Art in Wood archive

Thursday 28 February 2013

Guy Reid is a carver for the 21st century who draws on the influences of old to create new and exciting work as Miriam Bentham discovers


Despite the fact that Guy Reid studied politics and history at degree level, he had always wanted to be a wood sculptor. Having graduated in 1984 at the age of 21, by complete chance, unemployed and living in London, he bumped into someone from his hometown who he knew to be a great cabinetmaker working in furniture restoration. After mentioning that he had always wanted to be a carver and work with wood, he told Guy of an apprentice position available in North London's A.J. Brett's workshop where he worked. After receiving basic cabinetmaker's training there, he moved to the famous Spink workshop - now Arlington Conservation - where he stayed for 10 years and was encouraged to specialise in carving. "I always had in the back of my mind though," Guy says, "the idea of using the skills I had learnt in carving to make art." Guy began using the skills he had developed to start carving his first figures in 1995.

A unique style

Woodcarving is a form of creative expression that often gives way to debate of the distinction between art and craft. In the case of Guy's work, no debate is necessary. His ability to bring wood to life - in the delicate creases of his subjects' faces; their perfectly proportioned features or beautifully formed fingers - with a sensitive eye and a deft hand is a rare artistic talent. His subjects are frozen in the midst of their mannerisms, translating a distinctly animated quality to decidedly static sculptures.

Guy's ability to distort perspective is incredible; most of his work in relief is indistinguishable from that in the round. Relief carvings that take a bird's-eye or side view suggest far more depth than they possess. Guy is masterfully capable of creating depth - a prized skill many carvers spend a lifetime trying to achieve.

The lack of sentimentality in his sculptures, surprisingly, compounds how relatable they are. "I try to be as objective as possible in the representation of the subject," Guys says. "I never allow myself to be manipulated by the commissioner or the gallery." This statement is certainly recognisable in his body of work. Although they are beautiful, his sculptures lack any artificial gloss that would perhaps appeal to mass audiences; they are challenging in their refusal to hide their very human imperfections in the idealised form sculpture often takes.


Guy names Tilman Reimenschneider and Gregor Erhart - the great sculptors of the late Gothic and early Renaissance period - as his most prominent influences. Unlike the Italian Renaissance artists, who were most interested in the ideal human form, they found the everyday nature of their subjects fascinating, choosing their models from the local villagers living close to their workshops. Their representation translates such humanity, one cannot help but be moved.

Another modern influence Guy names is the hyperrealist sculptor Ron Mueck whose work bears similarities to Guy's in both his experimentation with scale and love of detail.


Guy believes his location - the beautiful French countryside - plays an important role in his work by providing him with the peace necessary for him to concentrate on his art. He credits his classical training for giving him the self-discipline to follow the daily rhythms of a work routine he has been practising since his apprenticeship.

The traditionalism of his influences - both the medium he works in and the Gothic masters that inspire him - is at odds with the modernity of his subjects. Asked about the tensions between the traditional and contemporary forms his sculptures take, Guy comments, "Although the work I make is resolutely modern and fits into the world of contemporary art, the very fact of being carved in wood places it very much in the tradition of technique. The ability to master technique enables one to be free to express something beyond just technical skill. From this basis of technical mastership comes the freedom of unconscious self-expression." He continues, "Once a carver has the skills in place to master their work, they need to search for their own voice. In my own work I have never tried consciously to copy a style. The important thing is to feel passionately about your subject, enjoy the making and don' be scared to experiment."

One aspect of Guy's methodology which is important in understanding the finished piece is his use of live models and reference photographs. Where the live models enable him to capture a depth of detail that makes the finished work so lifelike, the photographs allow him to permanently capture the idiosyncrasies of his subjects so that his work can be continually improved.

His dedication to detail is definitely one of the attributes that guarantees the powerful impact of Guy's finished work. 'No matter how small or large the job, how important or modest the commissioner, a piece is never finished until it is finished," he says. "One needs to look, look and then look again"

The work

Like many artists, Guy's favourite pieces of work are nearly always those on which he is currently working. Interestingly, the works themselves hold little sentimental value to him as objects. "It is the process of making them and the journey taken with them that means the most," Guy says. "Once they are finished, I am perfectly happy to see them depart for the outside world." Perhaps this falling in love with the process rather than the finished product is due to the nature of Guy's art. Woodcarving is a lengthy process and the constant, gradual sculpting of its medium is a more intimate affair than applying paint to a canvas.

When asked to select his favourite pieces of work, Guy chooses the many portraits of his long-term partner Andrew, particularly those showing him lying down, both in the round

and in relief.


The fluidity of Guy's talent as a sculptor has enabled him to work on a variety of commissions. One of these is the much-acclaimed nude Madonna and Child at St Matthew's Westminster - which has graced the pages of many publications. It has also been an object of controversy after its installation, when some church members criticised the intimacy of Mary's naked body. There have been many other commissions involving religious imagery - a subject of great interest to Reid. After spending time in Buddhist and Indian monasteries in India and Thailand and undertaking an MA in Theology he has carefully explored the relationship between religion and art. Commissions such as his figure of Adam for Mirfield College, a sculpture of St Editha for Polesworth Abbey and a nude crucifixion for Saint George's Church, Paris. In all these carvings Guy has sought to universalise their traditionally religious elements; stripping them of exclusivity.

At the moment, Guy is working through a series of seven portraits of children's authors and illustrators commissioned by the publisher David Fickling. So far he has completed miniature portraits of Philip Pullman and a similarly small Jacqueline Wilson. The third will take the form of writer and illustrator Nick Sharratt.

Future projects

Guy's 'Little Me' exhibition is currently on show at the Coningsby Gallery in London.

The show takes the form of several very personal studies including Guy's partner Andrew and pregnant friend Grace who have been carved in typically lifelike forms. Guy is currently working towards a July-October exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Art at La Chapelle de St. Jacques in South West France. The centre is also publishing a book of his work which should be available this summer.

The future holds the completion of the other four author portraits - one of which will feature Michael Morpurgo, author of War Horse.

As well as being a gifted artist and sculptor, Guy Reid is, inextricably, a carver and it is exciting when this marginalised artform which holds such an important place in our cultural past, takes its rightful place in our cultural present. Work like Guy's propels carving to a more prominent position in the art world and challenges preconceptions that it is a vehicle too dated to accommodate the concerns of the modern-day world. When we are lucky enough to see work that contradicts these opinions, it is a good day for carvers everywhere.

Woodworkers Institute

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