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Archive - Friday, 14 December 2007
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The perfect platform
As platforms for his work go, Martin Jennings knows he is going to be hard pushed to improve on the Eurostar arrival point at the St Pancras international station.
The Oxford sculptor's bronzes adorn prestigious sites in the Houses of Parliament, St Paul's Cathedral, Hampton Court Palace and the Oxford Union.
But his statue of the late Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman, unveiled last month, is bringing him a special glow of satisfaction.
For it is estimated that more than five million people a year will get to see his remarkable tribute to Sir John. And the power of the work, coupled with Betjeman's own abiding appeal, should ensure many of those millions using the station will stop in their tracks to admire this most joyful of monuments.
Judging by the number of travellers queueing to have their photographs taken with it, Mr Jennings's work could be counted as London's latest tourist attraction.
The 7ft statue pays homage to Betjeman's battle to help save St Pancras in 1966, when the station came under threat of demolition amid plans to amalgamate it with Kings Cross.
"Betjeman was outraged and wanted to save St Pancras," said Mr Jennings. "Through his efforts the Government gave the station a grade-I listing the following year. That protection made possible the wonderful restoration."
But as well as being an admirer of Betjeman's willingness to take on misguided decision makers, the sculptor also happened to be well versed in Betjeman's work.
He studied Betjeman poetry at Oxford University, where he read English language and literature in the 1970s. He was, therefore, insistent that the work should feature Betjeman's poetry, which has been carved in slated roundels beneath the sculpture on the station concourse.
"I thought you simply could not do Betjeman without using his poetry. I think he is a much better poet than he is given credit for. I think the less well known his poetry, the better it is."
The lines he selected from Cornish Cliffs were fully appreciated by Candida Lycett Green, Betjeman's daughter, who lives in Uffington.
"Martin has understood the poetry better than most and has chosen fitting and moving lines," she said.
For many of his best portraits, such as the bust of the Queen Mother commissioned to mark her 100th birthday, now displayed in the crypt of St Paul's, he benefited from regular sittings.
With Betjeman, he had to rely on photographs, film and valuable insights of Ms Lycett Green, who advised Mr Jennings, after he won a competition to produce the statue. She had been on the selection panel.
Mr Jennings said: "What I had in mind was this image of Betjeman standing on the cliffs in Cornwall, where he spent a lot of his time."
He also loved travelling by rail. And Mr Jennings, rejoicing in Betjeman's untidy look, then imagined him standing on a provincial platform with an express flying past, blowing up his coat.
Ms Lycett Green and her husband, Rupert, went to see the figure in clay at the Jennings studio in Woodstock, before it was sent to the foundry.
"She liked it very much," said Mr Jennings. "But she did not think he was scruffy enough. She told me to undo the tie and to replace the shoelace with a piece of broken string because he would never have had two shoelaces on properly. His hat would look like a crushed cow pat."
He only began work on it in May and the pressure to have it completed in time for the station opening brought enormous pressure.
"With the statue going into such a public place, with such incredible exposure, I did feel a huge responsibility."
Betjeman would have doubtless loved the setting of the studio, within a former slaughterhouse on the Blenheim Palace estate.
Mr Jennings ended up there a few years ago when he lost his studio in North Oxford, after a much-publicised dispute with his landlords, St John's College.
He had to leave the studio in Rawlinson Road that he had rented for 18 years when St John's came up with plans to demolish the former coach house to make way for housing.
More than 500 people signed a petition criticising the college, which was accused of acting like a "cut-throat developer".
Looking back, he said: "I suppose I became almost a symbol for the small cultural enterprises carried out in little corners of North Oxford that people think are important and want to keep."
Four years after his tenancy ended, he sadly notes that the site appears overgrown and abandoned.
For him it represented an important ethical issue about the responsibilities of Oxford colleges.
"It is a question of whether the college should just care for its own members, or the wider community that it has had much involvement with over centuries.
"I still believe that, as an educational charity, St John's had a duty of care to the community."
One of his most famous subjects, Sir Edward Heath, personally wrote to the Master of St John's urging the college to reconsider.
Mr Jennings has surprisingly warm memories of the time he spent at the Salisbury home of the late Prime Minister with a hard-won reputation for being difficult.
"I came to like Heath. I liked his dry humour. He initially put up a lot of resistance and would arrive for every sitting an hour late."
The former Tory leader, half-smiling, would tell the sculptor where he was going wrong, with both men coming to enjoy a battle of wits.
Despite Sir Edward's apparent lack of enthusiasm for the project, revealingly, he ordered a cast for himself.
The Queen Mother sat for Mr Jennings at Clarence House over the course of a year, in what would be some of the last months of her life.
"Before we met, I was instructed not to speak to her. But she would always immediately start chatting."
He would be put off his guard when she would ask him his views on Germans.
"Politically, I could not be further apart from her. But when she spoke of her personal interests she was charming to be with. She would always bring up the subject of her family, rather like an ordinary grandma. For a sculptor to be able to look at someone of that age is an extraordinary experience."
Given his left-wing political leanings, the irony has not escaped Mr Jennings that he has worked with establishment figures and bête noires of the left, like Sir James Goldsmith.
There have also been numerous Oxford greats, such as Lord Nuffield and Sir Roger Bannister.
He says even the rich and powerful may feel vulnerable when they sit before a sculptor, resulting in tension.
"We all worry how we are seen and try to control how people see us," he said. "I pick out things in the face that show who the person really is. At a certain age, emotions experienced in life mark the face.
"If your primary concern is with likeness, you will not get it. If your concern is to make it work as a piece of sculpture, then the likeness comes about almost by default.
"You learn not to judge people wherever they come from - whatever their opinions. There are always things about them that are unexpected."
So could he produce a bust of someone he totally despised? A figure of evil?
"In theory it might be perfectly ethical to do a portrait of a Hitler, since one is attempting to record who someone is, rather than to put him on a pedestal.
"A good portrait might record the pathological mix of emotions printed on his face in the same way as a biography might go into his psychological make-up. But in reality one's gorge might rise at the notion of spending any time in his presence, and one could never do such a piece of work."
Mr Jennings's work extends well beyond statues and busts.
After leaving Oxford, before undertaking a craft apprenticeship with Richard Kindersley and studying sculpture at the Sir John Cass School of Art in Whitechapel, he studied lettering.
Many of his commissions are now for inscriptions in stone and slate. He has produced national monuments for the British victims of the Gulf War and worked on the Royal Marines monument in The Mall.
In Oxford, his inscription honouring Sir Richard Doll was recently unveiled at the research building named after the scientist who first linked smoking and cancer.
He hopes to soon begin working on a monument in St Mary the Virgin Church, listing the names of both Protestant and Catholic martyrs, a project supported by the Lord Lieutenant of Oxfordshire, Hugo Brunner.
But before that, Mr Jennings may be working on another sculptured portrait, this time of Sir Anthony Eden. As he prepared to leave to meet the former Prime Minister's widow, he contemplated the validity of magnificent monuments.
"Many contemporary artists say we shouldn't be making monuments to individuals any longer. Since we all have feet of clay, which one of us deserves to be commemorated more than another?"
But he is content that Betjeman deserved one. The poet would also, according to his daughter, have felt honoured.
She said: "The statue is inspired. I don't know how Martin got it so right having never met him. He has captured his sense of wonder on first walking into a great man-made space such as a cathedral. He has presented my father as if he had walked into the newly-refurbished station for the first time since he saved it all those years ago. He always looked up at the roof - and in St Pancras more than anywhere. "
Only now there are other national treasures to cherish in the grand old station.
And one of them is the work of Martin Jennings.