On his metal
PUBLISHED: 13:16 13 May 2014 | UPDATED: 13:16 13 May 2014
Dominic Watts turned reduncancy to his advantage setting up his own garden sculpture business, Metallurgi. Tessa Allingham went to see him preparing for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show
Rust is fashionable. You only have to flick through a lifestyle catalogue to find pages of rusty pecking hens to dot through flowerbeds, rusty frogs to put by the garden pond, or rusty birds designed to perch, decoratively, in a tree.
Someone who probably knows this more than most is Dominic Watts whose cottage business, Metallurgi, specialises in making rusty garden objects. He has no desire to produce items in catalogue volume, preferring to build bespoke sculptures, and to weave metal strips to create raised beds, screen fencing, gazebos and tree seats.
The garden of his Rushbrooke cottage – designed by his wife, gardener and plantswoman Lucy Redman – is effectively his showroom. His work, from the practical and simple to the spectacular and beautiful, is scattered through the plot.
Simple netting supports made from 5mm steel rods are bent into an arc protecting tender plants in the vegetable patch, and eye-catching coloured-glass discs mounted in circles of metal nod on top of long, waving metal poles in a flower bed.
“They’re a bit of fun, lovely when the sun sets through them,” he says.
A spectacular 4 feet high urn is particularly striking. “If I had a pound for everyone who ran their hands over it, I’d be a rich man,” he sighs. It’s irresistibly tactile. From a distance it looks like the woven hazel or willow it’s designed to emulate, but it’s made, laboriously, from 570m of woven and welded wire. It’s rough and cold to touch but there’s a satisfying fluidity and softness in the round shape that makes you want to hug it.
Elsewhere, drifts of vivid purple-blue camassia are about to burst into flower inside an extraordinary ‘Celtic racetrack’, a 20m sweep of woven metal strips that runs along the garden boundary. Woven metal features in a wavy-topped fence that is a striking backdrop to a cluster of startlingly-white silver birch trees, and, further down the garden, in a turf tree seat that encircles an elderly apple tree.
Dominic’s work is inspired by woven willow and hazel designs that date right back to medieval times, and were especially favoured by Tudor gardeners.
“Lucy and I made one out of hazel, but it only lasted three or four years so we replaced it with one made of mild steel strips.” He has recently reworked the seat with narrower, more tightly-woven strips and flat posts and is planning to turf it with convincing artificial grass.
Dominic set up Metallurgi almost three years ago after he was made redundant as farm manager of the Rushbrooke Estate, a position he had held for 29 years.
“Redundancy was a shock, of course. But now I’ve got used to being my own boss and I really like it. It’s a tiny cottage business, but I love the work.”
He shares workshop space in Bury St Edmunds where he is currently preparing for the Chelsea Flower Show (May 19-26), the annual gathering of horticultural superstars and throngs of gardening enthusiasts.
He’ll be on the greenhouse company, Alitex’s, stand. “Last year I made a woven metal fence as a backdrop to their stand – this year they’ve asked for two woven metal tree seats.”
The strips of metal are prepared in advance and the seat will be constructed in situ before being daubed with acidic patio cleaner to accelerate the rusting process.
Dominic’s artistic eye runs in the Watts family, his several siblings including artists, painters and photographers. “There’s something in the genes I suppose,” he says with typical modesty. “But Lucy is the one with the real eye. I’m nowhere near as talented as she is!” While not wanting to take anything away from Lucy’s undoubted talents, I beg to differ.