FOR THE LOVE OF ANIMALS
Many of us recall entrancing visits to Riber Castle to watch otters play in the wildlife park, Ashley Franklin meets the Park's founder, Eddie Hallam, who has established a growing reputation as a sculptor.
What was intended as a feature on wildlife sculptures of Eddie Hallam turned into something much greater after my visit to his home in the pictureque village of Riber. Eddie Hallam lives in a wildlife haven and I soon discovered that the equisite bronzes of birds and beasts that first inspired me to interview him derive from a lifetime's passion for nature so devout that one could decribe him as Derbyshire's answer to the naturalist and artist Peter Scott, founder and first chairman of the World Wildlife Fund, who was hailed by David Attenborough as 'conservation's patron saint'.
Scott's influence can certainly be seen in Eddie's decision in the early 1960s to establish Riber Castle Wildlife Park, well known for its collection of European lynx. Well before Eddie sold the park in the mid 80s he became involved in a World Wildlife Fund scheme to reintroduce the lynx to the Vosges Mountains in France.
Although Eddie's attention has now turned to sculpture, his decision to conservation is as active as ever. In 1992, concerned about the grass snake population in Lea Meadows, Eddie's work in creating a nature reserve there saw him become the first winner of the English Nature special regional award for conservation as well as earning serveral Greenwatch awards. Eddie was told that the area- an old sewage works-had 'no ecological value' but today the abundunce of butterflies, damselflies, dragonflies and various nesting birds in and around the Cromford Canal is largely down to his intensive work on the nearby reserve.
The work he devotes to his life-size bronze pieces is borne of long hours studying wildlife with the result that they are completly true to nature. 'I can recall my observations down to the minutest detail and all that detail goes into capturing the essence of my wildlife creations states Eddie.
So how did he come to be so obsessive about wildlife? 'Loved biology, hated fishing,' is the intriguing reply. 'It all started when I was eight and began cycling with my father on fishing trips to local ponds and canals. I enjoyed the bike rides, but loathed the fishing, so I took to walking the banks, fields and woods and soon became fasinated by all the wildlife around.
My father didnt mind at all because if I did stay to fish, I was a nuisance to him. I was hopeless at angling- I'd constantly tangle my line up with his- so he was overjoyed when I went off, though less so when I would walk for miles and go missing for hours.
When Eddie was 13, the family moved from their Sheffield suburban home to the Rivilin Valley. The river, moorland and woods had now come to him and Eddie spent every spare moment in the countyside. His love of art followed a growing interest in biology, as he explains: 'If you studied biology, you had to learn to sketch and before long I was loving it. This is actually what happened to Peter Scott. His artist interest developed alongside his scientific interest. It was the same for me and eventually Scott became a big role model'.
After training to be a metallurgist and spending two years doing National Service, Eddie went to work as assistant curator at Chester Zoo which, Although 'a big learning curve' that even involed sitting on a rhino, also inspired him to start the wildlife park at Riber, specialising in European species. This was the start of his love affair with the lynx. 'I've always liked wild cats,' states Eddie, 'but there's a particular beauty and fascination to a lynx. I love its independence, strenth and sheer power.' For 15 years, Eddie even raised a lynx in his house -'he was a kitten that needed rearing' - which often came as a surprise to visitors. A young friend of Eddie's ten year old son, Scott, who once came to play hadn't been told about Harvey the lynx until he stumbled into the front room to find the wild cat curled up in front of the fire. Eddie remembers, 'His eyes popped out like chapel hat pegs and he turned and ran. Years later he was best man at my son's wedding and he's had many a drink bought for him on the strenth of his ever-embroidered lynx story!
Alongside the lynx at Riber Castle, Eddie introduced otters, pine martens and a wide variety of birdlife. He also set up a waterfowl conservation park near Retford in Nottinghamshire and concurrently gained a joint honours degree in biology and geography, and a post-graduate in conservation. At this time Eddie also purchased a small farm and after a lifetime of drawing and painting, developed an interest in wood carving. It was a turning point.
In portraying wildlife as are, I discovered that three dimensions were far better than two,'he explained. Essentially, I could get my hands round a carving and it felt like I was creating rather than merly depicting.' However, when using wood, Eddie could'nt always get the proportions right and for birds' legs would invariably opt to use metal.
Then five years ago a client commissioned a woodcarving of an avocet and, concerned that it might get damaged, Eddie agreed to give it a go - and he was hooked. 'I took to bronze immediately,' he says. 'I felt I could capture more of the movement, flow,feel and look of whatever bird or mammal I was sculpting. Bronze is also much more tactile than wood. When people see a bronze, you can tell they have a strong urge to touch it. Better still, it's not going to break and it can look as good as new however long you keep it.'
Eddie soon found his bronze sculptures in high demand both nationally and internationally. Typically, an original piece can take six weeks to sculpt. It is then sent to a foundry where it is moulded and cast in bronze by means of a 4,000 year-old 'lost wax' process. The final part of the process is the patination, for which Eddie uses a battered paintbrush. 'I spend a lot of time mutilating paintbrushes. The more battered it is, the better the patina.' Eddie also points out that a patina can never be repeated so although the bronzes come in limited editions of 30, every single sculpture is unique.
One of his finest bronzes is of an otter-its slinky, curving form beautifully and naturalistically depicted with the top two-thirds of its body slipping through the water. Howerver, seabirds are Eddie'sparticular favourite to sculpt, especially puffins. For him, heaven is studying and sketching the seabird colonies on the outlying islands of Scotland. Although his regular jaunts have led to the discovery of a species he's not so keen on; 'I love all living things,' he declares, 'but I draw the line at Scottish midges.'
As for the creature he has most affinity with, Eddie showed me a sculpture that he has been chipping away at for years. The sleek lines of a lynx on the move were immediately obvious. It's going to cost £10,000 to have this life-size lynx cast,' he explained, 'but one day I will do it '.
Whatever Eddie creates, it's with one aim in mind, as he concludes: If every piece I sell helps promote interest in wildlife and fosters support for its conservation, then that makes me a happy man .'