C: Our next theme is tools and craftsmanship. Can you tell us about the first object you’ve chosen?
E: These are the tools of Alfred Gilbert, an English sculptor who was both an inspiration for and part of an artistic movement called New Sculpture. Quite controversial of its time, the movement focused heavily on naturalism, myths, and fairytales; quite a departure from what was the predominant style around the late 19th and early 20th century. Although we don't know what each of these tools’ purpose is, we can see that there is a mix of some traditional clay sculpting tools along with what appears to be some handmade tools of his own creation.
C: Would every sculptor have a tool kit?
E: They absolutely would. A collection like this was really useful as sculptors were able to move and travel to work anywhere with their tool kit. They would have their permanent studios but if they ever wanted to work elsewhere this was a really good way to stay mobile. Sculpting tools haven't changed very much over the years so if you’re working with wood or clay, you’re likely using the same type tools as those generations before you. Traditional tools are still often seen as the best.
C: I wonder why that is? Do you suppose it's a way of keeping the tradition alive?
E: Yeah, I suppose it falls under that tradition of who you’re learning from and carrying those practices on. The type of tools you use would certainly fall under that.
C: Do you have lots of individual tools in your collections?
E: Yeah we do. It’s not something that many people would think we’d have in the archive and they’re a really great addition to the overall collection. With photographs or sketches you’re able to see the artist’s work. Having tools available, however, presents a different way of engaging when you can physically touch and imagine the sculptors holding and working with them. And to be in the great condition they’re in we’re really lucky to have them.
C: Does Alfred Gilbert have any work in Leeds or was he based elsewhere?
E: Alfred was primarily based in London although his work can be found across the country. The Leeds Art Gallery next door is where the Institute curates and displays sculpture and it holds around forty pieces of art from Alfred. His most famous work, however, is likely the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain, located in the centre of Piccadilly Circus.
C: And how do these more unique pieces, like tools, come into your collection?
E: We usually receive the artwork first and then the family of the artist donates a few of these more personal items from the studio. Although at times we do have families that donate sketchbooks and other artwork.
C: That’s interesting. I suppose if it’s always been in your family then you don’t necessarily see it as a legacy piece, whereas everyone else does and views it as an incredible artefact.
E: How does Cubitts use tools?
C: Our workshop in London has a series of tools that they use to make our bespoke spectacle orders. It’s quite similar in that there's the traditional spectacle-making craft and practices that haven't changed for centuries. Whilst some things have changed over time and been improved in the name of mass production, the process of making a one off bespoke frame still feels very traditional, similar to the way you’ve talked about sculpture.
E: I agree. I think there’s been some big changes to making in recent years with the use of computers and 3D printing, but like you say there's something about using those classic tools and the process that you feel like you’re really creating something in a traditional way.
C: I think that in the last few years the idea of traditional craft is becoming more important. There’s definitely a big movement towards things like 3D printing and digital, but a lot of people are looking back towards handcrafted objects.
A: Yeah agreed. The tools we’re looking at were used by the individual sculptor and when we examine them they seem very intricate and represent a singular person in their studio. When you have large scale sculptures it’s very different. You’re recreating or casting the original sculpture in bronze and you have a full team of people working to create these large scale sculptures with a lot of specialised, heavy duty tools.
C: Would the sculptor employ a team of people to help them with a specific project?
A: Yes, you see a lot of the same foundries coming up again and again such as the Singer Foundry and Galizia Foundry. The artist will then book in for a specific project they want to make. They’ll have formed the original sculpture in their studio and then send it to the foundry to have it cast multiple times. You see it with Henry Moore where there is the original then the reproductions would be created at the foundry.
Tools sit at the heart of craftsmanship and for many artists make creativity possible. They are as much a reflection of their user as they are their finished work and are integral to forming their identity as an artisan.
To learn about these objects in more detail, visit the Henry Moore Institute. Stay tuned for the next edition of A Conversation in the Archives.