WHO better to restore an important public sculpture after 50 years’ exposure to the elements than ... the sculptor’s son?
And who better to assist the restorer than the son of the sculptor’s original assistant?
This unlikely set of artistic double acts lies behind the restoration of an important sculpture on the Newcastle University campus off Percy Street.
Spiral Nebula, the largest public sculpture by Royal Academy member Geoffrey Clarke, was unveiled outside the new physics building in 1962.
The Herschel Building was designed by architect Sir Basil Spence who commissioned the sculptor to create an eye-catching artwork.
Spiral Nebula, created at a time when Clarke’s reputation was riding high, stands today as a dramatic example of 60s public art.
But the weather, the pigeons and possibly an opportunistic thief took their toll as the years rolled by and Spiral Nebula found its way on to the at-risk list of the Public Monument and Sculpture Association before an urgent restoration plan was set in motion by the university.
Yesterday Geoffrey Clarke’s son Jonathan recalled a letter arriving at his father’s home in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, informing him of the restoration plan.
Geoffrey Clarke, now aged 88, is frail and afflicted by failing memory. But Jonathan stepped in on his behalf.
“I remember thinking, if anyone is going to restore it, it had better be me. I know how to do it better than anybody else,” he said.
“I didn’t go to art college but I worked for my dad in his studio from the age of 16.
“I’m 51 so I don’t remember him making Spiral Nebula, but he also did quite a lot of work on the Civic Centre, and I remember running underneath the sculpture when he was up here doing that.”
Jonathan, who drove to Newcastle from Bury St Edmunds yesterday to run his eye over the newly restored artwork, said he didn’t set eyes on Spiral Nebula again until he read an edition of Viz comic in the 1980s.
“My younger brother was at Manchester University and introduced me to Viz. It used to do these photo strips and one of them showed two lovers posing in front of the sculpture.”
Jonathan said Spiral Nebula comprises a steel armature with aluminium cast from polystyrene which his father carved with a heated instrument.
The polystyrene was packed into fine sand and vaporised as molten aluminium was poured in, hardening to take the same shape.
“It was an adaptation of the lost wax method and my father was the first artist in the world to use it,” said Jonathan.
He recalled that when he came to Newcastle in January to renew acquaintance with his father’s work it had been in a “really sorry” state.
Drainage holes had got blocked, moss had grown on the sculpture and pigeons, “a huge problem”, had wreaked havoc.
A central mast of steel with an aluminium coating had vanished. “I reckon someone might have been up there and stolen that,” said Jonathan, having replaced the missing piece securely.
With funding from bodies including the Henry Moore Foundation, restoration got under way with Jonathan making several long trips north to work on site.
He was assisted by Andrew Pawsey, an agricultural engineer who regularly helps on Jonathan’s own sculptures. Andrew’s dad Len used to help Geoffrey Clarke on artworks including Spiral Nebula.
“We’re still in the same studio and Andrew lives nearby,” explained Jonathan.