In the studio with Stephen Cox RA

Published 8 June 2011

The Academician has built his studio in a converted granary, in the Shropshire landscape made famous by A.E Housman.

  • From the Summer 2011 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    As you approach the studio-home of sculptor Stephen Cox RA, an old farmhouse not far from Ludlow, you make a steady ascent up Clee Hill. This high peak, made famous in A.E. Housman’s poem, A Shropshire Lad, in the line “From Clee to heaven the beacon burns”, still shows signs of its Iron Age past. As you climb, depending on the weather, a panorama of the Welsh Marches unfurls: Snowdonia to the west, the Peak District to the north and, further around, the Cotswolds, the Malvern Hills and the Black Mountains.

    This view is not, as Cox might have thought when he and his curator wife Judy moved there from London in 2002, merely of scenic interest. Had he but realised, Cox had chosen an area of the British Isles whose geology precisely matched one of the materials he had used in his own work. The carboniferous rock called dhustone or dolerite, a feature of this area of the West Midlands, was the exact type that he had spent years travelling across the globe, specifically to India, to explore in his sculpture.

    The story doesn’t end there. “When we first moved here, I became fascinated by the Mappa Mundi,” Cox says, referring to the famous 13th-century world map on display in nearby Hereford Cathedral. Ideas of art as a metaphor for religious belief, at its least dogmatic, are a constant theme in Cox’s work.

    “It was extraordinary to realise that Clee is one of eight British sites marked, and the only hill shown in England.” Better known landmarks on the Mappa Mundi include Noah’s Ark, the Red Sea and Jerusalem. Uniting his various obsessions, Cox set to work on a major sculpture called Clee Hill (2004). “It’s made in dolerite and weighs 25 tons. It was the main work in a show called… Mappa Mundi.”

    Cox clearly delights in this creative clash of serendipity and intention. In his drawing studio, a former wattle-and-daub granary, you see that the fascination endures. Two large drawings dominate, showing a cluster of protuberances, like grapes, packed close. “Yes, those are sketches for Clee Hill but they’re also reminiscent of the elephantine, rocky outcrops in South India, where I have spent so much time.”

    This studio is always, symbolically, the starting point for Cox, with “the battening up of boards to the wall to attach that first drawing”. At home he does everything himself. His ‘storage system’ includes dozens of recycled plastic bottles labelled ‘Nuts’, ‘Bolts’, ‘Allen keys’ and the like. In India, he collaborates with traditional temple carvers, while in Egypt and Italy, his other regular locations, he has teams of skilled machine operators working to his instruction.

    Examples of his timeless, monolithic, contemplative work, in tondos or torsos, hewn from black granite, travertine marble, cream alabaster, plum porphyry, or gravelly, tutti-frutti breccia, can be seen around the former farmyard. He is not a sculptor who builds up his forms, and rarely uses the process of casting. Instead he carves, cuts, saws and grinds down his material, taking advantage of the latest stone-cutting machines available, as well as hand tools. Technology and tradition meet head on in his work.

    The house itself complements his art, a cool mix of ancient and modern in part thanks to a previous owner who was an architect. The surrounding landscape, with its hills in the distance, is wooded and informal. An unexpected sight, amid a grove of young poplars, is a life-size battle horse surmounted by a cross called St George’s Horse, the work of his great friend and fellow Academician, Michael Sandle. Judy Cox, who met her husband when they were both students at Central School of Art in London, has curated an exhibition of Sandle’s work, as well as one by Allen Jones RA, at Ludlow Castle. “Finally, now Judy has persuaded me that it’s okay to allow my wife to do a show of mine, too,” Cox laughs.

    Given the nature and scale of his work, it’s hardly surprising that, in addition to using half a dozen outhouses for different tasks, much is done outside. Standing amid an expanse of part-finished sculpture, he tells me: “This was once a tennis court. I got bad tennis elbow the moment we arrived. So now it’s used for stone-cutting and storing. These boats are replicas of catamarans used by fishermen off the south coast of India.” Similar ones are destined for Castle Quay marina in Jersey later this year.

    With his broad shoulders, strong jaw, bushy eyebrows and shock of white hair, Cox has a seafaring look about him, though in Jersey his four basalt “boats” will float on waves of stone, consisting of 200 granodiorite columns cut to different heights. The same theme is explored in Granite Catamarans on a Granite Wave (1994) at Cass Sculpture Park, Goodwood, as well as in Yatra (Sanskit for pilgrimage) from 1996, another work which over the years has been shown, as Cox puts it, “from Delhi to Durham via Dulwich”.

    Born in Bristol in 1946, Cox is the youngest of four brothers. The eldest is the distinguished opera director John Cox. “I was always good at art and knew that would be what I would do,” Stephen says. “John, who is 12 years older, showed me it was possible to become an artist. By his early twenties John was working at Glyndebourne so I was lucky enough to go there every year from the age of about ten.” Music provides a backdrop to his working life, at least when he is indoors drawing. He has to turn down Radio 3 for our interview.

    His parents encouraged their children to follow their dreams, but practical advice came from a series of excellent art masters at school, and later John Panting, Barry Flanagan RA and William Turnbull at Central. “My father worked at the Prudential,” says Cox. “He truly was ‘the man from the Pru’. Growing up after the Second World War, we were a generation with ambitions. My parents didn’t have much knowledge of art but always said we should choose the paths we wanted – the only proviso being that we should one day do the same with our own children.”

    He seems to have obeyed: his elder daughter Easterly followed him to art school. The younger, Pele, is a poet who has just become the Royal Academy’s first poet in residence. Stephen, who was elected an RA in December 2010, arrived after her appointment. “Yes,” he sighs, barely disguising paternal pride, “She got there first!”

  • Stephen Cox: The Meaning of Stone, Ludlow Castle, Ludlow, 25 September – 6 November 2011

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

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