In place in Ashley Gardens, Victoria, London an installation of a lifetime of art John Hale-White’s sculptures and Jessica d’Este’s poetry
A contemporary poet’s Ashley Gardens flat is itself an ‘installation’ of painting, sculpture, tapestry, murals, pottery and poetry – a collection from 1973 to date. John Hale-White’s sculptures and Jessica d’Este’spoems are an inherent element of this installation.
BEGINNINGS IN SCULPTURE
In November 1956, when I was 23, I signed up, by post, for the Brera Academy in Milan. It had the reputation of being the best in Italy and I knew Giacomo Manzu taught there. But when I arrived I found that he had resigned his professorship. I admired also Marino Marini, the other major figure in post-war Italian sculpture. He was also one of the professors at Brera, but he had the reputation of coming into the studio once a week to say Ciao and kiss the girls, whereas I needed proper instruction.
I had come down from Cambridge that summer with a degree in History, for want in those days of a course in History of Art. I had arranged for a place at the Courtauld for a year thence and meanwhile went to Milan to put my strong desire for sculpture, for the tactility of sculpture, to the test. (I had started with painting and some clay modelling at school.)
Why Italy? Why Manzu? I knew a little of Germany, where I had been for my National Service as a radio intelligence officer, and France where I had been to Paris and had hitch-hiked through Burgundy and beyond in search of Romanesque churches. I had been to Greece, at a time when you could still camp out among the ruins, and was passionate about pre-4th century Greek sculpture. But Italy was new to me and Milan was a working—rather than a museum— city, and a major centre of contemporary art. Besides, I am a Londoner by birth and needed to go elsewhere. And I had seen some of the latest Italian sculpture at the Hanover Gallery in London, where I had admired Marini for his formal energy and Manzu for his lyrical humanism, and both of them for their sculptural integrity beside the facile mannerism of Emilio Greco. True, I admired Henry Moore above all and then Giacometti. But I needed to get outside the familiarity of my own country and away from the sad bombed-out grimness of post-war Britain.
So I went to the Brera studio of the third professor, Francesco Messina, a very perfect academic sculptor who had been director of the Academy during the Mussolini years. At least he came and taught you something every day. I did a lot of life-drawing before being allowed to copy a Donatello head in clay. After two or three months I managed to find Manzu in his private studio. He liked what I could bring him of my work and immediately made four telephone calls: to his then assistant; to a coppersmith; to his foundry; and to a marble carver, all friends from the Partisans, and he sent me to work with all of them. Manzu had been lent a space in a war-damaged wing of the monumental Castello Sforzesco, the other side of the courtyard where Leonardo had erected his great equestrian monument some 450 years before. It had very high ceilings so he could work on his recent commission for doors for St Peter’s, Rome. As he wasn’t using it for a time he let me use it for my own work. I was particularly chuffed when a workman stuck his head round the door and said “Buon giorno, maestro”. The Courtauld hardly stood a chance after that!
The Fonderia M.A.F. (the initials of the three original partners) was tucked away in a very ordinary street of apartments from about 1900. It was the most ramshackle construction of rafters and corrugated iron sheets kept apart with ropes to let the smoke out. Nine or ten workmen, from apprentices and labourers to expert craftsmen, who were the current partners. This foundry became one of the centres of my life for the next twenty years or more as I was to do all my own casting there. In the early years virtually every time I went, there would be a Manzu at one end of the central workshop and a Marino at the other with lesser fry in between. But the two of them did not really frequent each other.
The winter and spring in wonderful foggy Milan, seeing Manzu from time to time, spending time in the great sculpture museum in the Castello Sforzesco: Romanesque and Gothic sculpture as well as the sublime Rondanini Pieta of Michelangelo; and in the great churches, and exploring towns and villages in the country on the scooter I had acquired with the proceeds of language teaching. Lodging with a desperately poor old lady of 83 whose father had been the trumpeter of Garibaldi; eating in the wooden shack canteens left from the war; making many friends. After that I met up with a Russian/Irish girl I had known before and who had just won a painting scholarship from Corsham to Italy. We went for a while to the school for apprentice marble carvers at Carrara. Then with the scooter we set off for Salzburg where both Manzu and Kokoschka held a truly magnificent summer school in the great medieval fortress. They were both inspiring teachers and it was a great experience. After a visit to England we went to Rome and lived in a mountain village some thirty miles away called Anticoli Corrado. It had a number of purpose-built studios for artists at the Rome academies. Living was very cheap then and especially in mountain villages, Italy being still in post-war penury before its industrial boom. But there was an ease and openness in personal contacts which enabled me to breathe more freely than I could in England at that time. In 1959 we were married, first a civil marriage on Michelangelo’s Campidoglio with the carabineri in ceremonial dress leaning on their swords, followed by a religious ceremony at the Russian Orthodox church.
