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In the studio with Michael Sandle RA

Published 2 September 2007

Visiting with the sculptor in his new London studio, Fiona Maddocks finds him as full of sound and fury as his monumental work.

  • From the Autumn 2007 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Until fairly recently, Michael Sandle RA’s studio was hidden away on a glorious estate on the Devon-Cornwall borders. Now he works in a smallish, rectangular box, one of a group of artist’s studios in an industrial wasteland of east London.

    The cell-like room is top-lit and featureless. No inch of floor is left bare in this untidy crucible-cum-workshop of sculpture.

    Why has Sandle moved here? Artists, so often working where they live, are especially vulnerable to domestic change. And so with Sandle: “A very expensive divorce brought me here. I worked in a huge barn on our twenty-acre estate. After it was sold I ended up with almost nothing. You do what you can.”

    “I’ve been here seven months and I’m getting going again. A lot of my work is still stored in a leaking Nissen hut in Cornwall. There’s a piece called Queen of the Night, a terrifying woman wearing a wreath made of severed male penises.”

    Was this inspired by his ex-wife? His genitalia? Sandle does not flinch.

    “Yes, you could say that, being buried alive, that kind of thing.”

    Undaunted and uncompromising, Sandle continues to produce the monumental public works that have become his hallmark. At first glance no sculpture, as such, is visible amid the studio debris. All is functional: bandsaw, sanding disc, plane, together with tangled yards of flex and tubing, dust extractor, vacuum cleaner, an ensemble of plastic dustbins. Fixative odours linger in the air, and the sharp, narcotic smell of glue.

    Then, as we talk, Sandle flicks a brush and blows away sawdust gently, as an archaeologist might treat a shard of a newly found pot to reveal a small polished bronze, characteristically brooding and powerful: a twist of humanity lies stretched on a catafalque – Ideas Towards a Funeral Monument, Male Version. He unearths another, unfinished, which shows a man committing suicide by travelling on top of a train, incinerated by overhead wires.

    “I’ve been thinking about this piece for 35 years, since I read about such an event happening in Canada. My ideas take a long time to germinate.”

    A genially glum figure who describes himself as “probably bipolar”, Sandle has a double thread of melancholy and morbidity running through his work, yet the overriding tone – as in his well-known public monument St George and the Dragon – is one of heroic grandeur.

    “The human condition in my view is essentially tragic. But I’m quite gregarious really,” he adds, as if savouring doomsday with a twinkle in his eye.

    Now 71, Michael Sandle studied at the Douglas School of Art and Technology on the Isle of Man, then at the Slade. From the 1970s to the 1990s he taught in Germany. He was elected an RA in 1989 but resigned from the Royal Academy in 1997 in protest at the Sensation show of Young British Artists, specifically for its inclusion of Marcus Harvey’s Myra Hindley portrait. “I was fed up. I walked out of a meeting in rage.

    "Obviously there have always been good artists around the RA, but I did think we were dealing with a tsunami of rubbish, art as part of the fashion industry. Bling. No name, no pack drill.”

    Re-elected in 2004, he expresses relief that a new regime and the new Secretary and Chief Executive, Charles Saumarez Smith, promise to restore the Academy to its intelligent best.

    “When I was a ‘young British artist’ no one worth their salt would join. It was thought to be full of toadies of the Establishment. That’s changed. I wish the place could be less reliant on making money to keep afloat. But that’s life and I’m opinionated. The RA has a fantastic future.”

    At this year’s Summer Exhibition one of his drawings, the Iraq Triptych showing Tony and Cherie Blair naked, expelled from the Eden of 10 Downing Street, surrounded by symbolic images of the war, made headlines and won the Hugh Casson Drawing Prize.

    “It got phenomenal publicity. Newspapers in Hindustan, Vietnam, British Honduras and the US covered it.”

    This chimes perfectly with Sandle’s own preoccupations. Warfare has always been a key theme. His commissions – rhetorical, strong and usually figurative with baroque or futurist echoes – have included many memorials, not always realised, from his early Monumentum pro Gesualdo, 1966–69, to the planned Battle of Britain Monument to the post-Vietnam Twentieth Century Memorial,1971–78, first called, with blunt clarity, Mickey Mouse Machine Gun Monument for America.

    He attributes this obsession with war to his childhood. The son of a chief petty officer in the Royal Navy, Sandle grew up in Plymouth while bombs were falling. “I remember when we left to be evacuated. We were on the train and my mother pointed out of the window to a scene of total devastation and said: ‘That’s where we used to live’.”

    The biggest object in his studio on the day we meet is a well-worked block that could become the centrepiece of his show at Ludlow Castle this autumn. It depicts an Iraqi mother and child, inspired by a recent news photograph. Sandle explored the motif through drawings, though he likes to work freely as he carves. The material is limewood, the same kind as that of German medieval woodcarvings. He explains: “I used to call myself a reactionary artist, as critics did, in the subjects I chose, my working methods, my emphasis on craftsmanship and drawing. But I was just winding people up.”

    Sandle believes that a certain madness is needed to sit alone hewing, planing and sticking wood together all day. He regards his vocation – and his resistance to using laboursaving high-tech methods – with a mixture of scepticism and semi-ironic gloom. “I don’t function before midday. Dead before then. Eighty-six per cent of the planet are nocturnal creatures. I’m one of them. Sometimes I get angry with myself and ask what the hell’s the point.”

    He describes himself as “extremely stubborn, but art’s the wrong game to be in if you’re not.” At times, things work. “There are moments, and they’re wonderful. When I sail into the harbour at Valletta and see my Malta Siege Bell Memorial, with the bell which rings for two minutes every midday, I feel ill with pride.” A smile steals from behind the storm clouds of Michael Sandle’s complex and fertile mind, spreading across his face like sunlight.

    Michael Sandle RA is at Ludlow Castle, Shropshire, from 22 September - 3 November 2007, and at [Frost & Reed], London, from 18 September - 3 November 2007.

    Fiona Maddocks is a journalist and broadcaster. She is Chief Music Critic of the Observer.

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