Sir Nigel Gresley at King's Cross

It is now nearly a year since the bronze statue of Sir Nigel Gresley (1876-1941) was unveiled at King’s Cross railway station in London. A highly successful locomotive engineer, Gresley designed stylish, fast, streamlined engines. In 1923 he was appointed Chief Mechanical Engineer of the newly formed London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) for which he created a series of innovative and now famous steam locomotives, such as the Flying Scotsman and the Mallard. Nicknamed ‘streaks’ because of their speed and sleek design, they operated on the London to Edinburgh run.

Hazel Reeves’ public sculpture of Sir Nigel Gresley was commissioned by the Gresley Society Trust to mark the 75th anniversary of his death, unfortunately, however, its composition became the subject of controversy. Now that the dust has settled, we talk to the sculptor about how she approached the commission and, looking back on the project, she explains the process of its creation and speaks about her reaction to the last minute change to the composition.

PMSA: How did the commission come about?

Hazel Reeves: The commission for the statue of Gresley came through recommendation, rather than competitive tender. I was proposed for the work by other artists, who don’t undertake large scale figurative pieces. The Gresley Society Trust approached me and we got on well from the beginning, quickly developing a good working rapport.

First, I was asked if I would be willing to create a portrait bust of Sir Nigel in bronze and what it would cost, so I made calculations and reported back. They then held a meeting, following which they asked whether I could make a life-size figure instead, so I revised the costings. Subsequently they decided that in fact I should produce a statue which was about 20% larger than life, which is what was finally settled upon.

Following these preliminary discussions, we all met at King’s Cross station, where the Society had identified a particular site, which they thought would be perfect. It was just below Sir Nigel’s former offices, inside on the new Western Concourse, where the figure would stand on the paving slabs without a plinth and would have the original, beautiful Grade I listed brick façade as its backdrop. I immediately agreed it was the perfect spot, I couldn’t have picked a better place. When I go there now and see members of the public having their photo taken with the statue, touching his waistcoat and his arm, I feel that this really was the ideal location.

How did you approach the work? Can you explain how the commission proceeded?

When I held preliminary discussions with the Gresley Society Trust, I carefully explained what I felt would work in terms of composition, keeping it quite simple and natural. The committee suggested Sir Nigel could carry a slide rule or a chronometer, which was the timer used on steam engines to measure how fast they were travelling. I pointed out that I thought that holding those items would mean he would be looking downwards and compositionally this would close him off to the audience, which would make the sculpture less accessible so that it would be more difficult for people to connect with him. I also felt that a slide rule isn’t that familiar to many people these days and a chronometer might look rather like an oversized pocket watch – I thought there was a danger people might mistakenly associate the statue with the White Rabbit checking his watch in Alice in Wonderland!

It was only in subsequent discussions that I raised the idea of Sir Nigel having a companion mallard drake at his side, creating the association with his locomotive design. After a few days of thinking about it, the Gresley Society came back to me and said that including the mallard wasn’t so mad after all, in fact they really liked it.

The Gresley Society sculpture team came to my studio in Billingshurst, close by the railway station platforms, which they loved of course. I revealed three rough maquettes made in terracotta wax so that they were adjustable. When they saw the three versions, they chose the one with the mallard. Looking at the maquette depicting Sir Nigel holding a slide-rule and at that showing with him a chronometer, they immediately understood what I meant in terms of the composition. Sometimes it is only when people see a work in 3D that that they can really relate to it, because this helps the sculptor to demonstrate his ideas. 

With this commission I wanted to achieve a very natural pose, as though Sir Nigel had been working on his engineering plans upstairs and deciding he needed a break, had just popped down onto the concourse. I tried to give him the air of a man taking in his surroundings, looking out with curiosity and appreciation towards the art deco lines of the balcony, the Mallard of course dated from that era. Sir Nigel had a real sense of line and design, I think he would have loved the balcony and Arup’s tree-like roof canopy, it’s a real feat of engineering. The Society was keen Sir Nigel should hold a copy of The Locomotive magazine, so that is in his left hand with the Mallard’s record-breaking run illustrated on the front cover.

So the decision was made. The Gresley Society commissioned me to make a small bronze maquette, 35cm tall, of Sir Nigel with the Mallard. It was this bronze statuette, which they used to obtain the planning permission and agreements required from Camden Council, Network Rail, and English Heritage.

