Photo credit: Dominic Tschudin
When it comes to London’s bronze foundries, London Bronze Casting may be the new kid on the block – having only opened in 2014 – but it is not short on experience. All three of its directors clocked up their hours in some of the city’s large, commercial foundries, honing their particular hands-on experience and expertise before deciding that they wanted to go about things a little differently. It is the combination of this experience and the fact they have practicing artists in their number, that has led to their particular philosophy on what makes a good foundry and their approach to how their foundry should be run. PSC met co-director, Thomas Winstanley, to find out more. The following is based on that interview.
Pangaea Sculptors’ Centre: You were living, making and working in London for a number of years before you set-up London Bronze Casting. Can you tell us a little about your journey after art school?
Thomas Winstanley: After I left the Royal College of Art in 2007, I went and got a job at a foundry because I wanted to get really good at making moulds. And I also got my head down there to make some money. My artwork was made out of plastic and it would always rip and tear and fall apart. There was never a way I was going to be able to make a living out of plastic bin bags but that was my material. [Chuckle.] So I thought, ‘let’s sort this out’. So I learnt how to make moulds properly. I also got a live-work studio in Lennox Lewis’s boxing academy in North London, which was bonkers. The live/work studio I couldn’t handle. You couldn’t make mess in it. It just didn’t agree with me. Then I got a really great opportunity. I paid for this tiny little studio in the Bronze Age Foundry. So I’d finish work there and I’d go up to the studio and make a little bit of work, write a proposal, etc. I’d do all my thinking in that little studio, which was fantastic. And that was my luckiest studio in terms of facilities. I could be a little bit sneaky about going into the workshops and doing my own work. That was really great. And then I moved on from that job to further my career. I went to work for the University of the Creative Arts in Farnham, helping to run the foundry down there and supported the students. So I moved studios to another big studio complex in London, V22, and it was just so expensive. It was expensive to keep and I had a full-time job so wasn’t there often. Part of the reason I had the studio was that I always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to build my own foundry; and secondly, because I’ve also got all this bloody stuff. You know, if you make sculpture you end up collecting tools. Tools give you freedom to make artwork. It’s essential to have them. But that comes at a cost. It was like storage really, storing my next move. Eventually, I left the UCA to set up the London Bronze Casting with two other guys and now it’s blossoming. We’re a little way down the line with the company and it’s getting very exciting about what will come next.
PSC: You are clearly very knowledgeable and experienced when it comes to technique. Have you always prioritised technical skill?
TW: I went to an old technical school before I went to art school. So I already had good basic skills and was already committed to working with tools and in a skilled sort of way. But I also think there’s a balance between the mind and the hand. When I did my BA at Camberwell I spent three years carving with stone, pretty much. I enjoyed cutting stone, using chisels, working in very minimal ways. But I threw open my practice at the Royal College and totally went down a very creative route in terms of almost deskilling; working with impractical materials. After I’d built up a practice that I was interested in, with objects that would fall apart, I needed to go and grab the skills back again. So it was after that experience that I went to work at the foundry to learn the skills I needed, to make the works solid and to be able to manipulate the materials I was using even further. You can make a mould of an object, then make a wax copy, then move the wax around and change your idea totally. So that play between skill and the instinctive is how I went through art college.
PSC: And now you’re one of the three directors of London Bronze Casting. Can you tell us more about this?
TW: We started the business in June 2014. Obviously, the thinking between the three partners in the business had probably taken another six months on top of that.
We’ve all worked in foundries so we know what a foundry can look like on a big scale, what the expectations of a foundry are. We want to be a really good foundry. But we know we don’t really want to be a big foundry. We’ve been very selective about how big we’re going to go, what work we’re going to take on. So the scale is important.
We knew we’d need a hell of a lot of luck to get the business up and running but we also knew our skill set was the perfect mix, that we were the perfect three guys to build a foundry. But we needed the right backing to get us going. We had a few clients that we knew would pass work our way, which was really important to have.
PSC: How do the roles of the three directors differ?
TW: What I’m really good at is going out and meeting people and getting work in. I’m also good at talking through the technical aspects of mould making, wax working, the pour and all that sort of stuff. And then Vince is the nuts and bolts of the company. Vince is an amazing engineer and artist himself so the experience he brings to the company is unbelievable. He could build a house tomorrow if he wanted to. To build a slurry tank* from an old donkey store within a few days that has run for a whole year without tripping out is remarkable. Because of Vince we were able to build a lot of our own equipment. We took on a building down in Farnham where we built the space for the shell and slurry room. We also have a place in Deptford. Derek is my other partner and he is this incredible patina guy. He’s a virtuoso. He’s like a wizard. But then he’s got this other skill set that he’s a great manager. He loves admin! [Laughs.] So he does the numbers. So between the three of us, we’re all over it basically. We’re all very confident…
PSC: Was it key that you could keep your costs down by doing a lot of the work yourselves?
MF: We invested a certain amount of cash each but we spent the bare minimum because we already had the skill set to do a lot of the work ourselves. It wasn’t all about cost savings, though. We wanted to build it how we wanted it built.
