Fashioned from driftwood, barbed wire, sea urchins and barnacle-encrusted plastic mannequins, Earl Granville’s eclectic sculptures are inspired by the Hebridean island of North Uist’s wild weather and terrain, discovers David Profumo. Photographs by Glyn Satterley for Country Life.
It’s a dreich October morning on the east coast of the island, the Hebridean sea temperature is 13˚C and a man of 60 clad in a wetsuit is cutting loose some female busts he’s tethered underwater for two years. They’re constellated in barnacles and covered in grape-like ascidians (sea squirts) and he grimaces with cold and triumph, for these mannequins are destined for his studio — meet Fergus, 6th Earl Granville, laird of North Uist, godson of The Queen, who’s rapidly becoming a sculptor of rising repute.
Since I first met him 30 years ago — a tousle-headed youth with a wolfish grin, power-smoking over a Diet Coke in the local bar — Fergus and I have spent many days together, mostly fishing. I have come to know his mischievous humour, his lifelong passion for beachcombing, his deep familiarity with the natural history and archaeology of the island and even a little about his hellraising youth.
However, it wasn’t until 2018, on a chance visit to his unusual home (a doughnut-shaped shoreline fastness designed in the 1960s by Sir Martyn Beckett) that I had the first inkling of the amphibious Earl’s talent for sculpture. It was like learning that Prince Hal had developed a penchant for petit point.
Then, his bay window was dominated by a massive piece (Bird in Tree) assembled from seabird skeletons, driftwood and barbed wire and, on a side table, were two of his finished female heads — one beautifully embellished with shards of polished sea urchin and another coiffed with orange lobster feelers.
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There was also a squat, sculpted bust of iron clay with a crown of red-deer ribs cradling a mass of dried guillemot bones — an atavistic piece (Given Dominion) that I promptly bought for myself. Much of Fergus’s early work — he prefers modestly to allude to his pieces as ‘things’ — is inspired by the Hebridean weather and terrain, and he assembles his modified objets trouvés (sea returns, flotsam and other raw materials) into aesthetically striking constructs that exude a strange, metamorphic energy.
At his first Edinburgh exhibition in 2019, his developing range was evident. Offerings was a series of three bowls fashioned from sea salt and resin, containing salmon scales, cowries and rare violet sea snails; Teredo was a driftwood shape boreholed with ‘ship worms’ and bound with a rind of patinated copper; there was an elegant basket made, Scandinavian style, from raw salmon skin. About some of the works there is a sense of memento mori, but, overall, the impression is of revivification.
Most eye-catching, perhaps, were his signature female heads, both alien and gorgeous. Belladonna (now in a New Yorker’s collection) was ‘put under the sea’ for a year and emerged randomly illustrated with sea-worm trails (known as ‘German writing’), before being painstakingly embellished with a mosaic of old, discarded domestic china.
‘On wild, stormy nights, I would think of her looking blindly into the racing current,’ he recalls. Once, wrest-ling a model underwater, he became perilously entangled in the anchor ropes. ‘I would have ended up as an artwork myself.’
After his morning dive, the laird takes us back to his home at Griminish, which he shares with his artist wife, Florence Pearson, and their two young boys, a temperamental African grey parrot, Barney (who has hated me for years), and Susie, a black labrador trained to sniff out ambergris.
Today, the usually deserted promontory is teeming with technicians constructing a pontoon for Jeremy Clarkson and his roadshow to motor across and, en route, we espy Paul White-house and Bob Mortimer being filmed fishing in the estuary. Tomorrow, Joanna Lumley is arriving to interview Fergus, so it seems remote Uist has become something of a cultural hub.
It’s a far cry from his secluded upbringing here: there’s an apocryphal tale that The Queen, disembarking from her yacht for the annual picnic with her cousin, Fergus’s father, found he had forgotten the appointment and was contentedly washing his socks in a rockpool.
Everywhere is evidence of the artist’s obsession with collecting (‘natural dumpster-diving, really’). A brace of minke whale skulls frames the front steps; on the back porch, where peafowl stalk, is a selection of the Iron Age saddle querns he occasionally finds exposed in sand dunes after a storm.
Over the years, his discoveries have included a Viking coprolite and a message in a bottle from Brazil. As we leave the snug family kitchen with its children’s finger-paintings and head towards his studio (‘the dead zone,’ in the words of Violet, a teenaged daughter from his first marriage), it feels as if we’re passing through a portal to a darker imaginative space.
The corridor is stacked with lumber — artificial limbs, flotsam Gulfstream coconuts, cetacean vertebrae, a cow pelvis, sea glass, amphorae and drying fish parts (Fergus’s day job for the past two decades has been manager of the celebrated Hebridean Smokehouse). Of any inexplicable find, he likes to use the archaeologist’s phrase, ‘probably ritual’.
Despite his level of technical expertise and obvious eye for the arresting, the subversive and the beautiful, Fergus is entirely self-taught. ‘I have never had formal training in any way,’ he attests and, sequestered here in his island home, he seldom even visits galleries. He looks bemused that anyone would critique his ‘things’. When I suggest his oeuvre seems to evoke the way elements of the natural world fall apart and then recoalesce, he frowns politely and takes an immense gulp from his nicotine inhalator.
At the University of Aberdeen, he read English and History. ‘I’ve never been arty — writing’s always been more of my thing,’ he adds, and teasingly claims he’s working on a satirical novella set in lockdown Mogadishu, which features a sleazy expatriate Italian khat farmer, based upon yours truly.
Nevertheless, I can detect in his art affinities with, say, Joseph Beuys, the readymades of Man Ray or, perhaps, Damien Hirst’s 2017 ‘Venice Underwater’ exhibition. Indeed, his studio is part atelier and part laboratory. ‘I’m afraid I’ve misplaced my beret and smock,’ he admits with a smile.
‘I’m continually experimenting with new techniques — you have to learn a little about a lot of things — but 90% of work is failure. I tried carving in peat, but it is prone to cracking and masks sculpted from sea salt eventually crumbled, Ozymandias-like.’
A recent project is to create Cabinets of Curiosities — contemporary versions of the Renaissance tradition of Wunderkammern in which assorted specimens and wonders are displayed. One of his own (all beachcombings) juxtaposes a ballet shoe, a discarded camera (with its film still undeveloped — an authentic Surrealist touch) and a shattered ballcock filled with elegant quartz pebbles — as fine an image of the human condition as I’ve seen.
Much of his work is extraordinarily labour intensive. He’s still toiling over Lamia, a magnificent mannequin, the headdress of which comprises interwoven ‘mermaids’ purses’ — desiccated dogfish egg sacs with spun-sugary tendrils that flimmer like bright tresses — having sorted through some 15,000 to select the ideal examples. In fact, I’m so taken with this Pagan goddess (described by Keats as ‘some demon’s mistress’) that I’m determined to put my buyer’s sticker on her in advance of his forthcoming London show.
On the way out, among the phantasmagoria, I spot a child’s doll with a superimposed head disconcertingly made from huge, dried marine-ray eggs. Probably ritual.
Fergus Granville’s new work will be on show from April 18 to May 2 at the Espacio Gallery, 159, Bethnal Green Road, London E2. Co-exhibitioners will be painters Fiona Pearson, Marnie Keltie and Anje Baarmann, plus bookbinder Corinna Krause — www.fergusgranville.com