Work of the writer Philip Pullman is now celebrated artistically in the shape of a wonderful sculpture in Oxford Botanic Garden, the setting for crucial scenes in his novel sequence His Dark Materials.

The eye-catching construction in stainless steel is the work of the Bristol-based sculptor Julian Warren, a specialist on wildlife, one of whose creations – a bird of paradise – is displayed on the desk of television presenter Sir David Attenborough.

Julian is a friend of the garden’s director Prof Simon Hiscock, formerly of Bristol University’s botanical gardens where more of his work can be seen.

The new sculpture depicts the famous ‘daemons’ of His Dark Materials, and is sited behind the bench where the books’ principal characters, the 12-year-olds Lyra Belacqua, and Will Parry, enjoy a number of meetings.

Since Will’s daemon, in its final settled form, is a cat called Kinjava, Julian has been able to demonstrate once more his skill in showing us felines. The Botanic Garden already boasts, beaming down from a tree, the grinning Cheshire Cat of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

As Simon Hiscock explained when the daemons were “metaphorically unveiled”, as he put it, the works are designed to stir people’s interest in horticulture through the medium of literature.

“For the past few years, with great support from the Friends of Oxford Botanic Garden, we have been developing what we call a literary garden in a relaxed woodland area inside the main walled garden.”

The unveiling was performed in fine style by Sir Philip Pullman, to employ the title recently bestowed on him by the Prince of Wales, both a noted horticulturalist and a fan of His Dark Materials.

In glorious evening sunshine, with a popping of corks and the bells of Oxford ringing around him, he told us how he hit on the concept of the daemon and of his delight in seeing his creations presented in steel. He gave intriguing hints, too, about his new novel.

He said: “I first learned what a daemon was – it was about 2 o’clock of 2.30 on a summer afternoon – in 1993 when I began to write a book that I had agreed to do for my publisher and I spent a lot of time trying to get it right, and trying to get the first chapter right. And it wasn’t working, and I didn’t know what the matter was and I had spent all the money he gave me.

“Then suddenly I discovered that my heroine Lyra had a daemon which was spelt DAEMON. I didn’t know she had before I discovered it on the page as I wrote it. And so I discovered what the daemon was and what it did – quite by chance.

“I’d discovered the daemon was an aspect of the character that normally isn’t seen. And if this were Lyra’s world our daemons would all be with us perhaps, in her pockets or sitting at her feet. I found it a very useful idea for clarifying and dramatising certain aspects of the character’s personality.

“It doesn’t sort of foretell the future, or anything; it doesn’t set your destiny in stone. If your daemon is a dog, for example, you’re quite likely to find yourself a servant. It doesn’t mean you have got to be a servant; what it means is that you will be a very good servant.

“The characters in Lyra’s world have a slight advantage over us in that they know a little bit more about themselves than we do. But they still find it very difficult, and Lyra is having terrible trouble in the latest book, which I’m in the middle of – well, I’m about to start copy editing, and it will be out in October.

“I’m having trouble because she, like me, is discovering more about her daemon as the story goes on.

“[The daemon] was a good idea and I’m glad I discovered it because it did a lot to help me push the story forward, and say things which are important or interesting.”

What he loved about Julian’s sculpture, he said, was that the daemons had clearly been made in metal by an artist’s hands.

“My daemon hasn’t got a name. I suppose if she did it would be Nevermore, as the raven says in Edgar Allan Poe’s poem: “Quoth the raven, nevermore.” Anyway, Nevermore is sitting on the top there brooding over everything. And there is Will’s daemon in the form that she finally achieves.

“And there on the lower limb of the tree is Pantalymon [Lyra’s daemon, a pine marten] and there’s a daemon moth on the apple there. She’s very welcome too.”

Speaking of his work, Julian told me: “I usually start with the head and then scale the body to fit. At later stages I will make adjustments to breathe life into the work. For example the way the raven cocks its head to look at you in a quizzical way, or how the cat arches his back to reveal tension and relief at the same time.

“What the artist achieves is through thousands of hours of hard graft and observation; the hand-made quality, every hammer blow and twist of the grips, cannot be reproduced by machine or casting. If a piece of art feels like it has soul it’s because a lot of soul went into it.”

Sir Philip is sorry about damage to iconic bench

The novelist Philip Pullman was ready with an apology as well as praise when he unveiled (see left) Julian Warren’s delightful new sculpture of the principal daemons of His Dark Materials at Oxford Botanic Garden. Indeed, he began his speech with it.

He said: “The first thing I want to do is to apologise to Jane Tomkinson and Mary Monteith whose bench, generously placed there by their friends and family – I don’t know which – I took over and put into a story.

“And I do regret that people have sat there and carved Lyra and Will’s initials into it. That is something I hoped wouldn’t happen; but perhaps Jane and Mary will forgive me for that.”

In order to encourage a spirit of clemency from their shades, Philip has a plan, he tells me.

“I think it would be a good idea if I were to compensate for the damage to the bench, in a way I can, by using their names in one of my forthcoming books.”

It might assist in this matter, one supposes, if something of the ladies’ personalities could be reflected in the characters.

The trouble is, nothing is known about them. The Botanic Garden’s boss Prof Simon Hiscock finds donor records were disposed of some time before he took over, and staff and volunteers are in the dark about the ladies.

Philip wondered if the library at Newspaper House would assist, so I gave it a go.

There were no files on either Miss Tomkinson or Miss Monteith, either clippings or photographs; nor were their names mentioned in the fat file of articles on the garden (though it proved most educational to read them).

The plaque on the bench – it reads “In memory of Jane Tomkinson and Mary Monteith” – looks to be of fairly recent vintage.

Does anyone remember them? If so, please get in touch and I will pass on information to Philip.