Portrait of Harrison King archive

Thursday 4 February 2010

OH Boyd carves a portrait bust of Andrew King, the greatest living authority on John Harrison's life and his clocks

Gallery

OH Boyd carves a portrait bust of Andrew King, the greatest living authority on John Harrison's life and his clocks

The idea for the Harrison King portrait sculpture was conceived earlier this year on 24 March when I was with Andrew King at Lincoln cathedral to rededicate the Duncan Grant murals in the Russell chantry. This date is memorable for a number of reasons; not only is it John 'Longitude' Harrison's birthday but also the date of his death. Andrew is the world's greatest living authority on Harrison's life and his clocks, so I decided that it would be fitting to carve a portrait of him in that role.

Concept

In art, we always begin with the concept. Having recently finished the Longitude sculpture, featured in Woodcarving 85, it seemed fitting to continue the role and theme. Therefore, I decided to create the bust of Andrew wearing the shirt created for Mr Harrison and I wanted it to be recognisable as such.

Portrait busts only show the subject's face, so I decided to include an arm and hand. This allows me to tell something more about him, his character and his work. My first thought was to portray Andrew as though he was studying a Harrison watch. Andrew was the technical advisor on the BAFTA award-winning film Longitude and appeared as a member of the Board of Longitude.

He was allowed to keep the stock he wore and it has become something of a mark of his now, so I thought this would carve well.

Having decided the attitude and how I wished to portray his appearance, work, role and character, I clarified it in the following way: Andrew would be studying a Harrison artefact held at length in his hand, with a querulous look, which is typical of him. The questions would reflect in his hair as question marks. The stock would appear to flow as a fountain of knowledge. His gaze would lead us down to a Harrison-shirted arm to the article held and that would feed back to his face, thereby completing a circle of interest.

Patterns

I drew a rough profile of Andrew from the side and front views at full working scale, in this case about 1:4 life-size. On the front view the timber thicknesses (2in) are overlaid as vertical lines. This provides slices through and acts as a guide for helping to select the timber sizes when gluing up.

Gluing up

I decided to use limewood (Tilia vulgaris) in 2in thickness for ease of carving and availability. I then began to glue-up one slice at a time, carefully fitting each piece to its neighbour, allowing as much reasonable time to let the glue cure. I do not shape these slices on the bandsaw – square faces are easier to cramp up.

This stage is extremely important and great care must be taken to create the block accurately. If not, there would have been problems when carving the fine detail.

Carving

After drawing the profile on all of the side and front views as a guide in heavy pencil from the pattern, I began with the roughing stage. This carvers mallet is most useful in the rapid removal of material driving a 2in, No.4 sweep allongee chisel. I find this roughing stage to be a good and free experience as the general shaping unfolds quickly; here it bcomes apparent if the careful planning has been successful or not. The general shape works in the actual 3D rather than 2D confined to the paper pattern. I continued the general rounding off, setting in the hairline and sockets of the eyes. Care needs to be taken with this as his head is slightly tilted – this attitude has to be maintained carefully throughout the whole carving process.

Definite lines are not chopped in as these will curtail the ability to slightly change and adjust.

The work should be a blurry, soft and general shape to allow for these adjustments to take place later.

Once the sockets, hairline and mouth are set in the right place the face can then be carved back to provide the depth of the nose, eyebrows and general features. Here a general likeness begins to appear (see photo 8).

Once this is in a crude form, the shape of the stock and folds of the voluminous 18th-century shirt are set in. The idea is to then bring the whole piece up to the same level of roughing; indeed, this should be how we work for all carvings.

I do not start at the little finger in exquisite detail and work my way down the sleeve to the arm, and then to the face until we get to the other end. It cannot work this way. I have to keep my eye on the whole general shape as I mould my way gradually to a detailed conclusion.

The whole piece is generally and cautiously roughed out to a certain stage before being refined further.

Star compass

For convenience I left out gluing the hand block; this was to allow me time to think some more about it. This paid a dividend as a remarkable coincidence had taken place. While at a book fair I met a gentleman who claimed he had a Harrison compass. I treated this with some scepticism but I passed the contact to Andrew and it turned out that he lived near this gentleman in London. Andrew was able to verify that it was indeed a genuine Harrison artefact.

We believed it to be a star compass which Harrison used to determine star patterns as a way of establishing time accurately in the 18th century. To that end I placed it in Andrew's hand, slightly tilted to reflect the heavens into his eye and carved a star into the pupil to portray this.

At first glance the figure of Andrew looks as though he is a dandy, admiring himself in a hand mirror. It is only upon closer examination and understanding that it provides us with the true meaning of the work. I love the cryptic nature of this and always try to make a piece that can be 'read'. With the design finalised the hand and compass block is finally glued up. Once cured this is also roughed to the same stage as the rest of the work (see photo 9). At this particular point I thought it was time for Andrew to pose in costume to help with the detail. You can never take enough photographs for this but, in actual fact, for me the most valuable aid was to sit with a pad and simply draw lots of sketches.

These sketches are rough and concentrate on the dimensions of nose to mouth, nose to ear, ear to hair etc. These helped me to fully understand how the features work which provided me with the resemblance I required. This method helped most of all with the hair; Andrew has a wonderful mane of long wavy hair and it took some analysis to sort out what was actually happening with it. Armed with this knowledge I gradually refined over and over until I reached the final stages.

The hand presented its own problems as it is an area that attracts the most attention. I faithfully copied Andrew's distinctive hands and his finger pattern.

The cuffs are carved very thin and delicately. This requires tremendous undercutting and in some cases I had to make special chisels in order to reach in and do this. It is always worth the effort and it is a bit of a game when experienced carvers look in and wonder how I achieved it. The final stage is cutting in the fingernails and cuticles and also the creases at the finger joints to achieve a realistic and natural look.

The folds of the stock are accurately set in and the underneath carved through. The folds of the shirt are refined and the pleats carved in together with the stitching.

To finalise Andrew's face the eyes and eyebrow hairs are cut and carved in. The last stage is the hair – acres and acres of it! This is accomplished by gaining the general shape and setting in the big waves, the intermediate waves and waves within waves, until the fineness of the hair is achieved.

Some hairs at the front are individually carved free which are very delicate but this adds to the realism.

I think that the hair was the most time-consuming area of the whole piece and I hope that the next commission is of a bald man! Once finished, the piece is flooded with raw linseed oil: the wood absorbs it to an incredible degree. This is completed hourly and then daily until it cannot absorb any more.

After six months it was ready to take a wax polish and the beautiful soft sheen and touch this provides is worth the time and effort.


Michelle Robertson

Tagged In:

OH Boyd , portrait bust , Harrison King , Andrew King , John Harrison