Meet the Framlingham-based sculptor creating art from bizarre beachcombing finds on Suffolk's coast
PUBLISHED: 12:45 29 May 2018 | UPDATED: 16:25 31 May 2018
Roger Hardy is an artist and sculptor who finds inspiration in the objects he finds while wandering Suffolk's beaches and estuaries. Words:Tessa Allingham | Photos: Sarah Lucy Brown
On my mantelpiece at home, stands a Small Tidal Figure. It’s made from a piece of elm that was probably part of the sea defences that help shore up the Suffolk coast. The wood, scoured, scored, scraped and shaped by who knows how many tides, is grooved with lines that flow from the figure’s faceless head through its body to the hem of what I imagine to be a rippling cloak.
It ‘walks’ on thin metal limbs, but for all the absence of obvious features my Small Tidal Figure has personality and humanity. I love it.
At low tide on the Alde estuary, one mercifully bright day in late winter, birds skitter and swoop, thrilled at the revelation of fresh hunting grounds. Others wade purposefully, spindle legs treading so lightly as to barely sink into the mud, as needle beaks pick and poke for food.
Bladderwrack is draped over rocks, great popping, slithery, saline ribbons of it that Roger heaves aside with gloved hands whenever he sees a part-hidden piece of wood. He gathers loose fragments, turns them round and round, holds them from every angle, his mind already sculpting, it seems.
Bigger pieces he hauls into a trolley, but only if the mud relinquishes them easily. “Otherwise it’s a bit like vandalism,” he says. “I don’t come here with a spade and dig!”
To my less artistic eye these mud-larking finds are the slippery debris that you step around on a beach walk, but for Roger the remnants of old posts and planks are precious raw material, the starting point for his work. Back at his studio he pressure-washes the wood and leaves it to dry, stacked in a lean-to by his garden studio for several months. If he didn’t, central heating would split the finished pieces. “This is my larder!” he says.
To describe his work-space as ‘busy’ is an understatement. Roger throws nothing away. Even bent old nails and screws will find a purpose sooner or later, and shelves bow with wood. This studio is where Roger coaxes form from his found pieces.
The ‘body’ is untouched, just a rudimentary neck and head shaped and polished by the artist. Lengths of old reinforcing rods or tree stakes become legs, sometimes set as if walking, fixed into metal, wood or plaster bases. Sometimes the figures are gathered in groups – a family, migrants, pilgrims? – or pairs, a taller one perhaps with head tilted as if in tender conversation with a childlike figure.
Some, like mine, are small, mantelpiece-size. Others are powerfully human and beyond in dimension.
The figures have no gender, there’s no obvious race or age, and they could just as easily be ancient as ultra-contemporary. “They are about the simple human form,” Roger says.
“I didn’t want to include more detail. I like the idea that people looking at them can layer on their own stories. There’s a backlash against bright, shiny new sculpture, there’s a grounded-ness happening which I like.”
There is indeed an undeniable sense of place and history wrapped up in Roger’s work. He searches for finds along a particular section of the estuary (he likes to keep the precise location to himself), near some long-abandoned oyster beds, and disused brickworks which have shown evidence of Roman industry.
This is a coastline that has seen waves of migration and settlement dating back to the Bronze age, through Roman invasion, and the Viking and Anglo Saxon eras. “I’ve always been interested in ancient history,” says Roger. “The land round here is full of it, it’s been occupied and invaded so many times. For me the simplicity of the figures is symbolic of that human presence and constant movement.”
Writing in the foreword to the catalogue for Roger’s 2017 solo exhibition, Time & Tide, author Anthony Horowitz, a keen collector of Roger’s work, echoes this sense of place, the fact that the pieces “couldn’t have originated anywhere else”, coming as they did from the mud of the Alde river.
He calls them “silent watchmen” rooted in their Suffolk origins. Libby Purves, another local enthusiast – Roger’s work is becoming highly collectable – talks about how the artist “makes mundane objects graceful, and ordinary objects remarkable”.
Roger is Suffolk-born and raised. He returned to the county from London where he had worked as a graphic designer for ten years during which time he devised the unmistakable Wall’s ice cream, and Formula 1 logos.
“London was good, but I knew I wanted to come back and try and make it as an artist,” he says. He talks of the influence of artists from the post-war golden age of British sculpture – Henry Moore, Lynn Chadwick, Michael Ayrton, and Kenneth Armitage, all of whom took natural forms as their inspiration.
“They were pioneering, captured the new modern age but were still connected with the landscape.”
Eventually, Roger, his wife, Judy, and children Eugene and Zoe moved east to live in Framlingham, in a house packed with his paintings and sculptures. “As a child I was always drawing. Right from the earliest age I was happiest at an easel with poster paints. I now say to any young artist, if you are passionate enough to make it happen, then you can.”
There’s a sense, though, that this is the beginning, even for Roger.
We meet again a few weeks later, this time at the Halesworth foundry where renowned bronze sculptor Laurence Edwards works with master-caster Tom Crompton, and a team of apprentices to create extraordinarily powerful pieces, some minute, others on a massive scale.
With roaring furnace, clanging chains, grinding pulleys, gantries and winches, the foundry is a world away from the lapping foreshore of the Alde estuary at low tide, but it is where the next stage of the artistic process is happening for Roger.
“Last year, my nephew came to stay and I thought we’d go and make some plaster casts of paw prints in the mud along the river. We pretended they were wolf prints which he liked. It was a fun and creative thing to do with him. But I started thinking I could scale this up, I could adapt this technique for my work.”
And so we watch, fixed, as a crucible, containing molten bronze at a volcanic 1,000°C plus, is lifted from the furnace. It is positioned over a mould that contains a negative of one of Roger’s figures, and the metal is tipped in, rolling like liquid sunshine.
It spatters a bit and fills the space, runnelling into every groove and line that the Alde had previously scoured and scraped. There’s a round of applause. Roger smiles. He’s tapped into a “rich seam of work”, he says. He’s looking forward to exploring the possibilities of bronze. “I’ve found my voice.”
Find out more about Roger’s work through his website