Oscar Wilde once famously said, “A man’s face is his autobiography,” and if you were to look at portrait artist Bryan Ellery, you would say he has the semblance of a professor; one you would find behind piles of bound books with indecipherable Greek and Latin titles.
Born in England in 1943, Ellery has had a fascination with the human face and sculptures from an early age. At school he made a caricature in mud of his headmaster. While it was not well-received at the time, he surely wouldn’t be so quickly dismissed today. He dabbled in various jobs after university, but having always been fascinated by the human face, he eventually came back to sculpting, which he now does on a full-time basis. Ellery, who is represented by Galerie Huit in Hong Kong, was recently in Asia accepting commissions.
Ellery flies to wherever his client may be and sits with them in their setting of choice, usually at their home, so that he can get to know the person and watch for their personality traits or characteristics. He says, “I look for markers: for example, Allan Murray is quite a smiley guy so I had to make him with a big laugh. Also, Dan Bradshaw has quite sad, sweet features, but he’s also got a sense of humour, so from one side you can see him smiling. By now I can work without looking at the sculpture, so I just let my fingers do the work. It’s almost instinctual.”Allan Murray
Ellery insists on doing live sculpting, that is, he must have the subject in front of him. “I’ve had people hand me a photo of a loved one who has passed, and as much as I would like to do it, it simply wouldn’t be the same,” says Ellery.
Over the course of several sittings, Ellery creates the sculpture by pinching off pieces of clay, and adding them to an indistinguishable bust until slowly and miraculously a distinctive face full of personality emerges.
Ellery’s creations are as dynamic and lively as the person whose likeness he is capturing. From one angle you can catch a slight smile, from another angle a thoughtful look. His favourite part of the process is creating real feeling with the eyes.
“In sculpting, not like in painting, you have no way of catching the colour of the eyes, rather you have to do it through shadows,” he says. And, of course, while maintaining artistic integrity Ellery also tries to show the client in their most favourable light. At times, though, this can be a sensitive process and some clients will ask for certain amendments: “I can’t count the times when I am asked to add on a little bit more hair to a blatantly bald head [photos from the distant past are displayed as proof]. In these cases, I am happy to oblige, as I like to think my portraits are to some extent timeless.”
That quality is another wonderful thing about sculpture, he says. “It feels like somebody’s in the room with you.” In fact, such an occasion occurred when Ellery was sculpting a portrait of the marquess of Linlithgow’s daughter. The marquess walked in and “he was so shocked at the face that looked so much like his aunt’s that he had to sit down. He just couldn’t understand how I had done it as I had never met her. Of course, as the portrait developed, the aunt faded into the background and the daughter’s face came more into focus.”
Though bronze sculpture is mostly popular with the aristocracy, Ellery enjoys working with creative people, and has sculpted writer Ben Okri, painter John Napper, actress Julie Christie and historian Alistair Horne, not to mention most of his family.
Though he has no favourites, if he had to choose someone to do a portrait of, living or dead, he automatically says, “Rembrandt would be my favourite sitter, mainly because I think his self-portraits (especially the later ones) are the greatest portraits in the world: dignified, humble, introspective, beautifully reflecting the ‘still, sad music of humanity.’ It would be such an honour to work with him, and maybe a close second would be the powerful Lucien Freud.”
Ellery gets a tender look on his face as he recalls the people and other animals he has had the pleasure to get to know through his work; it’s as if he’s speaking of lifelong friends. “There are now many of my bronze portraits scattered in homes all over the world, many in Asia, especially in Hong Kong. I love visiting these bronzes again, remembering the sittings and all those personalities I shared time with. The little boy I sculpted may since have become a man, and the older subjects may, by now, have passed away, but by capturing their spirits at the time, the bronze still glows with their presence today and, of course, will do so as time goes by. This is my achievement.”