A Conversation with Shirley Pace - Opera, Sculpture and her love of Horses

I did this interview about a year ago, originally for Sussex Life, but in the end the publication and editor I wrote it for in it's form then discontinued. I have decided to put it on Art In Brighton, because it's still relevant and would be a shame to have it sitting on my laptop forever more.

On the window of Shirley Pace’s studio is a message to visitors:

“Are you open? Yes. Won’t I be disturbing you? Only if you wish too! Is it your work? Yes. Are they genuine bronze? Yes. Are they for sale? Yes. Can I browse without any obligation to buy? Almost everyone does! Come on in.”

This simple message, for the Artist’s Houses event that has just passed, speaks volumes of her character as an artist and human being. Pragmatic, good humoured and open to visitors and conversations. She said: “I will have a cup of tea waiting for when you arrive.”

She has travelled across America, 25000 miles and 44 states, created work which can be found in collections all over the world from Bermuda and America, to Hong Kong and Australia. And her latest commission, a 12 foot high, two tonne Dray Horse – the second in her career, with her first being completed at the Old Courage Brewery in London in 1987 – has recently been paraded through Dorchester in front of thousands of people.

Cup of tea in hand, sitting in the sun with her husband she revealed that she trained as an opera singer in her youth at the Guildhall School of Music sand enjoyed a successful career in music. She toured with greats like Benjamin Britten, Peter Piers and the English Opera Group, before returning to England to work in Sanderson’s, where she met her husband Roy.

 Married for 58 years now, but the love and warmth as strong as ever, spending two hours around them was very revealing. At the route, a unified love of art, but strong and independent interests. She likes to work on her own, Roy – later to teach at the Royal College of Art for five years, an avid sailor and is working on creating an amphibious, flying car – likes to talk meaning that sharing a studio in the garden makes for an interesting dynamic! She spoke proudly of her “arty farty” family, and of her children, one a photographer called Carina Parkes, the other a horse whisperer.

With two children and despising the noise of London they “bought the ugliest house on the south coast” in Emsworth in the 1970s, and got themselves a horse. But as she corrected me, this is not where it all started.

When I asked how when she became an artist she laughed.

“Boredom of being a housewife. I tried to find anything to keep myself busy. I wrote a book about breaking in a horse, wrote poetry and would sing from time to time up in London. One day, I made a little plasticine model of my friend’s dog Tim and thought it was rather good.”

Having seen a photo of it, this is an understatement, I thought it was an actual dog and it came as no surprise to me she sent it to Franklin Mint to become a collector’s item.

This sparked a fire for creating art which became more evident as the interview went on, especially when we turned our conversation to horses.

“I love the dynamism of horses. Horses for me are like a charge of dynamite in a silk handkerchief. They are just imminent movement, and it is that imminence and that alertness that I want to capture.”

Her work is not focused on being anatomically accurate observations; they are more emotive than that. She tries and captures the movement of the horse “it’s not accurate, it’s just there.”

This emotive style is clear throughout her work. Looking through her portfolio of work I found the busts and portraits of people equally impressive but Shirley seemed less keen about these.

“I find it harder to sculpt people because of how I work. I need to be able to run my hand down a horse’s leg, feel the tendons, know they’re there, see them all flexing. Feeling is very important to me. It would be quite interesting to do something blindfolded and see what comes of it.”

This creates an appeal to her work. Not just in the materials used and the sheer joy she takes from creating it, but also simple solutions to difficult problems. For example, rather than creating plinths or making pedestal’s for her models she will sculpt the shadow of each sculpture out of bronze, meaning that each sculpture is free standing.

Asking if being a woman in the 20th Century has affected her career, she disagreed, holding up other examples of great female artists including Elizabeth Frink, Barbara Hepworth and Louise Bourgeois before concluding:

“I work purely through my heart. I can’t think it through, if I think it through it all goes wrong. It drives me, so therefore I have to go along with it and if something goes wrong then I just have to start again there is no point trying to put things right.”

In her studio and talking about her latest major commission in Dorchester, I was fascinated how an 81 year old, 5 foot tall lady, makes a 12 foot sculpture.

“First I make maquettes - small versions in clay - and a mould is taken. Then it is scaled up to 1 and a quarter life size. Then, I borrowed a barn in Donnington, near Chichester and it took 6 weeks of 9-5 with half an hour break for eggs at lunchtime, of staggering – tottering! - up and down ladders and using my very own cherry picker. I had to work quickly you see so the clay wouldn’t dry.”

“Then a mould is taken and transported to a foundry in North Wales and they did a ‘lost wax’ cast in bronze. They did it with absolute care and attention, before finally being transported to Dorchester on an HGV.”

“Then the parade was one hell of a parade, I wasn’t expecting that! Thousands of people!”

Most people would be exhausted, Shirley quite the opposite:

“It completely took over my life. Roy had a bit of a thin time as I didn’t feed him for 6 weeks! It infused me with an energy I have not known before. I would wake up and cook my meal, and just couldn’t wait to get there. I’d love to do another one.”

 What is most impressive about this incredible woman, is that despite having such a varied and exciting life and career she is quite candid about her part in all of it.

“I’m writing a book about this now because I really have had the most lucky life. Apart from a frightful childhood, so many things have happened, and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. And that is luck! Nothing special in that really...”

(C) Millie Hutchings for the photography