Interview with Conrad Shawcross, designer of Chiswick’s new sculpture Enwrought Light

Image above: Conrad Shawcross at his workshop in East London

Mad about geometry

Interview with Conrad Shawcross, creator of Enwrought Light, a sculpture to celebrate Irish poet W.B Yeats in Bedford Park

Walking into Conrad Shawcross’s workshop in Lower Clapton you get the impression straight away that this is somewhere very special, where interesting things happen. More like a motor mechanic’s garage or an engineering workshop than an artist’s studio, everywhere you look there are hoists and bits of machinery, above our heads the huge arms of a rope winding machine for Conrad’s next project, which involves making massive ropes several metres in diameter.

Down some homemade metal stairs is the basement where all the welding, cutting and heavy work is done and he explains the ceiling is made of panels which fold back so he can build tall structures and hoist them up to the floor above when he’s ready.

Image above: Conrad’s workshop in Lower Clapton

He bought the disused factory in the days before this part of the East End became too trendy to be affordable, and designed himself a workshop specifically to meet the needs of building sculptures. The result is a light, airy space where engineering meets art and the most inspiring office I have ever encountered, full of geometrical shapes, both natural and man (Conrad) made.

He is fascinated by mathematics, especially geometry, and inspired by science and philosophy. It takes a certain confidence to commit to being a sculptor from a very early age.

“I went to art school at 18. I was always making stuff. I didn’t have the patience for architecture – building codes and planning applications – anyway seven years’ training was too long, although actually I did six years’ training to become a sculptor. I love what I do.”

Conrad is the son of biographer William Shawcross and the novelist and cultural historian Marina Warner. He studied at Chelsea School of Art, the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art and the Slade School of Fine Art (University College London).

Images above: Some of the interesting geometrical bits and pieces lying around the office

Conrad, the youngest living member of the Royal Academy of Arts, (he’s 45), was commissioned by Cahal Dallat to create a sculpture which celebrated W.B. Yeats, who lived in Bedford Park as a young man, spending his formative years here with his family, during which he wrote some of his most famous poems.

Cahal, one of Ireland’s best-known living poets, who lives in Bedford Park now, has campaigned for years to get Yeats’ presence in Chiswick recognised. After getting St Michael & All Angels vicar Kevin Morris and Director of the Chiswick Book Festival Torin Douglas on board, and having secured the approval of the Bedford Park Society, the Yeats committee applied for planning permission and raised the requisite £184,000 in funds by crowdfunding, no mean feat.

Images above: Paradigm, at the Francis Crick Institute; Exploded Paradigm at the Comcast Technology Centre

Enwrought Light is one of a series of sculptures Conrad has created which are essentially stacks of tetrahedons (a polyhedron with four triangular faces, like a pyramid only with a triangular base).

Previous structures in the series include Paradigm, a permanent installation at the Francis Crick Institute, a biomedical research centre in NW1, dedicated to Francis Crick, the molecular biologist contributed hugely to our understanding of DNA, and Exploded Paradigm at the Comcast Technology Centre in Philadelphia.

Conrad describes ‘our’ sculpture as ‘fractured.’ I had the impression from the CGI image it would be quite fragile, but actually it is very robust and solid. What is clever is the way the gold and silver coloured facets reflect light so they seem ephemeral, making Enwrought Light ever-changing, reflecting the seasons and the conditions around it.

Images above: CGI of Enwrought Light; sculpture newly installed on Friday 2 September 2022

Chiswick’s new sculpture has its origins in 2014, when Conrad met Cahal as he was working on the Francis Crick memorial. They started talking about concepts and ideas. Conrad started reading Yeats.

“What resonated with me most was the phrase ‘widening gyre’ [Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer – The Second Coming] and the first four lines from Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven.”

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

“A widening gyre is a spiralling form – a spiral or a vortex and the gold and silver cloths of heaven gave me opportunities to play around with materials.”

Image above: Conrad showing me a prototype piece of Enwrought Light; geometric shapes around the office

Enwrought Light is made from steel: “very durable, it won’t rust and shouldn’t tarnish”, but conscious of the potential for vandalism he was quick to add the ‘gold’ and ‘silver’ were Rimex metals – marine grade stainless steel and added rather wryly:

“We hope it will be respected. We are gambling that the geometric truth of it will give it protection.”

The core is engineered in Duplex, the strongest of stainless steels.

He likes to think Yeats would have appreciated his sculpture and preferred it to a more traditional statue in his name.

“We have in common that we are both abstract artists interested in the metaphysical and the philosophical. He wouldn’t have liked a sad looking bust. You want someone to conjour what you’ve created and pay homage. Hopefully he would have liked it.”

He hopes also that the sculpture will be a ‘destination’ – that people will come to Chiswick specially to see it. It is after all right by the Turnham Green tube station.

“I have made about 15 public sculptures. This one I am really excited about – the way the light bounces off it and the sky is reflected off it is exciting.”

It was six months in the making and he describes it as a tetrahedal stack – “a spine with a floating exoskeleton, almost like light bulbs that have shattered and are hanging.”

He showed me how he had cut out the leaves and linked them to the internal spine.

As I arrived back in Chiswick to take a picture of the newly installed sculpture, with the stonework inlaid with words from the poem still drying around the base, Cahal was there with the workmen from Wootton and Dawe just finishing up.

“All the comments we’ve had so far have been very positive” he told me. “People are delighted by it.”

Peter Murray OBE, Chairman of New London Architecture and the London Society and resident of Bedford Park commented on social media:

“Great to see this taking shape, ready for unveiling next week: Enwrought Light by Conrad Shawcross RA, which will honour W B Yeats’ sojourn in Bedford Park. Congratulations to @CLDallat for making this happen.”

Enwrought Light will be unveiled on Tuesday 6 September at 4.30pm outside St Michael & All Angels Church on the corner of Bath Rd and The Avenue.

If you would like to hear more about Conrad Shawcross’s work, his show Cascading Principles, 35 works exploring geometry, tetrahedons and philosophy, is opening 27 September in the Maths Institute in Oxford.

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

See also: Bedford Park – the hotbed of radical free-thinkers
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