Thursday, 13 May 2021

High society artist bringing personal touch to gallery

High society artist bringing personal touch to gallery

THE work of an artist who made his name sculpting a public monument to the Duke of Westminster has gone on show at a Henley gallery.

Jonathan Wylder, who lives in the town and has a studio in Nettlebed, will also be in residence at Henley Fine Art in Market Place two days a week.

The 63-year-old, who is best known for his bronze sculptures but is also a noted painter, says he hopes his involvement could potentially help inspire younger visitors to the gallery.

He says: “I remember when I walked into a stone carver’s studio for the first time and could not believe the smell of the dust, the dust in his hair, piles of bricks and carving away — it just blew my mind.

“It’s very important as you get older to just take a few words just to say, ‘Do you know what, that’s a good drawing, keep it up.’ I never had anyone like that, or not directly, but it doesn’t take long to inspire someone.”

As something of an artistic prodigy growing up in Wiltshire, Jonathan was just 15 when his first one-man show of paintings was staged at Salisbury City Library.

“I went to the library and I was bold,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Can I have an exhibition here’ and they put up my kind of mildly amateurish work. But it just seemed the right thing to do — and I got a few commissions here and there for £25 a time.”

Among the visitors to the exhibition was Sir Cecil Beaton, who made a point of chatting to Jonathan about his work.

He says: “He was the Queen’s royal photographer and he told the papers and, I quote, ‘Jonathan Wylder is a genius. I’ve never seen a young man create as well as he did. He’s one for the future’.

“He wanted to take me under his wing, but my mum wouldn’t let me. But he was lovely, very well versed in the arts. I thought he was a wonderful man.”

Despite this flying start to his career, which saw him sell his first painting for £5 and the second for £25, Jonathan ended up not going down the art school route.

“I got thrown out of Salisbury College of Art after two weeks,” he says. “Already I was a cocky little so and so — I was already drawing my girlfriend and other girlfriends. I just thought I knew everything.”

Not long afterwards, Jonathan and his future wife Heather ran away together.

He recalls: “We were 16 and we lived in caravans with gypsies and it was just an amazing time in my life, working as a landscape gardener, odd-jobbing and stuff. I was 19, 20. We had a beautiful daughter and then I did carpet cleaning and farm work.”

The couple went on to have three more children but eventually hit financial difficulties.

“I was 33 and about to go bankrupt,” says Jonathan. “I said to Heather, ‘I might as well go bankrupt as an artist as opposed to a carpet cleaner’.”

It was only at this point that he first started sculpting with the intention of selling his work at garden shows.

“I remember grabbing a leather bag of sand and cement and doing a sculpture of some gypsies who were staying down the road,” he says. “I used to go down there and we used to cook together and I asked if I could sculpt the grandmother and their granddaughter.

“I went down with a big bucket and a wheelbarrow and I used wire netting and sculpted in sand and cement. But no one told me that lime burned your fingers — it literally took all my skin off.”

Having thus rediscovered his passion for art, Jonathan also started painting again, but sculpture was now his main focus.

“I became an artist making stone statues for garden centres, but that created opportunities and I started meeting some incredible people at garden shows,” he says.

“I was just making these garden things and then suddenly you’re going into these amazing houses and thinking, ‘Hmmm, right’.”

After becoming known for his bronze sculptures, Jonathan received his first big commission — for £6,000 — to create a bust of the late Sam Morris, who founded the Business Design Centre in Islington.

This in turn led to him being invited to take out a lease on a gallery space in Belgravia.

It was there, while at work in his basement studio, that he received his first landmark commission from Gerald Grosvenor, the sixth Duke of Westminster.

“He literally wandered into my gallery and he was my head landlord,” says the artist. “The main lease was owned by my friend but he was the headliner, if you like. He owned all of Belgravia.

“He said, ‘Jonathan, I wondered if you’d have time to create a monument for Belgrave Square?’

“And I was so jokey, I said, ‘You know what, I really am busy at the minute’ and he actually said, ‘Not a problem, Jonathan, I’m sorry to interrupt.’

“I was like, ‘No, no, no, I’m just joking, Your Grace, I’d be honoured to do it. What did you have in mind?’

“He wanted to represent the Grosvenor Estate, so he picked the first Duke of Westminster and the rest is history. We did it. I created it. I got paid terribly well for it and he was a super gentleman.”

Alongside Jonathan’s bronzes, visitors to Henley Fine Art will find a striking pair of matching sculptures in red and blue.

These have been created using stainless steel with acrylic before a flock coating is applied. But for Jonathan, their meaning is rather more personal.

He says: “I actually started that one 25 years ago, when my dad died. There was just a head, you know, no nose — when someone dies you can’t breathe, you know?

“And then slowly over the years the nose opened, the hair went up, the mouth opened, the body was a little bit open and then the legs came up on tiptoe. That is me weaving — and it took 25 years to get to this stage.”

The past year of lockdown has brought an unexpected dividend.

“I’ve found a new love of painting,” says Jonathan. “I’ve done 12 paintings and 10 of them sold to one client in one go.

“It’s just so easy. I mean, it’s focused, but instead of mould-making and angle-grinding and sawing, it just seems so gentle.

“So I’m going to divide my time between sculpting during the day and then painting in the evening.”

The remaining two paintings, Ophelia and Secrets, can be viewed as part of the current exhibition.

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