SCULPTURE:Nic Fiddian-Green's sculptures capture the grace and beauty of the horse, writes Gemma Tipton
WHEN NIC FIDDIAN-GREEN had an exhibition of his work in London's Berkeley Square, his model and muse came to the opening. That doesn't sound so surprising until you realise that the model in question is a horse named George. Noble, physically beautiful, holding energy and calm together in an inexplicably wonderful way, it's odd that horses don't always translate so well into art. Before photography and film, one of the problems was that no one could quite work out what a moving horse looked like. There were heated debates on whether that magical moment of flight, when all four hooves have left the ground as a horse races forward at full gallop, really existed.
One of the most famous painters of horses, the 18th-century artist George Stubbs, was so interested in getting his horses "right" in art, that he spent a while dissecting them. In fact, he met his common-law wife when they worked together over a horse's cadaver, which may not sound very romantic, but at least it demonstrates they had shared interests. Stubbs is a hero of Fiddian-Green, who has been making drawings and sculptures of horses since seeing the Elgin Marbles (also known as the Parthenon Frieze), while at art college in London in the 1980s. He had grown up with horses, and always loved them, but as with so many things, it took a work of art to make him see what was so incredible about the animals.
This week sees Fiddian-Green's first exhibition in Dublin, although one of his horse's heads has preceded him - purchased by Treasury Holdings for Barrow Street in Dublin's Docklands (he is also collected by Prince Philip Hapsberg of Austria, and Nicholas Evans, author of The Horse Whisperer). The Irish connections are there, though, as Fiddian-Green's grandfather came from Dún Laoghaire. "He was one of those great characters," Fiddian-Green tells me. "He was a sailor. He found a girl in a bar in Paris, smuggled her home on his ship. He put her in a taxi when they landed in Portsmouth, and went straight to the cathedral. They got married there with the taxi driver as best man."
Now living in an idyllic setting in Surrey, the family's cottage has been extended to encompass what had been an old cow barn, creating a large open living space. This would have included a studio for Nic, but gaining a little separation from family life to concentrate on his work, another building across the courtyard houses a studio and stables (for the family's horses, as well as for the artist's models). Further up the hill lies another studio, where Fiddian-Green casts the smaller works himself. He set up his own foundry when he was just starting out from art college. A farmer had commissioned him to make a sculpture of his daughter's event horse, who was retiring. They loved the horse, but neither they, nor Fiddian-Green, could afford the foundry fees. So in a characteristically independent move, he decided to set up his own. Here, works-in-progress stand under wraps, while the moulds for old casts lie, like those frozen figures you see in pictures of Pompeii, or appearing as the ghosts of artworks that now live elsewhere.
The house and studio are set in the arms of a horseshoe of fields, surrounded by the slopes of the Surrey hills and woodlands, themselves dotted with the artist's sculptures. So how does he feel about seeing his work translated to cities, like the one at Barrow Street in Dublin? "It's in such an urban setting," he says. "I love it, you've got to get to the back of the building to find it. There's something quite wonderful about it, it has altered that entire space in a strange way.
"Moving a work from here can be like caging an animal, and I think 'what have I done?', but it can be amazing. It can change a space, it can have that effect on its environment." Fiddian-Green works from miniatures to massive pieces, the current project being 20 feet high. "If you go below life size, you go wrong, it starts to become a pony, or a rocking horse, unless you go right down. Or else, you have to elevate it, make it become this massive thing. But it's not just about the horse, it's about emotions." Fiddian-Green's wife, Henri, agrees, pointing out another element to her husband's work, an element their son, Moses, first drew their attention to, when he threw a stick up to catch behind the ear of one of the large horse-at-water sculptures out in the fields. "Now it looks like Dad, with his pencil behind his ear," he said. Is there a resemblance? The family thinks so.
Fiddian-Green's horses are all different, although they follow three basic templates: the horse-at-water, the turning head, and the Greek head. "It's a gentle evolution," the artist says. The sense of the work changes, too, according to where you see it. In Dublin, they will be in the gorgeous setting of Newman House on St Stephen's Green. The original home of the Catholic University of Ireland (which became UCD), the rooms at Newman House, have absolutely fantastic plasterwork, and are a world away from that "white cube" idea of an art gallery. This was something that appealed to Fiddian-Green. There will be more exhibitions here later this summer, when the Green on Red Gallery will be collaborating on a project as part of the World Archaeology Congress.
With the work for the Dublin exhibition complete, does Fiddian-Green have any anxieties about the show? "A show always comes with its worries," he says. "It's that business of selling. But it's really a celebration of the fact that this work has been created. The rest is a bonus. And soon there'll be a day when I'll wake up, and it'll be a clear day, and the studio will be empty, with all the work on the boat to Dublin, and I'll be off up the hill with my little bag and my thermos flask to go into the empty space and have to create something . . . It's very exciting. And it's scary," he concludes, after a pause.
Nic Fiddian-Green's exhibition is at Newman House, St Stephen's Green, Dublin, April 10th-17th