Annie Tempest talks sculpture

Dicky would probably want the steel used for cartridges instead, and Daffy, aka Lady Tottering, would certainly consider the money better spent on garden shears, a good bottle of wine or some sensible shoes before even thinking about investing in a sculpture. But neither would deny that their creator, Annie Tempest-whose first Tottering-by-Gently cartoon appeared in Country Life nearly 20 years ago-has discovered a new talent.

Annie began studying sculpting in 2006 under the beady eye of Ron Spriggs, life-sculpting tutor at Wensum Lodge in Norwich. It has coincided with a critical moment in her life, which included divorce and the loss of her only son. ‘It’s been my journey. Instead of talking therapies, I’ve gone for sculpture. It’s answering an area that I wasn’t addressing and I had a strong need to get time out for myself.’ She is aware that Tottering-by-Gently enthusiasts might be expecting humour from her sculptures, but the titles of her works, such as De Profundis and Anguish, will soon put them right-the latter is a curled-up figure, its head buried in an indeterminate lump.

But lest you think that all is gloom, other figures (which is what the 25 sculptures nearly all are) are imbued with hope and optimism. Vitality balances on her hands, but can be placed on her back and two other positions as well. Leap of Faith reminds you of the grace of a high-diver springing from his board. The large, 7ft version of Pursuit of Light will form the centre-piece of the exhibition; the female form is propelled skywards by a corkscrew of artfully forged steel.

This latter work best demonstrates the combination of skills that have been brought to bear in the exhibition. Their practitioners all happen to live in a golden triangle of north Norfolk. Wayne McKinney, a bronze-casting teacher for more than 15 years, oversees the whole process using traditional methods and skills. ‘The physicality of sculpting is wonderful,’ enthuses Annie. ‘It’s like being a child making mud pies.’

But she remains involved even when her work goes to the foundry for the first time. ‘I get the rough casting from the mould and then work on each casting in wax before working on it in the metal. When it comes out of a mould, it’s really quite rough. I’m also learning to patinate.’ Super-smooth and irresistibly tactile, the end results are the equivalent of extra-refined chocolate or triple-distilled gin. For the steelwork, Annie uses James Spedding, who runs the forge at Holkham Hall, a few miles away. He converts her designs to solid reality; sometimes, inspiration comes about by accident. Cutting out a circle for a bird tray in her kitchen, her eye was caught by the negative space, which inspired her to create the steel sculptures that dominate De Profundis.

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One of her favourite places to unwind is Kenya, but even there, she likes to study anatomy. Waiters in Nairobi’s Muthaiga club have got used to her clay models of ears and mouths lying on the tables. Before flying back to England, she uses friends’ ovens to bake them so that they’re not damaged in transit. Her visits to Africa may explain her desire to make the human body as ‘dynamic as a leaping animal’, and her life in England is increasingly dedicated to her new craft. However, Dicky and Daffy, when enjoying the Champagne at the private view, will probably wonder what all the fuss is about.

‘Play as Cast’ will be at The O’Shea Gallery, 4, St James’s Street, London SW1 (020-7930 5880; until April 28

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