How Surrey-based sculptor Nic Fiddian-Green became the master of colossal horse heads
PUBLISHED: 13:27 08 January 2015 | UPDATED: 10:55 25 April 2018
Surrey-based sculptor Nic Fiddian-Green is renowned for his colossal horse heads, which grace a number of our most prestigious venues, from Marble Arch to Royal Ascot. Here, in an exclusive interview, he reveals why it's the view from his hilltop studio in the Surrey Hills that most inspires him
Inside an open-sided barn on a hilltop, a few miles east of Godalming, stands the plaster-coated form of a giant horse’s head measuring more than 18 feet from mane to nostril. It emits an unearthly sense of otherness. A mist of plaster dust dances through the air, turning this looming form and the weathered wood of the barn into a surreal dreamscape.
Out of the shadows steps sculptor Nic Fiddian-Green, his face and eyebrows ashen with plaster. He has made it his life’s work to venerate the beauty, strength and majesty of this most noble of creatures, and is renowned for his dramatic works on a monumental scale.
His obsession began when he chanced upon the Selene Horse, one of the controversial Elgin Marbles, at the British Museum in 1983. “The horse’s head was so beautifully made, so considered, so right,” he says. “It was as if it had been carved by the gods; a lesson in balance, harmony and proportion. Immediately, it became my benchmark and for the past 30 years I have focused on capturing the beauty of a horse’s head.”
Room with a view
In the early 1990s, Nic, 51, his wife Henrietta and their four children, moved to a small 18th century cottage surrounded by fields near Bramley on the Surrey Downs. Initially, he worked in an adjacent cowshed, but has latterly relocated to a shed that is set on open farmland about half a mile away.
“It’s one of my favourite places, particularly before dawn on a spring morning,” he says. “My main view is east, so I can see the sun rising across the fields and over the wood. It’s so inspiring. That, for me, has had the most effect on my work; it’s as English and rural as can be.”
The family have embraced country life wholeheartedly and take their horses out for miles at weekends. “All the children have been raised on horseback and we ride from here to Hascombe across the hills. I also love trout fishing on the Wintershall Estate at Bramley; it’s incredibly serene there.”
Nic, who exhibits at Sladmore Contemporary in London, has had work installed in the prestigious grounds of Royal Ascot, Goodwood and Glyndebourne, but has seen a huge surge of interest in his output since his enormous Still Water sculpture was erected next to Marble Arch, like a ballerina’s foot en pointe, totally eclipsing the grubby sugar-lump monument.
The work was commissioned initially for Lady Bamford in 2005, but proceedings were held up when he became seriously ill with leukaemia after the sculpture had been ordered.
“My wife called Lady Bamford and told her she might want to commission someone else – it was that bad. But she said, ‘No, I will pray for him, and when he is better, he can finish the piece.’” Thankfully, Nic recovered – partly thanks to the motivation of having work to do. In fact, he had a pile of plaster at the end of his hospital bed where he modelled the first drafts.
The original sculpture was first installed at Marble Arch while the Bamfords sought planning permission, and then taken to Daylesford, their Gloucestershire estate. But it was much missed by commuters, so Nic sculpted a copy for the spot and was deeply moved by the public response. “I was very humbled when so many people said they felt uplifted by it as they rushed to work. It made me think, after 30 years of experimenting, that something I was doing was actually speaking to people.”
Nic’s creative talent manifested itself at a young age. “At Eton College, I drew and drew and drew, but when I tried to paint it just didn’t work. The turning point came when I picked up a piece of clay while studying a foundation course at the Chelsea College of Art and Design.”
Nevertheless, the path to success was long and hard. And when he later studied at Wimbledon College of Arts, he was discouraged from focusing on horse heads. “They thought they were too commercial; that I would end up in stable yards trying to reap the harvest from the landed gents they assumed I spent time with. There was a lot of inverted snobbery back then.”
He is in two minds as to whether his Eton background has been a help or hindrance. “Wandering those corridors, which had been designed by great architects, was certainly inspiring; there is something about being surrounded by beautiful things.
“But an education like that does tend to put you in a box and Eton certainly wasn’t easy or fun. Art at the school wasn’t treated as a serious discipline back then; it was for those who couldn’t do anything else. And although people might argue that I made a lot of useful contacts, my most important and influential patron – who supported me when I was starting out – wasn’t rich at all. He simply believed in what I did.”
Nic initially cast small horse heads weighing in at five or six kilos, but these days his largest pieces – which cost around £1.5m – tend to be a rich man’s game and grace the grounds of many a grand house. Three years ago, he built one of his most important works to date, Artemis, inspired by the Selene Horse. Initially, it was installed on The Trundle, a hill above Goodwood Racecourse, but was eventually sold and now stands in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales.
He says that his illness changed his attitude to his work. “I’m braver and I’m prepared to take bigger risks to get my pieces into public spaces. When you’ve glimpsed the fragility of life, you realise you only have one chance, so why not?”
Angel of the south
Back in July, he sold a record 48 pieces at Masterpiece, the annual international art and design fair at the Royal Hospital Chelsea. His stand, designed by Sladmore Contemporary, cleverly recreated his hilltop studio crowded with tools and work in progress, and won best in show. Visitors even got a chance to see Nic himself, in plaster-streaked jeans, getting on with his work.
In the longer term, he hopes to create an Angel of the South to rival Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North. “When I had the horse on The Trundle, which is a powerful Iron Age site that looks out across the sea, it generated an astonishing reaction. And since then I’ve wondered, what if I could build it three times the size? I had a discussion with Lord March, who owns the land, but it wasn’t the right time. But that’s just one place on the Downs.”
He is determined to keep the dream alive. “When the sculpture first arrived on the hill, this guy sauntered up with two little kids and took a huge interest. Two years later, when the horse was being removed, he showed up again and asked whether I remembered him. ‘I’ve been bringing my boys up here to look at this horse for years,’ he said, ‘and they just want to put a bridle on it and take it away.’
“That, to me, is where art speaks. And if he is the only person to whom it could have meant so much, my work will have been worthwhile.”
My Favourite Surrey...
Restaurant: The White Horse in Hascombe, a 16th century coaching inn that we reach by walking across the hills from home. It’s one of Surrey’s many hidden treasures.
Shop: Albury Game Angling, a fishing shop in Albury run by Peter Cockwill. I spend a lot of time just staring at flies and fishing reels, and the staff are very knowledgeable.
View: Here in my studio at dawn. It gets the sun all day and looks down over an undisturbed valley.
Place to relax: On the steps of my shepherd’s hut at Wintershall Lake, where I like to fish.
Place to visit: The Watts Gallery at Compton. I particularly like the cast room. GF Watts’ allegorical work is very poetic and beautiful. They also serve very good tea in charming mismatched china.