Going for Bronze
Annie Tempest’s Tottering-by-Gently cartoons have surprised and delighted readers of Country Life for years. But after her son’s death, says Charlotte Metcalf, Annie found a different creative outlet for her grief
LEAP OF FAITH is Annie Tempest’s best-selling bronze sculpture. It depicts a naked man, taut and teetering on the edge of a block, chest out, head and arms flung back, in the process of launching himself forward into the unknown. It is perhaps the work that best symbolises Tempest’s own creative journey from popular cartoonist to unknown sculptor.
Tempest is known for Tottering-by-Gently, her much-loved cartoon strip in Country Life. Inspired by her upbringing in Broughton Hall, a rambling, crumbling pile in Yorkshire, Tottering portrays a cast of characters endearingly absent-minded and tipsy, surrounded by labradors, horses, guns, Agas and endless bottles. It’s a brilliantly observed, affectionate portrayal of a way of aristocratic rural life, changing irrevocably as it adapts to the modern world.
So it was to the astonishment of her followers that her new work, a series of bronzes, many of sinewy, gymnastic torsos, was unveiled at her business partner Raymond O’Shea’s gallery in April, priced conservatively between £850 and £5,250 to encourage first-time collectors. The inaugural show, Play as Cast, was the leap of faith that paid off. ‘It’s the most successful show I’ve ever put on,’ says O’Shea. ‘Of 26 displayed works, most available in limited editions, we sold over 40 bronzes. We priced them exactly right for the launch of an artist who’s known for doing something else entirely.’
Tempest only began sculpting in 2006, when she joined a class: ‘It was a bit of a grannies’ course and I had to drive to Norwich an hour there and back to do it every Friday afternoon, but I found it so exciting. We had a male model and I realised you could actually train your eye like an instrument. Tottering, my hobby, had become my day job and I wanted to do something more physical.’ She shows me into her studio, a converted shed in the beautiful garden, designed by Rosemary Verey, of her Norfolk home. I admire a Masai woman’s head — the legacy of much travelling in Kenya, where she first began experimenting with clay, making small body parts like ears, mouths and noses.
‘Since I was seventeen and first saw all the sculpture in the Louvre, I have longed to own a Rodin or something, but since I was never going to be able to afford that, I took to sculpting myself. I love doing Tottering and will never give it up, but the cartoons are like the Annie you meet on an everyday basis, whereas for me sculpture is emotional.’
LAST YEAR HER son Freddy, the older of her two children with musician James McConnel and a talented musician himself, died of a heroin overdose at eighteen.
‘I poured my grief into sculpture,’ says Tempest. ‘I enjoy making people laugh and have used comedy to hide my pain, but sculpture is how I’ve done all my grieving.’ Her piece Anguish, portraying a woman curled up, half-submerged by the ground, conveys her agony on a visceral level. ‘It’s that feeling of the entire earth cracking around you,’ she says. ‘I’d love to make a bigger version but it would never have the same intensity of feeling. I did it when Freddy was in rehab and I knew instinctively he was going to die and the pain was unbearable. Sculpture is about putting my feelings outside of myself.’
What is remarkable about so much of Tempest’s sculpture is its vitality. There is a sense of ecstatic energy in almost all the figures — naked men and women in Freefall or In Pursuit of Light, springing forward and lunging upwards, suggesting that the creative process itself is ultimately joyful even if it does spring from intense sorrow. As a schoolgirl, Tempest was a keen gymnast, and her love and understanding of the human form are evident in these soaring, striving bodies. She has a passion for anatomy and is doing Scott Eaton’s intensive, eight-week Anatomy for Artists online course and loving it. ‘The holy grail for a sculptor is to see a bald man chewing gum so you can see the temporalis muscle move,’ she enthuses.
ALTHOUGH SHE IS on a self-confessed steep learning curve, her first show was a success. ‘It was much more emotional than most shows,’ she says. ‘I think that really appealed. People engaged with it.’ She’s also canny enough to have made sculptures in a manageable size for home and office, and they are perfect for an executive’s desk. Vitality, a woman with wild hair and theatrically spread hands, can even be moved into a variety of positions, and Tempest uses Gourmet Gymnast, a sculpture of a woman flipping herself up and over parallel bars, as a fruit rack.
O’Shea is sanguine about Tempest’s change of direction. After all, he is responsible for transforming a cartoon in the back pages of Country Life into a global brand, spawning six books in the past two years alone, with three new ones this year. He has created a user-friendly Tottering archive so buyers looking for a gift can instantly access a subject matter that relates to them. ‘Everybody identifies in some way with Tottering,’ says O’Shea. ‘If you don’t see yourself in it, you certainly know someone it applies to. Its feelgood factor comes from it laughing affectionately with people, not at them. The minute I saw it, back in 1995, I knew this was a classic record of a disappearing era and wanted to meet its author. The last thing I expected was a young woman in her thirties!’
‘I think he expected a Margaret Rutherford figure,’ says Tempest, still very youthful-looking at 52. ‘He took me to lunch and has been incredibly supportive ever since.’
Before I leave Norfolk, we drive down a tiny dusty lane between banks of wild flowers and arrive at a small foundry next to the vegetable patch of master foundryman Wayne McKinney. I watch McKinney and Tempest lovingly stroke the latest edition of Leap of Faith, happily discussing the patina of the bronze. Her success means McKinney is able to maintain his living as one of Britain’s few foundrymen to use the Italian block plaster method, which means she has to craft every piece individually in wax.
‘It’s hard work and pretty medieval, but when the metal bronze is poured, it’s like dancing honey, pure alchemy, almost a religious experience,’ says Tempest. It’s here, among the big stone slabs of this tiny foundry, that the creative process is gradually transforming and soothing her heartbreak.