After the second summer school Manzu moved from his studios in Milan and Bergamo to Rome, to be near the Vatican for which he was working on a pair of huge bronze doors. He invited me to come and work in his new studio on the outskirts of Rome. I was then, and remained, a pupil, but as I gained in experience the situation evolved into that of assistant. There were two studios, one a narrow tall Baroque chapel to hold the full scale plaster model of the doors. This he rented from a Roman principe, together with a flat round the corner where Anita Ekberg had lived while shooting La Dolce Vita; the other a small factory area with three workshops round a courtyard where I spent most of my time setting up panels for the Doors, finishing bronzes, setting up armatures for big figures of his favourite model, Inge, whom he married at this time. I slept in a small room off the yard and was often paid with fiaschi of the Principe’s excellent Fraschati.
Manzu’s founders, especially Ambrogio, would come down from Milan to make the initial casts to take back to the foundry. He continued to use the same Milanese foundry and they made casts with incomparably the freshest imprint: for the relief panels for the Doors. Ambrogio laid the schamotte directly on the damp clay, avoiding the intermediary use of wax. The finishing was done by Silvano, prince of chasers. These were my friends.
Work on the Doors was very slow, as it had been for a dozen years already, due to the Curia’s insistence on themes unacceptable to Manzu. But the new pope, John XXIII, now canonized as a saint in 2014, not only encouraged him to follow his own convictions in the reliefs on the Doors, but commissioned him to do a series of portraits. After Manzu’s initial shyness, and fears that he might be held to account for his Communist sympathies, the two Bergamaschi, speaking the same dialect, got on famously together. The portraits were made in several sittings in the papal apartments and, eventually there were seven different busts in plaster for different destinations. Manzu was very despondent. “What’s the matter, Maestro?” “All these plasters have to be delivered to the Vatican for the Pope to choose from and I fear he won’t choose the best”. “Why not set them out yourself so that the ones you want are the best lit?” “I couldn’t do that. You go”. So I got the seven busts into a Vatican van, and we drove across the Piazza San Pietro and all around Michelangelo’s apses at the back, with Swiss guards opening every gate. I was ushered into the papal lift of heavily carved wood with an ornate throne. With some helpers we got the busts set out in a vast and gloomy hall with only daylight streaming in from the high windows on one side. Quite a challenge! But it worked. He chose the right ones. I heard the Pope coming closer, deep in conversation, before I was discretely ushered out.
I realized I needed to be freer to do my own work and after a while we set off for friends in Paris. We lived and worked in a small pavillon in the suburb of Sartrouville. This is where I did most of my figurative work from a model friend, plus a few portraits, as a development from my work with Manzu. I did some over-life-size figures in plaster, and many smaller modelled pieces where I attempted to get beyond the surface and render vitality through the freshness of the modelling—given through the rapidity and lightness of the fingers; the form given by the palms of the hands; the stance by the stretch of the arms; indeed by the whole reach of the sculptor’s body. All this work we took down to the foundry in Milan in several trips of our 2Chevaux. I worked a lot in the foundry and for a while in Nice, where I divorced and remarried. Together with the paintings of my first wife I exhibited at the Crane Kalman Gallery in 1966. The next year my work was at the Galerie Le Fanal. Meanwhile the Doors were finally installed in 1964 after my departure.
And then I was offered a salaried situation to help an Austrian friend set up a bronze foundry near Salzburg. I was there two and a half years and my work became more formal and abstract. This was determined by my new use of wax, worked with hot irons, and of plaster carved with knives. I followed the forms which grew from the limitations of these techniques, but always in terms of the human body. I then had a show in the massive vaults of the Salzburg Landesregierung Gallery. Never would I have stayed so long in Austria had my French wife not become ill and we were held there by her treatment and insurance. In the darkness of this situation help suddenly came in the form of a legacy. This enabled us to get back to Brianza, the country north of Milan, where we built a house and studio in the mid-Seventies. My work developed further through the Seventies and Eighties, working with plaster masses towards abstract forms, and with more aerial forms in sheet wax. During these years I exhibited in over fifty group shows and ten one-man shows. Most of these were in Milan and nearby towns. I also got to know Richard Demarco who became a dear friend and with whom I exhibited in Edinburgh.
At the end of the Eighties my wife became ill again and looking after her stifled in the end every creative thought. And thus it has remained. When she died I married una donna. Cosa dico? una dea! Said a friend. She had me crated up and shipped back to these shores, shores of her native Cornwall. Too late in life for yet another beginning in sculpture, but she paints magnificently for us both. Happy ending for this tale of beginnings? Yes. Very.