Bronze age wonders

Hamish Mackie

Oxfordshire-based artist Hamish Mackie has become renowned globally for his dramatic sculptures of animals

For anyone accustomed to seeing bronze as the medium for statues of military heroes and ancient gods, the work of award-winning sculptor Hamish Mackie is something of a revelation.

Hamish manages to convey not only movement but also every muscle and sinew, and even a sense of character in his wildlife works, breathing life into the bronzes he creates – from the smallest swifts and dippers to elephants, rhinos and life-sized lions.

Growing up on the family’s livestock farm in Cornwall gave Hamish an exceptional eye for animal form, but his work is about much more than anatomical accuracy. “I want my sculptures to be dynamic,” he explains. “I make a real point of observing wildlife in its natural habitat, so I get a proper understanding of what they’re about and how they move. As a subject a wild animal is completely different from a zoo animal.”

The Oxfordshire-based artist believes he was “lucky to fall into something” he enjoys doing, although his talent was evident early. “I actually sold an A-Level exam piece to parents of a school friend for £50,” he says. “I thought it was bonkers that someone was prepared to pay for something I’d made.”

That first sale also introduced Hamish to a different way of working, when the new owners took the fragile clay model to Lockbund Foundry to have it cast into bronze. “The foundry and I have grown up together,” says Hamish. “They’re a great team who really rise to the challenge, and they do a fantastic job producing museum-quality castings.” He is now the foundry’s biggest client.

To create most of his works, Hamish uses the lost-wax casting process, with sculptures of otters, hares, deer, grouse, rhino and big cats among his most successful pieces. He also works to commission, and his art appears in public and private collections worldwide, but he’s determined not to be pigeonholed in any single area of sculpture. As well as working in alternative mediums including silver and stainless steel, Hamish often tackles different subject matter – such as the bust of Winston Churchill, originally created for an Arabian client who smoked the same cigars as the wartime prime minister. One of the busts now features in the Churchill exhibition at Blenheim Palace, and another is held in the White House.

He also recently completed a series of seven bronze nudes, working from a life model, with one pose echoing some of the lines evident in the iconic Rolls-Royce Spirit of Ecstasy. “It’s something I’ve done on and off over the years,” he says. “Working with a life model is so different to working with wildlife, particularly in its natural habitat. Rather than having to rely on often fleeting glimpses of the subject, and then using my own knowledge of the animal’s form to create the sculpture, with a life model you can look at things in the round, and move them into exactly the pose you want to capture. It’s important for me that I can vary my work, and not be perceived purely as a wildlife specialist.”

What doesn’t change is his attention to detail. For his recent lion sculptures Hamish spent a week with a lion-monitoring team at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy project in Kenya, gaining an insight into the behaviour of these beasts in the wild, taking photographs and videos and making a small sculpture on site. He has been a regular visitor to the project over the past 25 years, and is a passionate supporter of efforts to protect native species in this East Africa wildlife haven. Where possible, Hamish tries to promote conservation through his art, and is currently working closely with both Tusk Trust and the Northern Rangelands Trust, a Kenyan community organisation that supports 35 conservation initiatives across 4.5 million hectares. “They work with local people,
look after vast areas and create huge wildlife corridors – its incredible what they are achieving.”

While the “big five” African mammals – lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and African buffalo – all feature regularly in Hamish’s wildlife sculptures, his most high-profile work to date is the six horses galloping through water in the main piazza of Goodman’s Fields in the City of London, commissioned by developers Berkeley Group. The 1:1.25-scale sculptures feature a range of breeds including an Andalusian, a Russian Arab and an Irish Cob, and the scale of the work is staggering. Hamish normally uses 250kg of clay a year, but this project used 6.5 tonnes of clay in six months, along with 1.5km of steel rods to make the skeletons and armatures. The final product is a powerful, fluid piece of art which links this modern urban site to the livestock that played such a key part in its history. It won him the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association’s 2016 Marsh Award for Excellence in Public Fountains.

As one of the first successful artists of his generation not to rely on commercial galleries, Hamish has established a global platform for his work online, supported by his own solo shows every three to four years. At the start of 2020 he began working with the MBA Business team from Gloucester University, to identify the best way to expand the market for his work into new countries such as China and Russia. However his planned exhibition in London this year fell victim to the coronavirus pandemic, and his partnership with the university is now focusing on improving the opportunities for people to view and buy his work through his website.

“I think this will be the way forward across the art world generally,” says Hamish. “The internet has made a huge difference, because suddenly as an artist you have a worldwide market. Physical exhibitions are a significant expense, so providing potential clients and collectors with the chance to view works online, in detail, is essential. And of course, visitors will always be welcome by appointment at my studio here in Oxfordshire, for private, one-to-one viewings.”