Friday, 27 July 2012


Creating a statue of Charles Dickens is easy. Get a large lump of clay about three metres square, deposit it in an attractive studio on the edge of the Cotswolds - and then remove all the bits that don’t look like one of the world’s greatest authors.
Sculptor Martin Jennings has several buckets of the stuff in his studio which looks nothing like Charles Dickens. But on a large platform with industrial sized casters, there is an amalgam of phyllosilicate minerals containing trapped water within its structure (clay to you and me), that looks extraordinarily like the great man.
Of course, I’m making light on the talent of a sculptor. The 7’ tall ‘Boz’ whose creative mind has already delivered characters that will become known and loved globally, sits quietly on a chair. His mind is brooding on achievements to date and firing on all cylinders as characters and plots pace around his creative brain. And as he considers the structure of ‘Our Mutual Friend’ or perhaps ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’, he is also pondering the audience beyond a curtain who have gathered in their thousands to hear his words.
This appearance will not just be a reading but a theatrical performance of incredible energy and passion. He knows that if he doesn’t get at least fifteen women fainting at his lurid and sweat flying delivery of Bill Sykes smashing the life out of good hearted Nancy, then the performance will have been a failure.
As he considers the performance, Dickens finds it hard to sit still and the book in his hand falls against his knee as he looks you in the eye, juts out his impressive beard and makes to unstick his clay body from his clay chair in order to share a sudden and important thought with you.
This is a complex Dickens. A Dickens of compassion and of creative intensity. A family man who loved his children, yet a man who despite his fame, embarked on an affair with a pretty young actress and did the dirty on the wife who bore him ten children. A man who represented the down trodden and put upon, a man who embarrassed society in the way it exploited the poor, a man who lampooned the pompous and the self-important, a man who generated laughter, tears, and an awkward short sharp look when his readers looked at themselves in a mirror.
And importantly, this is a Dickens that Dickens does not know yet. He doesn’t know that 200 years after being born, his words will continue to resonate. He’d be thoroughly thrilled to find that none of his novels has yet to go out of print. Thrilled that a new-fangled medium is delivering his message through technologies called television, radio and cinema and as a result, audiences are continuing to laugh, cry and be moved by the simple morals that flowed from his quill.
He won’t know that when he dies, there will be queues of weeping fans waiting to file by his grave in Westminster Abbey for day after day as they mourn their hero, the man who represented them and gave them hope. He won’t know that in 2012, the world celebrated his achievements and the gifts he gave us, in a frenzy of media adulation. He would be touched beyond belief and those hooded eyes would be smiling and vibrantly alive in response to such outpourings.
So this is much more than removing the bits of clay in order to deliver a Tussaud’s style facsimile of a dead Victorian author, and it is here that Martin Jennings truly earns his crust. As the first ever statue for Dickens in the UK (and most are amazed to discover that fact) the responsibility to communicate all of the above emotions – and many more besides – is an onerous one.
An artist’s genius is all about applying a firm and clear brief on the journey they wish the observer to make. A constant review on every single brush stroke, every single element of colour and - for the sculptor - every tiny swish of clay either contributes to the narrative they want to tell, or delivers an irrelevant confusion to the core message.
And Martin has focused on hundreds of tiny elements that communicates all of the energies of Dickens, while at the same time delivering a piece that will stand the test of time. Too easy to amplify a single core quality in a frenzy of modernism, only to see it look dated in a decade or so.

The stack of books at his side, the great swathe of cloth around the chair, each button, every fold and flick of his tail coat, every crease in his waistcoat, every hint from his shoe clad feet to the top of his wild and tousled hair are all contributing to the energy of the piece. A large pin board takes a prominent place in the studio and has numerous engravings and photographs of Dickens to act as a guide. Descriptions of the man from his best friend John Forster, from his son Henry Fielding Dickens’s memoirs, even from the latest biography by Claire Tomalin adds to the understanding and influences whether the clay is consigned to the bucket, or added to the steel and wire skeleton as a vital part of the narrative.

The full size masterpiece is close to completion and almost ready for a mould to be made. But not an ounce of molten bronze can be poured by the foundry until the Charles Dickens Statue Fund has reached its target. And until that happens, Martin Jennings’ brilliant interpretation of this literary colossus will remain under wraps.

I’ve been privileged to stand on that platform and come face to face with my illustrious forebear. It would be a travesty if millions of visitors to Portsmouth were unable to do the same. It spurs Gerry and I to do our very best with our fund raising walk and we urge you to do the same by clicking on the link at the top of this blog and being as generous as you can.

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