How to read it: Bill Woodrow RA’s Fingerswarm

Published 29 September 2017

Bill Woodrow RA’s Fingerswarm is part of a new display of sculpture curated by Richard Deacon RA. Woodrow held a swarm of bees on his bare hand at a beekeeping course, sparking the idea for this surreal sculpture.

    • What inspired this work?

      In the late 90s, sculptor Bill Woodrow turned to beekeeping as a theme for a series of artworks, attending a beekeeping course to find out more about his chosen subject. While on the beekeeping course, he was given the opportunity to hold a swarm of bees on his bare hand.

      He described it as “incredibly light and there was this slight movement that you could just feel on your skin and there was this constant temperature. It was a very light, delicate touch. There was something fabulous about having this thing on your hand and that experience stuck with me.”

      What is it standing on?

      The three supporting “legs” are in fact fingers, representing Woodrow’s hand under the swarm of bees. One of the fingers is placed in a bowl of wax, signifying honey. Woodrow couldn’t have used honey itself in the sculpture, as it is less stable than wax; but as another product of the hive, wax provides a suitable substitute.

      What created the gold surface?

      The artist has covered the bronze with gold leaf, resulting in its shiny colour. The bumpy surface resembles hundreds of bees covering the surface. Woodrow made these with the imprint of a single bee shape. He first created the overall form and made a mould of it, lining the mould with Plasticine. He carved a bee and imprinted this repeatedly into the Plasticine, so the negative shape of bees covered the surface. When this was cast in bronze, the swarm of bees we see in the final piece emerged.

      Why is it called Fingerswarm?

      Woodrow’s title is a deliberate pun. It can mean “finger-swarm” referring to the three fingers, or “fingers-warm” alluding to the heat of the bees and the honey on the fingers.

      Bill Woodrow RA , Fingerswarm

      Bill Woodrow RA, Fingerswarm, 2000.

      Bronze, gold leaf and wax. 58 x 35 x 31 cm. © The artist.

  • How did it come to the RA?

    Bill Woodrow gave Fingerswarm as his Diploma Work when he was elected to the Royal Academy. Richard Deacon RA has recently selected it as part of a new display on The Dame Jillian Sackler Sculpture Gallery. Deacon chose 24 sculptures from the Royal Academy’s Collection spanning over 200 years and including 14 Diploma Works, submitted by artists including Maurice Lambert, Anthony Caro and Lynn Chadwick.

    Discussing Fingerswarm, Deacon observed: “bees make honey and honey is money, so gold is quite appropriate for bees. And in any case a kind of swarm tends to have a golden glow to it. I think Bill’s work is allegorical in a way, despite the apparent realism of the swarm itself.”

  • We look after the bees, supply them with a shelter and support, and in return for this we farm some of their produce. 'Fingerswarm' makes reference to this relationship. The hand is both supporting and taking – it’s a two-way thing.

    Bill Woodrow

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    The Beekeeper

    In this video, Bill Woodrow RA talks about the role that bees and beekeeping have played in his life and work, ahead of his 2013 exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts.

  • Richard Deacon RA Selects featuring Fingerswarm is currently on display in the The Dame Jillian Sackler Sculpture Gallery. Access may be restricted at particularly busy times.