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Go figure

Jenny Wilhide tries her hand at sculpture

24 October 2007

2:01 PM

24 October 2007

2:01 PM

The sculptress Rosamund de Tracy Kelly has exhibited on both sides of the Atlantic and her commissions include an official portrait of Prince Philip, who sat for her in her studio. Twiggy and Lee Lawson also commissioned her to do busts of each other. Ballerinas, advertising executives, elephants — she’s done the lot. When her daughter mentioned she also gives weekend clay sculpture courses, I grabbed an old Zegna shirt for overalls and was off.

A diverse bunch of students gathered over coffee in the light-flooded Cotswold studio: a Deloittes tax lawyer with her young daughter, a graphic designer from Abingdon, a physio-therapist from Wales, a semi-retired academic couple, a PR from Dorset and a French finance controller from a water-cooler company in Oxford. The studio has an overflowing bookshelf and lots of pottery equipment, but you barely notice them because the sculptures grab your attention.

A live model whipped off her dressing gown and revealed a voluptuous ivory body in the Ingres tradition. Everybody wore ‘it’s perfectly normal’ expressions. Rosamund arranged the model on a rotating table and outlined her in chalk for continuity. We collected bags of clay, choosing between frost-proof or red. Perched on stools with our boards on stands, we armed ourselves with modelling tools, looked at the model, and balked. Rosamond broke the tension with a delightfully vague suggestion that we start with sausages and ovals and squish them into an outline.

This is where it became fascinating. You get your hands in the clay and instantly feel at home. Though you may not feel omnipotent, those creation stories from the religions of the book, where the potter-deity makes mankind from clay, do resonate a little. We come from the soil and to it we return, and here we were having a go at making a copy of one of us, in clay. For making things, it’s a uniquely adaptable material. ‘It’s such great stuff because it’s so plastic,’ said Rosamund.

Sculpting is mysterious. Observing and rendering, from eye to hand, you stop hearing sounds around you. Your breathing gets deeper and before you know it, you’re in the kind of concentrated trance that hours of meditation might never induce.

Our model was turned every five minutes and we began to get a sense of contour, angle and proportion. Rosamund loped about, utterly non-judgmental, making suggestions in a low fluty voice, solving a problem with a deft slice of her worn old modelling tool. ‘It’s become part of my arm. I’m terrified of losing it,’ she said.

That evening, over a bottle of Fleurie at the charming Feathers Hotel in Woodstock, I told my husband that I was doing amazingly well, perhaps second best in the group, and might have an innate talent. I was surprisingly tired, and grateful to stay in a sweet, higgledy-piggledy jumble of old houses, where there are comfortable beds, power showers and WiFi. The food in the restaurant was delicious too.

In the studio the next morning someone had moved our sculptures — the one on my stand was horribly malformed. But no — it was, tragically, my own handiwork. I spent the day reworking the limbs, the tilt of the head and the negative spaces. It was a relief when Rosamund said we should leave the hair and face quite vague — ‘a bit Brancusi’.

We’d been given techniques by which, with practice, we could accurately render a form. But Rosamund’s sculptures have a palpable presence, and life. How do you get that? ‘Ah,’ she said, her eyes sparkling. ‘That’s where the art comes into it.’ I grabbed an old Zegna shirt to cover myself and was off.

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