, I got a letter from her saying: “Dear Bill, do you remember making this for me? I wonder if you could authenticate it?” I was delighted that it had resurfaced.’

  • Bill Woodrow RA

    Bill Woodrow RA

    Photo: Nick Ballon © Royal Academy of Arts

  • Woodrow enjoyed his time at St Martin’s, studying sculpture, between 1968 and 1971. ‘It was a fantastic experiment. Sculpture was wider than painting – you could try all kinds of new things. I had been a country boy, escaping from the house at eight in the morning and coming back at eight in the evening after cycling all day in the New Forest. Nobody had a clue where I was, but my mother was very supportive.’

    Woodrow’s father Geoffrey had served with the Fleet Air Arm during the Second World War: ‘He flew fighters off an aircraft carrier in the Pacific.’ But after his parents split up, the young Woodrow saw little of his father. Growing up in Hampshire, he didn’t visit London until he was 17. And although he says his tutors at St Martin’s tended to be ‘severe about anything rustic’, he nevertheless made works like Untitled (1971), where two large photographs of branches in landscape settings are joined, surprisingly, by a real branch.

    When the Whitechapel Art Gallery gave him an exhibition in 1972, Woodrow was only 24. He was delighted to be acknowledged so soon by a prominent London institution. He was now anchored in the metropolis, living in Brixton off Acre Lane. ‘It was lively and violent in different ways. But I learned to be street-savvy, and you think you’re immortal at that age. I was becoming more urban, and starting to use the material that was available. Stuff I found on the street became my natural material.’

    He started encasing found objects – such as telephones and hairdryers – in plaster, so that they looked like ‘contemporary fossils’. In 1979, Woodrow covered a carpet sweeper and a vacuum cleaner in concrete and called them Standing Stones. ‘Washing machines and spin dryers were so easy to find on the street,’ he recalls. ‘People didn’t repair them – they were put out for rag- and-bone men, and washing machines had a huge surface area of material for me to work with.’

    One of the most dramatic results of Woodrow’s obsession with street junk was Hoover Breakdown (1979), where the vacuum cleaner appears to have erupted and spilled its contents right across the floor. Two years later, in Spin Dryer with Bicycle Frame Including Handlebars, he decided to cut metal out of the discarded machine and make a skeletal bicycle that was still joined to the spin dryer in an unpredictable marriage of parts.

    By this time Woodrow was exhibiting at the Lisson Gallery in London along with other leading sculptors of his generation such as Tony Cragg RA and Richard Deacon RA. They were soon hailed as the proponents of so-called New Sculpture, and Woodrow welcomed the label. ‘It was very positive in the beginning because it was saying this is something new and different. There was no manifesto or organised group. We were individuals and that was our strength.’

    Only Woodrow could have made Self-Portrait in the Nuclear Age (1986), where he used items as disparate as a shelving unit, a wall map, a coat and a globe to express his unease at the precarious state of the world. This sculpture also conveys Woodrow’s growing restlessness about his work as an artist. His 1987 Lisson show turned out to be his last with the gallery. ‘I was wanting to change because I had marked out that particular scene. I knew what I was doing, and when you know what you’re doing it’s not interesting any more. That state of mind coincided with the collapse of the economy and the art market in the late 1980s.’

    Woodrow finally parted company with the Lisson at the beginning of the 1990s, but in 1989 he had been given a show at the Imperial War Museum in London. Now using bronze – formerly a heretical medium for his generation of sculptors – he displayed new works as anguished as For Queen and Country (1989). Here a wounded soldier, without hands or feet, and with a blood-red gash on his face, struggles on crutches. Letters in gold leaf beside a discarded sword spell out the word ‘reminder’. Next to this, a crown contains more letters and if you add the ‘A’ and the ‘L’ formed by the crutches you see the words ‘Royal remainder’. Another bronze from the same year, Un Till The Land, is about ‘how war rapes the landscape’.

    This change in direction was remarkable. ‘I’m not interested in developing a brand,’ says Woodrow, ‘I’m interested in doing something entirely different the next day. For a time in the 1980s I did the cut-out work, but I don’t like being tied to one thing. This is why I was independent for 15 years after I left the Lisson Gallery. So my status, market-wise, could be better.’

    By 1997 Woodrow was using glass, urethane foam, wood, steel, wax, rope and gold leaf to make a major piece called Beekeeper and Four Hives. ‘I didn’t want a figurative representation of a beekeeper. The beekeeper becomes a marionette. I was excited by its dependence on gravity, as opposed to the fact that bees defy gravity by flying, and also by the fact that the marionette is controlled by someone else.’

    Since 2000 Woodrow’s art – which he still makes in his London studio – has thrived on incessant change. He has recently been preoccupied with images of skulls, after finding a deer skull. ‘Then I went to the Horniman Museum in London and made lots of drawings of skulls there. I came back to the studio and tried to make a skull, without reference to the drawings. I made hybrids, not one particular animal, and the whole thing evolved out of that.’ At this year’s RA Summer Show Woodrow displayed his daring Self-Portrait in the Year 2086 (Trophy) (2010), where bronze lines grow like plants from a linear form based on his own skull. Woodrow tells me that he is currently making Self-Portrait in the Year 2089 for his new exhibition. ‘But,’ he emphasises, ‘I’m not haunted by mortality. We come and we go, it’s as simple as that. Bees only live for six weeks. But I certainly don’t see my retrospective show in terms of signing off. It’s to do with fighting and trying, and I look forward, rather than back. I make the work for myself. People are always telling me things about it and I think: “Oh, really?” But I would never close the door on what the work means, and that’s what makes it fascinating.’

    Bill Woodrow RA is open until 16 February 2014.

    The Sculpture of Bill Woodrow by Julia Kelly and Jon Wood, £40, Lund Humphries
    Alphabet by Bill Woodrow, £16.95, RA Publications.

    Bill Woodrow RA is open until 16 February 2014.

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