Tessa Waugh meets one of Britain’s most distinguished figurative sculptors.
‘I work all the time,’ declares James Butler MBE, RA, RWA, FRBS. ‘Every day, I go into the studio in the morning and set about things. I don’t know any other way to live.’
At 86, Mr Butler is one of Britain’s most distinguished figurative sculptors, with the infectious enthusiasm of a much younger man and an output of work stretching across 60-plus years.
Since 1972, when he was commissioned to sculpt a statue of the then Kenyan president, Jomo Kenyatta, which now stands in the centre of Nairobi, Mr Butler has continued to create important works of art that grace public places all over Britain and the world.
Working principally in clay, which is then cast in bronze, his subjects have included William Shakespeare, Bob Dylan, Field-Marshal Harold Alexander, Lt-Gen Sir John Moore, Richard III, The Queen Mother and Dame Joan Sutherland.
He’s currently crafting a companion piece for his Rainbow Division memorial at Croix Rouge Farm in France. The poignant First World War memorial portrays an American soldier carrying his fallen comrade: ‘When I was modelling it, the figure of the American soldier took on the mantle of an angel and I began to feel very spiritual about it, which was quite spooky, because I’m not particularly religious. It was as if the sculpture took on a life of its own.’
The volume of sculptures that Mr Butler has produced is quite staggering. ‘I’ve never counted, but we’re talking about hundreds of works,’ he cheerfully admits. When asked which one he’d rescue from a burning room, the artist replies: ‘A lifesized statue of my daughter, Saskia, dressed in her tutu.’
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