The Last Man

by Calvin Winner


At Midday on the high tide of the 22nd March, 2016, A Thousand Tides was floated with the aid of a raft along Butley Creek. As the tide turned and ebbed away a solitary figure was laid to rest on the intertidal mudflats. There it was left to slowly sink and decay over the course of millennia and more. Washed twice daily in the saline tide, this was a symbolic laying to rest. Laurence Edwards described it as ‘giving back to the creek’. Echoing the resting place of old Raedwald in the neighbouring estuary of the river Deben. But there are numerous other Anglo Saxon burials of the old Kingdom. The so-called ‘Sandmen’ that survive as a fragile trace in the strata of the sandy soil. A human shadow recording their former existence.

The creeks and estuaries of East Anglia such as the Alde, Blyth and Waveney are where the boom of the Bittern can still be heard. These waterways help to define this region and have made this artist. They have helped to shape and inform his sculpture. According to Edwards, the rivers, creeks and tributaries feed the landscape much like the veins and vascular systems feed the body. His works are imbued with the significance of place – they speak of landscape, process and body.

Edwards’ sculptures start with clay to which he adds amounts of plant life and more recently flint. They are temporal and trace the passage of time. One way to measure time in this part of England is littoral erosion. The coastal zone is in a constant state of flux. The shifting sands and gravels recede and reform as the soft shelly cliffs crumble under their own weight. They sometimes reveal portals into impossibly distant hominin activity. Recent discoveries of stone tools at Pakefield dating back some 700,000 years are witness to this. Edwards routinely walks along the stretch of coastline between Pakefield and Covehive, feeding his creative imagination. But if we are to explore the age of things, we should start in geological time and with flint, a stone that fascinates Edwards and defines East Anglia.

Early humans made use of small flakes of flint and created versatile and often beautiful stone tools. Much later it was utilised as a building material, visible in the numerous medieval churches of the region and outstanding examples of decorative flushwork such as the old priory at Butley. Flint is a form of the mineral quartz and often found in eccentrically shaped nodules in sedimentary rocks such as chalk, the bedrock in these parts. It is unforgiving, hard and as brittle as glass. Its mysterious formation is still debated but essentially it is a form of petrification. The bone and vertebrae of ancient sea creatures transforms into a gloopy, syrupy gel like substance. In its early stage of formation, this protean flint-gel moves under geological pressure squeezing into burrows and homes of long forgotten creatures in chalk. Over millennia, this coalesces into the characteristic hard, brittle and glass-like stone. Sometimes they form into mysterious and strange flint circles found in the chalk reefs along the north coast of East Anglia. Known as Paramoudra, the flint nodules align in spherical vertebrae reflecting the burrowing methods of a long extinct ancient and fantastical sea creature.

Another measure of time found here is in the clay that can be seen intermittently along the coastal cliffs of Norfolk and Suffolk. Known by geologists as the Cromer Forest-bed Formation, where ancient tree stumps are found on the seabed. A stretch of territory known as Doggerland and once a land bridge to the continent. Here too are fossils of mammoth, sabretooth cat, bison and other exotic creatures that are revealed at low tide. The forest-bed reminds us of their more recent relatives, yet nevertheless old by human standards, that survive in our own time. Coppiced oaks are some of the oldest living things in England. Edwards discovered a sacred grove of veteran oaks during his time at Butley. This place with its monster trees has a mesmeric effect instilling a sense of mystery and awe. The apparent age is not only suggested by their enormous girth, but because of their wizened trunks and overarching branches recalling limbs. Sometimes little more than shattered weathered husks with craggy and wrinkly surfaces, they have pronounced individual character. Edwards has sought to anthropomorphise veteran trees, much like Constable and Gainsborough before him. They often saw them as worthy of individual portraits or evoking a sense of a living natural sculpture. This is also true of John Crome, another native East Anglian artist, whose Poringland Oak, 1818, is one of the finest examples. In more recent times, contemporary artists such as Joseph Beuys, Ai Weiwei and Giuseppe Penone have all made dendrological works. Edwards’ Staverton Man is a dual portrait of man and tree. His Sylvan Man is entwined and bound by woodland growth. Modern Nature, a mighty truck encrusted with a crystalline form.
Arbour, another new work, is a life-size figure who lies prostrate and alert to his physical connection to nature as coppiced poles bisect him and provide succour.

Edwards’ work became more widely known after his startling inclusion in the Aldeburgh Festival of 2008. On the fifth of June that year, the Creek Men made their journey along the Alde. Three ‘ent-like’ giants were carried by raft from Slaughden quay, along the river Alde as far inland as the Maltings at Snape. Here amongst the reed-bed, the three primordial titans bore witness to the marsh. They stood like sentinels as if they were the last three survivors of some unseen cataclysmic event. Each figure the bastard son of its predecessor, created from the same clay model. Each successive figure constructed from the remains of the previous one. Re-constructed, reconstituted and finally rebirthed, breathing new life into an inanimate object.

