Creating a memorial to the equines that fell during the First World War was an emotional challenge, as Susan Leyland explains to Janet Menzies
With a life-long love of horses and fascinated by sculpture, Susan Leyland found herself faced with an emotional challenge in creating the War Horse Memorial Project.
This time four years ago, in her studio in Florence, Italy, sculptor Susan Leyland was researching the experiences of horses, mules and donkeys during the First World War. In my study in Somerset, I was doing the same thing. The article I wrote marked the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War. Now, Leyland’s finished sculpture, The War Horse Memorial, has just been unveiled in Ascot to commemorate the end of that war. As Leyland describes her four-year journey to make the statue, we can all empathise with the challenge of creating a constructive work of art from the emotions she was going through.
“I was asked to submit drawings and ideas in June 2014 for a possible war horse sculpture and, since then, not a day has passed without me working on the War Horse Memorial Project,” Leyland explains. “I took the commission to heart from day one – it was marvellous for me as an artist to be asked to do this, but it did feel like a great responsibility.”
Originally conceived by Ascot businessman Alan Carr and charity guru Susan Osborne, the War Horse Memorial is a charity as well as a memorial and a sculpture, and acts as a figurehead for fundraising for a number of charities, including The Household Cavalry Foundation and the Mane Chance Sanctuary.
In creating the piece, Leyland embraced its multiple roles: “All the artists considered for the work had proved themselves as sculptors, and I think what I was able to bring was the idea of creating a horse that would stand for all horses. I had a recurrent vision of a soldier with bowed head as in The Brooding Soldier Canadian memorial. And this somehow linked with a photo of me on my horse in Scotland taken on an island while the tide was out.”
Leyland became enthralled by sculpture in the 1990s, when she discovered traditional Impruneta terracotta clay, which originally dates from the Etruscan period. Immediately she began to model horses: “I think I was remembering a small collection of white Chinese porcelain horses I used to have and, of course, my life-long love of horses. I learnt by trial and error. I wanted to create beautiful horses with fine legs but I found that it was technically impossible to do. One day I broke the horse’s legs, head and neck off one of my fired pieces and mounted what was left on an old piece of stone.”
ONE THOUSAND CHALLENGES
Since then, Leyland’s techniques have broadened but, even so, she wasn’t entirely satisfied with the legs on the War Horse model. “The challenges have been a thousand-fold – but all part of the process and arriving at the final piece. The last thing I did was to shorten all four legs of the wax maquette.”
Despite this, Leyland stresses that the emotional content of the work was the most difficult element. “It took far more energy and psychological stress than l could ever have imagined. My first thoughts were towards the future, perhaps a horse looking beyond? But the more l read about the First World War and the more photos l saw, the harder it felt to portray the depth of pain and suffering of animals during the war. My final version was not found until two years of trial to arrive at the silhouette, the position. The horse as it stands is the product of all those hundreds of changes – going to make up a horse for all horses.
“Although I did not think of personal connections when l was asked to create the War Horse, I have recently discovered that my grandfather, who gave me my first pony, was a veterinary on the Eastern Front, while my great-grandfather was a doctor on the Western Front.”
Leyland completed her work in the spring and, since then, has been waiting for the patination to be finished at the Black Isle Foundry in Nairn, Inverness. “I chose not to see photographs of it,” she comments. “So I will only see the complete sculpture, as will everybody else, when it is in installed on site on the Heatherwood roundabout in Ascot. Only then will l know or feel if l have done justice to the suffering and pain endured by equines during the First World War.”
The unveiling of the statue is the start point for a British summer celebrating the horse in art. The Osborne Studio Gallery’s exhibition, Celebrating the Turf, opens at the start of Ascot week and continues until 7 July. Former soldier Freddy Paske will be included along with Nichola Eddery, Susan Crawford, Mao Wen Biao, Katie O’Sullivan and others. So this would certainly be the time to start your equine art trail, from the War Horse Memorial at Ascot’s Heatherwood roundabout and then, after racing, on into London for more horses.
The War Horse Memorial, Heatherwood roundabout, Ascot, Berkshire. More details at www.thewarhorsememorial.org
Celebrating the Turf, 18 June to 7 July, Osborne Studio Gallery, 2 Motcomb Street, London SW1X 8JU. Tel: 020 7235 9667; www.osg.uk.com