To stumble across 'The Muse' one dark autumn evening is thrilling. Standing solidly adjacent to the road as you leave Lambourn towards Wantage is an imposing dark building, dramatically lit.
The Muse, a complex of studios and workshops where Sioban Coppinger and Pete Penfold welcomed us warmly. In that reassuringly friendly atmosphere we discovered red wax impressions of a hand, a fleshy fish, and a skeletal bird.
Friends and artists explored the ground floor gallery, a 'finishing off' tool room for honing bronze sculptures, a studio for etchings and a kitchenette, which supplied the hot buffet to celebrate the launch of our first Friends’ Out of Season art event. Upstairs is a studio of striking figure drawings, collections of etchings and prints and Pete and Sioban’s office. The breadth of work and the strength of Sioban’s vision shone through.
From Canada to Tussaud's and Mustangs via Corsham
Sioban's talk took us on a fascinating journey in public sculpture from filling sketch books as a child in Canada, to expecting to follow in her medical parents' footsteps in England, innocent of that wonderful possibility: a degree in Fine Art at an Art College!
It was surprising to learn that taking up sculpture at Bath Academy in Corsham had more to do with the smell of coffee in that department than her talent in other disciplines. Skills in silver smithing and bronze casting learnt later was rapidly followed by a debut exhibition in a park in Bracknell, a stint at Madame Tussaud’s, eventually working as Chief Enlarger at the Morris Singer Bronze Foundry. Whilst there, Sioban worked with Kenyan sculptor, Robert Glen, for four years to produce nine larger than life Mustangs, the largest equestrian sculpture in America at the time.
By 1981 Sioban was ready for her first public commission, which came about through a public sculpture competition. The first one she lost but it gave her the impetus to enter her next and successful competition: a large scale piece of work for Rufford Country Park in Nottinghamshire “with a budget big enough to produce a teacup”. Despairing, Sioban invented a thrifty solution by using concrete to make the engaging “Man & Ewe on a Park Bench” (1982). The ground breaking invention made the pages of Concrete Quarterly and others in the art world.
Ewe on a Park Bench, 1982 in ferro-cementThis experience launched Sioban’s passion for public sculpture despite numerous disappointments: around one in five proposals are realised. An avant-garde rail man working for the British Rail Board provided a fruitful opportunity for three more ferro-cement sculptures including the mischievous “Gardener and the Truant Lion” for the Chelsea Flower Show in 1986, which now resides at Stoke Mandeville. Sioban's ferro-cement sculptures are witty and touching.
Sioban’s meeting with Pete Penfold, a multi-talented engineer as versatile as Sioban, forged an exceptional partnership. They moved to Lambourn where a bronze sculpture Mrs Hedges, or Ivy to her friends, appears for developers in Essex. Her shopping beneath the bench, grounded and solid old Mrs Hedges becomes a hedge.
A new departure was “The Birmingham Man”, an allegorical memorial to Thomas Attwood, in the centre of the busy city square. In contrast to an elaborate monument to Joseph Chamberlain nearby, Birmingham’s first MP, has been overlooked by history. Sioban designed her monument to be discovered by passersby, his soap box abandoned behind him, he sits on the steps reading a pamphlet. The steps are inscribed with his enduring idea of democracy: ‘Reform’, ‘The Vote’ and ‘Prosperity’.
Sioban’s most recent bronze was not a commission but a piece for sale at the Garden Gallery in Hampshire. It is a topical study of a fleeting moment in a young man’s life as leaves blow past. Until recently ‘Blown Away’ was on show at the National Trust’s Sandham Memorial Chapel. An ideal home for ‘Blown Away’, but sadly it failed to be permanent.
Blown Away: The young man, his life fleeting as a gust of laurel leaves, he sees the whole world in a glance
Happily Sioban has enjoyed success thanks to far sighted clients, who value her sensitive vision and intelligent art. As with so many sculptors, though, Sioban has had to endure her share of disappointments after investing long hours of hard graft and creativity.
Sioban’s body of work, its development and her modesty are impressive. Just as inspiring was witnessing Sioban's sheer determination to realise the worthwhile uplifting pieces for all to enjoy.
Thank you Sioban and Pete for giving our launch of Friends of Marlborough Open Studios a personal insight into your public works of art. We really were, literally, blown away.
Words by Kate Freeman
Photos courtesy Lisi Ashbridge (top two), Sioban Coppinger (bottom two)
NEXT FMOS OUT OF SEASON EVENT: at the studio of award winning botanical artist, Ann Swan in February 2014. For further information please email firstname.lastname@example.org