Creating a childhood stable of model ponies served Juliet Cursham well when secretarial skills evaded her, as she explains to Janet Menzies
From creating model ponies from plasticine and felt to crafting the trophies for the World Elephant Polo Association, Juliet Cursham explains to Janet Menzies why travelling was the best form of training.
For more sporting artists, Katrina Slack’s work doesn’t just depict environmental damage, but incorporates it. And Susan Leyland has created a sculpture to remember the equines that fell during World War I.
Equestrian sculptor Juliet Cursham would have quite liked to go to art college. Instead, she travelled the world, from Australia to Nepal, Hong Kong and Brunei, mingling with maharajas and playing polo on elephants – all of which has turned out to be exactly the right training to develop her skills as one of our most popular sculptors, working in bronze, silver and even gold.
Cursham cheerfully admits she was not well suited to the more conventional career her parents had planned out for her. “It was decided I would be ‘finished’ with a secretarial and cookery course. But I turned out to be the world’s worst secretary and I was always getting sacked for being useless. Eventually I went to Australia and New Zealand and played polo and did polo grooming, which my Pony Club training had fitted me for.
“By the time I came back to England I was determined not to be a secretary again, so I went to work in Newmarket for the racehorse trainer Gavin Pritchard-Gordon and ended up meeting lots of the Newmarket trainers. Gavin’s house was full of bronzes and I found myself thinking: I could do that myself.”
This proved to be a turning point. Not content with simply day-dreaming in the way most people do about being artistic, Cursham set out to discover what was involved. “I asked a sculptor how to make the bronzes and she said you start out with Plasticine.”
Having spent her childhood making Plasticine ponies, Cursham knew exactly how to do that. “As a child I always made and drew horses. Eventually, I did have a real pony but until then I made all my ponies out of Plasticine or felt or anything I could find. My friend and I had a whole string of Julip horse models and we made them stables out of cardboard, which attracted an influx of mice. So, really, it’s never stopped – I’m always trying to make horses!”
TRAVELLING TO TRAIN
She concedes that even had her parents been able to predict her future as a successful equestrian artist, art college might still not have been the right thing for her. “Looking back, I don’t think art school would have suited me. I am a representational artist, I want to represent what an animal looks like. I don’t really get the conceptual art thing, and so art school may have helped me less than what I learned on my travels. And, of course, all those jobs have helped me build a great client base.”
Armed with help from horse-racing sculptor Philip Blacker and with a copy of George Stubbs’s Anatomy of the Horse tucked under her arm, Cursham set to work; commissions soon followed. “I was helped by Gavin’s brother, Grant Pritchard-Gordon, and got the commission to sculpt Dancing Brave. That really got me started. I was also introduced to Guy Watkins at the Hong Kong Jockey Club and he commissioned me to do some bronzes, including some life-size works. I have two large pieces, life-size horses, under way in China right now, being built. They are in the new Conghua Training Facility in Guangzhou, which will be opened in September. I am a bit worried – I’m not sure how they are getting on with them. And then the Sultan of Brunei’s youngest brother bought some pieces from me, but said he wanted something in a nicer colour – which meant gold. So I had to go and team up with some goldsmiths to get that done.”
But for sheer adventurous glamour it is hard to top Cursham’s commission to sculpt the trophies for the World Elephant Polo Association. Just the phrase “elephant polo” conjures up images of wilder times, when fun was enjoyed without the benefit of health and safety intervention. The late, moustachioed, maverick comedian Jimmy Edwards was a founder of the original tournament, having come up with the idea after completing a particularly gratifying Cresta Run. Cursham remembers: “I was invited to go out to play in 1990. They wanted to give a special present to one of the maharajas, which was an elephant in silver – you black the finish which gives a great impact. The other pieces I made sold out very quickly. You don’t have to know how to play polo to play elephant polo. You have a mahout who sits in the front and you are strapped on to a great big mattress and you sit up behind. The polo sticks are so long you have to bind them to your arm. Billy Connolly said it was like playing polo on top of a London double-decker bus with four flat tyres. You change elephants and have a Bloody Mary between chukkas.”
Really the perfect artistic life, much more interesting than starving in a garret.
To contact Juliet Cursham, call 07836691302 or go to: www.cursham.co.uk