Almost ten years later, on the afternoon of 4th April, 2018, I had my first encounter with a colossus that was taking shape in Edwards’ Halesworth foundry. Working over an enormous metal armature, he had been building up the towering form in plaster for some time. Working on this scale, the artist discovered new methods of modelling and shaping its giant form. The process of transforming the plaster giant into bronze is the result of over fifty poured molten metal castings. At twenty-six feet high, this strident behemoth waits for purpose and reason. Uncertain of its precise motive, one remains wary of the giant. When completed, it will rise in the Suffolk landscape, in parkland near Dunwich. In the shadow of its great height, the spectator is reduced to a Lilliputian scale, perhaps a truer reflection on our place in the natural order of things.

On the 14th March, 2019, I saw the clay model of another giant. At eight feet somewhat smaller than the colossus but nevertheless still larger than life-size. The figure named Man of Stones, a theme that he had been working on for almost a decade but this time with a specific location in mind. The figure will emerge from a promontory of land beside the river Yare, in the Sainsbury Centre Sculpture Park. It is a deceptively remote and wild place, with broad reed marsh and woodland. The artist collected source material from the site, such as branches, twigs, fungi and bulrushes. The sculpture combines Edwards’ concern for nature, ecology and his interest in geology. It reminds us of our interdependent relationship with our environment.
The torso of the figure is encrusted with flinty stones, perhaps symbolising the ground from which it emerges. The spectator may initially be startled by the sight of the figure emerging from the river valley. However, this benign figure is a symbolic guardian of nature, offering protection to its watery home. Not unlike the river god made by Giambologna in the 1580s. Less a haunting presence and more of a celebratory blessing.

Edwards’ work explores the complex relationship between humans, nature and their environment. This connecting of humanity and nature through the use of allegory and exploring themes from ancient myths and particularly Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Edwards’ transmutations transcend the physical material and are consumed with loss and sublimation, where the physical body becomes a vessel to carry metaphor and meaning. Edwards has expressed his admiration for the sculptor Germain Richier and her sculptural treatment of the human body in various states of degradation. Storm Man, 1947–8, for example, is a painfully eroded soul whose great bulk offers little protection from the corrosion which eats right into the heart of the sculpture.

In Lacuna, a new work by Edwards, a head alone survives as little more than a deeply eroded husk. Its failing structure and exposed cavities are supported by an array of tiny props, fused and entwined into the skull’s fragile surface.

Edwards starts his sculpture by building up the human form with squelchy oozy clay over a metal armature. In this soft clay phase his expressiveness takes hold as he builds form with abandonment and demonstrating a joyous celebration of the material. Executed in a loose style that conveys speed and expression. There is also great dexterity in the manner of his forebears, such as Bernini. As the clay hardens to a leathery skin, Edwards inflicts repeated assaults in a reductive process all about loss, leaving a surface marked, pitted and eroded. This continues through the various stages of plaster and wax moulds before fire and molten metal give lasting form.

Man of Stones joins a whole series of archetypes that Edwards has created in a series of enigmatic characters such as The Carrier with bundles of long branches, whilst weighed down by his burden, acts as a balancing beam. Or The Catcher, and its latest majestic variant, After the Flood. The outstretched arms of this impressive figure have become wing-like and as if by filtration, they have become encrusted with organic matter of reed, wood and webbing. The recent figure, Patriarch is perhaps the most uncompromising of them all. Some figures, such as Crystal Man are encrusted with crystals propagating from the chest cavity. Whilst reminding us of the essential geometry of all nature at a molecular level, they serve to remind us where this is found more visibly in the forms of the quincunx and fractal repetition. Part of the philosophical discourse since Plato, the five
geometric solids have long fascinated artists, not least da Vinci and Dürer. Edwards’ fascination has come from his reading of W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn and his enquires into the Norwich physician and natural scientist, Thomas Browne.

On 20th October 2018, Edwards left his familiar East Anglian edgelands. Guided by anthropologist Piers Vitebsky, he travelled to the impossibly remote north-eastern hinterland of Siberia to visit the Eveny people. Edwards’ time with the Eveny herders has created a new series of sculptures. Adorned and bound, they are stitched, secured and fastened with rope and twine. The work is fastidious yet without end, as expressed in Laughing Strings, a title recalling the words of W.B. Yeats. An endless game of tying and knotting, tighter and taut. The figures are bound but not smothered, their spirits may still roam and their bodies exhale. In Dividing Line and Loose Ends, the figure is encrusted with intertwining organic matter and then loosely bound in thick
rope. The coiled rope serves to define the space in which the sculpture is held as in the succinctly titled, Coil. In other work such as Shuttle, the figure is suspended in a cocoon of basketry, recalling fish traps. Or Tether, where the figure is contained or snared. Caravan is a group of figures that are combined and bound together.

They share the same communal predicament. The tension of the bindings brings to mind the interdependency of a community such as the Eveny and their precarious survival in these uncertain ecological times.
The Eveny herders’ fragile existence reminds us of the importance of humanity finding a balance with nature, during what we have become to understand as the age of the Anthropocene. This may be little more than a blip in the order of time but with deep and profound consequences for the survival of our species. Edwards’ time with the Eveny must serve to remind us that we are part of nature rather than independent of it. Is in fact, Edwards recording the Last Man? This important question will no doubt inform his work in the next phase.

Calvin Winner is Head of Collections and Curator at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts