Elizabeth Whittaker – ex-pat sculptor carving a career in Northern France.

31 Oct
medieval toothache

The sculpture Elizabeth nicknamed 'Medieval Toothache'

I’ve been sitting on this interview since July when I stayed in Elizabeth’s villa so should publish it now before it becomes irrelevent.

Elizabeth is an unusual figure in the UK sculpture scene, largely because she entered it so late, with minimal professional training. An antiques dealer until she retired at 50, she has brought much of her knowledge of medieval and renaissance culture (fostered also by the time spent studying music in Vienna in her youth) to bear in creating the themes and models in her work.

She learned her trade on a stonemasonry course at the Vauxhall college of Building in south London, where she gained the ability to work with chisels and carving tools, as well as creating moulds. Today we are fortunate in the materials we are able to utilise, with great effect and precision, to recreate ancient masterpieces – and works of nature. Elizabeth stresses the importance of silicone and latex rubbers in modern mould-making, where the Victorians had to make do with gelatine and beeswax. This has been put to breathtaking effect on a large reproduction of a leaf in her rented property in France, a life-size replica with an intricate network of veins. She somewhat disparagingly terms it a ‘bird-bath.’

Miniature treasures lie semi-concealed all around both her French villas, which act to some extent as a showcase for her work – though, she stresses, there is not much of a local market for it. Part of the pleasure, for her, seems to be the act of creation itself. The twin lion statues who flank the front door are made from a mould that her ex-boyfriend created from the abandoned timbers of Nonsuch palace, a Tudor stately home. A relief of Cosima de Medici adorns the wall in two places, surrounded by a frame of her own creation. The gargoyle-like figure on the wall by her workshop she has nicknamed ‘Medieval Toothache,’ and has actually found a buyer; she sold it to her dentist for twenty pounds.

While she does not claim that her difficulty in making a major professional break was what drove her to buy a house abroad – she genuinely wanted to live part-time in France – Elizabeth does have pronounced opinions about the problems faced by aspiring sculptors. As an art form it is particularly demanding in terms of space and materials. Thus the idea of what she terms ‘social workspace’. Like government-subsidised ‘social housing’, she feels there is an official obligation to provide funds for those trying to make it from unofficial origins. Much ‘cultural’ municipal funding obviously goes to those artists and galleries with established reputations. For large-scale outdoor sculptural projects requiring expensive resources and a team of workers, authorities are reluctant to risk anyone unknown, however talented.

Local connections seem to be important; one of the things that triggered her artistic ambition was her success contributing to a project near her home in Chiswick. Several maquettes she submitted to the self-appointed council – of which she was also a member – influenced the eventual decision to mount a statue of Hogarth, one of the founding fathers of modern art, (as she describes him.) In France her relationships with her neighbours have led to her producing several meaningful face masks, full of wrinkled wisdom. One larger piece, for which extensive modelling was required, is a bust of a close friend, which was then cast in bronze.

While anxious to promote her own work, which is also produced and promoted from London, she is generous with tips and recommendations for other aspiring artists. She insists on the mention of Lev Vykopd, a talented associate and oil painter whose series of paintings of glass-blowers decorate the kitchen. Furthermore, through her personal learning curve she has learnt some valuable trade secrets. Apparently there is a warehouse, on Blythe road in Hammersmith, which contains moulds and reproductions of countless ancient statues and works of art. One example is a section of the Parthenon frieze, recreated to scale. The best part? This warehouse is public property.

It sounds too good to be true, but hey, anyone looking to make their own version of the Venus de Milo, or Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’, why not track down a copy of the original and see if you can do any better.

A cast of the lion-figured support from Tudor-era building Nonsuch Palace

A cast of the lion-figured support from Tudor-era building Nonsuch Palace

iron leaf cast

Iron leaf cast - fountain and birdbath


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