The willow weaver: ‘I like to let the host structure feed the form’

With such romantic names as Dicky Meadows, Flanders Red and Noir de Verlaine, willow is one of Nature’s most versatile materials. Jane Wheatley meets Laura Ellen Bacon, who crafts works of art from twisted stems of Salix.

In April this year, the London Symphony Orchestra premiered a work by composer Helen Grime that garnered five-star reviews. Described by The Times as ‘a sonic, melodic tapestry’, Woven Space was inspired by a white willow sculpture of the same name built by the British artist Laura Ellen Bacon and cocooned inside a protective circle of yew trees in the grounds of Chatsworth House.

Ellen Bacon was in the audience at the Barbican that night: ‘It was mind-blowing, one of the most profound moments of my career.’

Sculptor Laura Ellen Bacon photographed by Alun Callender

As a child, Miss Bacon built tree houses. ‘At art school, I wanted that same thrill of building a space around myself,’ says the artist, who quickly discovered willow, a plentiful, self-sufficient, obliging material that lends itself to the making of monumental works.

Sculptor Laura Ellen Bacon photographed by Alun Callender

Sculptor Laura Ellen Bacon, photographed by Alun Callender.

In the cool, light-filled space of the Harley Gallery in Nottinghamshire, I contemplate her latest piece, Laid, inspired by the art of cut and laid hedging. Constructed of woven willow and silver birch from the Welbeck estate, the sinuous, muscular forms surge across the tiled floor and, on closer inspection, reveal secret inner spaces and burrows.

Miss Bacon works principally on-site, responding to the location, whether building, woodland or riverbank. ‘I like to let the host structure feed the form,’ she muses.

Holburne Museum - Murmuration

Holburne Museum – ‘Murmuration’ by Sculptor Laura Ellen Bacon.

Where to find willow weavers and sculptors:

The language of willow:

  • Weaving methods include randing, waling, French randing and slewing
  • Spiling is planting willow to shore up riverbanks
  • Items made from willow include spars for thatching, stakes for hedging, withy butts for coal merchant’s baskets, reaps for shrimps, willy baskets for fish, skeps for transporting bees, skibs for straining potatoes and ecks for the apple harvest
  • More is used to make coracles, furniture, charcoal pencils, pony traps, elver and salmon nets, balloon baskets and the framework for guards’ bearskin hats
  • Salicin, the active ingredient in willow bark, was once widely used for pain relief and was the historical origin of aspirin

Sculptor Laura Ellen Bacon photographed by Alun Callender