PSC: What was the reason behind having the two spaces?
TW: It’s bonkers how much more space you can get in Farnham than in London. So it’s a bit of a no-brainer to have another studio outside of London. We can diversify as well. We can undertake big fabrication jobs and we’ve got a couple of forges out there. One of the reasons to have a studio in London is because that’s where the business is. That’s where we can pick up artists.
PSC: Apart from your scale, how are you are different from the other foundries?
TW: I really enjoyed my time at Bronze Age Foundry. Good casting. Lovely guys. And I know of all the bigger foundries out there. I didn’t want our company to be like them though. I’m interested in making a fantastic foundry – really good quality – and then investing it back in to helping young artists come through. So that means I’ve got to make this foundry ‘open’. And that’s where it’s different from other foundries, I suspect. I think other foundries are a little bit more closed off. It’s quite predictable, for example, for an artist to go there and drop off a clay model, or whatever, and then pop back four weeks later to collect their bronze. But you know what, in between handing it in and getting it back there’s so much amazing stuff that goes on. And that’s where I think I’d like artists to be able to explore with our foundry. It’s a hard job because how do you do that? It’s expensive to take an artist and say, ‘Look, come in and explore’. Because it’s time, it’s money, it’s materials and you know that exploring means making mistakes and learning from them. That’s our methodology, though – to try and be a foundry where we can let artists come in and work.
We’re also committed to the idea of unravelling the foundry process for artists. You know something might go completely wrong but it might be of interest to the artist. We don’t know. So I’m always updating them, taking photos and sending them to them, just to show them. I may message them to say that we’re about to redo something but before we do, I ask them if they would actually like it like this? I don’t want to ever be seen as closed off with the process. I’m interested in looking a bit longer, going with something unexpected or changing direction. Pulling back a bit. Let’s take that patina off. Let’s mirror polish this bit. I don’t mind getting things just right.
Collaboration and working with other artists is exciting and it’s adventurous and it brings great ideas together with great people. And that’s our shared dream, I suppose. And that’s how we’re different to other foundries out there.
PSC: What you’re describing seems extremely hands on. It’s refreshing to hear how open to the artist’s involvement throughout the process you are.
TW: I will quite happily consider anything that anyone comes to me with or that they want to learn. Absolutely. But I also have to be practical. Is this going to be a whole day of my time? Can we afford it (because I’ve got a responsibility for and to this company)? But if we can, let’s do it. And it’s on a project-by-project basis. So there’s nothing that I would just say no to without considering it.
I was teaching a guy mould-making the other day. I gave him a price for the mould. He said ‘Look I’d like to go down this route but I’d really like to learn how to do it myself’. It’s much harder for me to teach mould making. It takes three times as long. But I just believe that he’s really committed. He wants to do a lot more artworks involving casting so I thought, great. Let’s do it. And we made a mould. And I charged him the same price as if I’d done it. We could afford to do it and I’m sure he’s going to benefit from that.
PSC: What’s the average turnaround for a straightforward casting job at your foundry, when the artist doesn’t want to be so involved and just wants to drop their work off?
TW: The flow of a foundry is so interesting. With no worries at all you’d love to have eight weeks to make a casting, say a figure. You’d love to have that sort of timeline. But you can actually do it in a shorter space of time. It just gets a little bit more expensive because other works fall behind or get pushed back a bit. So we try and have that discussion as early on as possible with the client. So they understand that it’s best to let the process go with the flow of the foundry. So four to six weeks is a really good time for a life-size figure for us. But some of the bigger foundries have a six-month wait time before an artist can get a foot in the door.
PSC: This interview is taking place at Chelsea College of Arts. Can you tell us what you’re doing here?
TW: I applied last year for the Chelsea College of Arts’ Foundry Fellowship and I go it. Since graduating from the RCA, as I’ve said, I’ve been regularly involved in foundries. I’ve got the point where technically I’m all over it and where my artwork has just started to blossom and I thought, ‘this is the time for me. I’ve earned it.’ For me, being in an art college is the best place to make a bit of artwork. It’s away from all of the commissions and the money side of making art. It’s just head down, getting back to basics and challenging my artwork. I’m going to be here for the next three months.
I was also lucky enough to get sponsorship for my time here which has meant I could afford to take time away from the business. It’s a real treat to be doing this. The business is up and running. I’ve got a manager in there now. He’s running the flow of the foundry quite well. So when I started this in January it was just about perfect timing. It’s been good to have my head out of the business for three days a week to give me some space to reflect, to make sure we’re going in the right direction, the direction we set out for.
* The slurry tank is used in the process of creating a ceramic mould, or investment, around the wax pattern, within the lost-wax casting process. The ceramic mould is produced by three repeating steps: coating, stuccoing, and hardening. The first step involves dipping the cluster into a slurry of fine refractory material and then letting any excess drain off, so a uniform surface is produced. This fine material is used first to give a smooth surface finish and reproduce fine details. In the second step, the cluster is stuccoed with a coarse ceramic particle. Finally, the coating is allowed to harden. These steps are repeated until the investment is the required thickness, which is usually 5 to 15 mm.