Six months later, after the Gresley Society had gained all the necessary permissions, and raised the money for the statue, when I was about to sign the contract for the monumental figure, Sir Nigel’s grandsons decided that including the duck in the composition would be ‘demeaning’ to their grandfather. This caused major divisions within the Gresley Society, which has been much documented in the media. I was given two options – either to go ahead without the duck or not undertake the commission. This is a difficult position for a sculptor to be put in, but one has to be professional. The commissioning body has a right to change its mind.

Can you describe your working process with figurative sculpture?

The process is really important in my practice – having a life model, scaling up an armature and working in clay and building up piece by piece – for me that’s the real joy! Nowadays sculptors often want to speed up that process by using 3-D scanning and scaling, so that they can produce more works in a year, but I feel creating a sculpture should be a gradual, organic process. This allows for the pose to evolve. If you just scale up from the maquette, a work will never be the same as if you have used a model, thought it through and worked on the pose. With the figure of Sir Nigel, I slightly turned the upper torso so that there was rather more rotation in the hips, which I think infused that extra sense of life.

When the sculpture was unveiled John Cameron, the President of the Gresley Society commended you for capturing ‘the essence of this great engineer.’ How did you achieve such naturalistic and engaging portraiture?

I was given a number of photographs by the Gresley Society, which I think originally came from the family. There is also a biography, Sir Nigel Gresley: The Engineer and his Familyby Geoffrey Hughes, which contains some lovely portraits of him with two or three paintings depicting him in later years and a series of photographs taken throughout his life. I decided to portray Sir Nigel in his Iate fifties, when he would have been working for the LNER at King’s Cross. To us today, he perhaps looks older than that in my sculpture, but of course people aged more quickly at that time.

I gathered as many photographs as I could around me and was able to draw on the paintings as well. I tried to look at various different perspectives of Sir Nigel and any sideview I could possibly find. There is one section of Pathé news where the back of his head can be seen, and there were little snippets here and there, but, because of the era, there is very little on film. I love doing portraits, I have a natural curiosity about people and their faces. I had to temper my enthusiasm for the facial portrait with creating the body. The statue had to be balanced, I did not focus too much on the features, but allowed them to develop organically, at the same speed as the rest of the figure.

Which foundry did you use to cast the bronze and to what extent were you involved in the process? 

I have built up a great working relationship with the team at Bronze Age Sculpture Casting Foundry in the Docklands. Two of their team came down to my studio and spent a week and a half making Sir Nigel’s mould. They removed the mould from the clay and shipped it up to the Docklands, leaving me with the clay Sir Nigel. Once the wax version of the statue was cast, I spent a whole day at the foundry working on the wax – sharpening up edges, working on texture, and so on. A few weeks later, two members of the Gresley Society joined me to watch the bronze pour of Sir Nigel’s head. When the skilled metal work team had welded the bronze cast sections of Sir Nigel together, I spent a couple of days working with them to ensure he was just as I had envisaged. Then finally I was back at the foundry working with their patinator over 3 days, before the installation company Artful Logistics came to pick Sir Nigel up ready for his final destination, King’s Cross station.

What are your feelings when you reflect on the project?

The conclusion for me when I look back at the project now is that I am right to trust my gut instinct for what will work in terms of composition and pose. I feel I was justified in making the case to the Gresley Society that the Mallard duck would really work to increase public engagement with the statue. Sir Nigel was a man who made famous engines – people have heard of the Flying Scotsman, and the legendary Mallard – but often they have no idea who designed them. Despite having his statue in a very public place under his former offices at King’s Cross, passers-by would not necessarily recognise him or make the connection to his engines.

Adding the mallard duck to the composition was a way of engaging the public, almost a little puzzle to solve. Some people who know about his engines would immediately make the connection and love it. For those who are much younger, it was a way to entice them over to the statue and get them to read the plaque, scan it with their mobile phones and find out about this incredible man. I was overwhelmed by the way the public embraced my original design, as the controversy played out in the media.

Sir Nigel named engines after water fowl, such as the Wild Swan and the Mallard. He had a particular love of the mallard ducks at his moat at Salisbury Hall in Hertfordshire, and then took them with him when he later moved a few miles away to Watton-at-Stone. Some of the old photographs record him at leisure feeding his mallards. The symbol of a mallard by his feet worked on many levels, adding a further dimension to the composition. For me as the sculptor, it was a real disappointment when the mallard was discarded from the sculpture. However, I must say that the public’s response to the 7ft 3in bronze Sir Nigel at King’s Cross has been amazingly warm, even though he might look a little lonesome at times without his mallard companion at his side.

Main image: The sculptor, Hazel Reeves speaking at the unveiling of her public sculpture of Sir Nigel Gresley (photo: courtesy of Hazel Reeves)

Aurora Corio