Master of metal

Words by:
Caroline Bingham
Featured in:
July 2024

The biennial exhibition Sculpture at Doddington will open on Saturday 20th July. Caroline Bingham went to visit metal sculptor Ian Gill at his Lincolnshire forge. Ten of Ian’s pieces will be on display this year within the meadows and alongside ponds in Doddington Hall’s gardens.

Ian’s route to achieving the international recognition he now commands is still something which leaves him amazed but is testament to his inspired talent and hard work.

Saturday smithing
Ian’s career began with a Saturday job in a local blacksmith’s forge in the south of England. This established his love of metal and what could be created from these elements and alloys.

“I gained my first experience in fairly traditional work, wrought iron railings and that sort of thing, and qualified to join the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths. I then began to explore a more creative side of my personality and enrolled at Hereford College of Art to complete their course in Artist Blacksmithing. It was a revelation to get that experience in sculpture, in that environment and it put me on track to set out on my own as a metal artist.”

With his partner and assistant, Michelle Osborne, they established their workshop and gallery in Bishop Stortford, selling Ian’s and other local artists’ work. Ian’s output at this time was mostly sculptural interior furniture, tables and chairs, but he attracted members of the band The Prodigy as clients and was commissioned to produce large, exterior pieces. One was titled ‘Amazons of the Lake’, a pond feature which included abstract figurative work.

RHS Shows
“This led us to exhibiting at a couple of the RHS garden shows including Hampton Court in 2005. Michelle has just started to grow all the beautiful plants which we use to decorate the stands and these shows opened my work to a far wider audience of people and institutions wanting to invest in large sculptural pieces.”

Ian had also started to explore creating realistic plant forms in his work; dandelions, giant ferns or lilies working with ripple ponds and water features. “I have never had a problem finding ideas for new themes but I love the challenge of exceeding those original thoughts and over coming the technical difficulties.”

Ian’s first stand at Chelsea Flower Show was in 2008 and his work has since been purchased by buyers from Palm Springs, Mumbai and the Czech Republic.

Just prior to the pandemic, Ian and Michelle came to a wedding in Louth. It was their first visit to Lincolnshire and they were charmed by the landscape and scope for relocation to the county. They purchased the site of a former horticultural nursery with a house, outbuildings and large greenhouse.

“In the south we employed two other people and had planned to relocate over a more gradual period of time but when the lockdowns were imposed it was very difficult for us financially. But with hindsight it gave us a year without show commitments to get the workshop and forge set up.”

It took two high cube, 40ft container lorries to bring the contents of the forge and its related machinery north and several months to be up and running. The next project, which is imminent, is to build an extension to the workshop which will almost triple its size. “We love the space we have here, from the greenhouse to the small wood on the site, to the room we have to create and make. The wildlife our pond and garden attracts is wonderful to watch.”

New installations
Ian’s botanical inspired pieces have a natural synergy with the visitors at RHS shows and have resulted in significant commissions. Guests at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons in Oxfordshire will see Ian’s giant bulrush sculpture set alongside the pond.

Drivers approaching the roundabout on the A38 at Slimbridge, Gloucestershire can see Ian’s bespoke sculpture in memory of Sir Peter Scott, naturalist and founder of the Slimbridge Wetland Centre.

“I called the piece ‘Nest’. It comprises a series of interlinked lily pads forming the circular nest shape but the piece includes silhouettes of many birds and creatures that would naturally make their home in or near water such as moorhens, herons and swans. The centrepiece is a group of bulrushes.

“I love the feedback that this sculpture generates from visitors and the local community. Children love to count how many birds and animals they can identify. It has really been taken to their hearts as a public sculpture.”

Nest also won Ian a CPRE (Campaign to Protect Rural England) public sculpture award.

Michelle has joined some of the community cycle rides since relocating to Lincolnshire and it was on one of these that she met the mother of their most recent recruit to the forge. The lady mentioned that her daughter, Rebecca Flower, had trained as a blacksmith at Plumpton College but was working in the south because they could not find a suitable opportunity in Lincolnshire. Rebecca came to the forge just under a year ago and works alongside Ian and is enjoying extending their knowledge under such an experienced mentor.

Make It At Market
Two years ago, Ian was approached by a TV production company to be a mentor on an artisan maker themed programme for the BBC called Make it at Market. Hosted by Dom Chinea, the metal working expert from The Repair Shop, the aim is to help artisan makers bridge the gap from inspired artist to money-making entrepreneurship.

“There are up to 18 different craft skills featured and as the mentor for metal sculpture, I was on two episodes of series two and the filming for series three is just about to begin. This series will also move to BBC One, I believe. Each maker has to produce a volume piece which would be bread and butter for the business, a favourite piece and a showstopper.

“I can very much identify with the struggle makers have to combine all the skills of creativity and production with marketing, finance, digital communications and website, which are all required to actually sell your product. I really like getting to know these people and sharing my experience with them.”

Part of the community
One of the main challenges since moving to the county has been establishing and building relationships with a new chain of suppliers. “It has taken time but we have been really embraced by the local community here; everyone has been so helpful and friendly. Our galvanised work is now completed by a company in Hull and we have been pointed in the direction of businesses who can source and supply some of our specific requirements.”

Ian will be taking a range of his work to Doddington Hall, with prices from £20 to £20,000. A giant ‘Lotus Flower’ and magnificent ‘Singing Lily’ water sculpture will sit in the formal pools, while a giant bulrush sculpture will be in a more informal setting near the pond. A sea of smaller bulrushes will drift through the stream.

“This is the second time for us exhibiting at Doddington Hall, where the house and gardens are a magnificent backdrop for this exhibition and my work. I hope there is something people will really admire as well as being accessible enough that they can take home a piece of original metal sculpture for their own home or garden.”

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