13 December 2016

‘See Emily Play’ turns to
‘See Emily Young at work’

‘Tempesta,’ Clastic Igneous Rock, by Emily Young (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

When I am in London on working visits, I make time to see works of architecture, sculpture or places of historical interest that I might not otherwise see. These experiences always enrich a working day or two, and during this past year they have included the ‘Children of the Kindertransport,’ Frank Meisler’s bronze sculpture at Liverpool Street Station, a number of Wren churches in the City, the Guildhall, and the unusual former Turkish baths in Bishopsgate Churchyard.

A few months ago, as I was making my way back from the USPG offices to Liverpool Street, I stopped and took time at an open-air exhibition at ENO Southbank of works by Emily Young, who was once described by the Financial Times as ‘Britain’s greatest living stone sculptor.’

A number of her works were forming a sculpture trail or garden at the NEO Bankside development on South Bank in ‘Emily Young: Sculptor Trail.’ From 19 September to 18 November, this exhibition acted as both a continuation and a broadening of her presence on the South Bank, echoing the three large-scale works on long-loan facing the Tate Modern from NEO Bankside.

Emily Young’s works are instantly recognisable and accessible. She deals in spectacular lumps of stone – quartzite, onyx, marble, alabaster – to which she gives an identity by carving a face but leaving the remainder of the rock displayed in its raw, craggy intensity, as if the face had grown or evolved organically. The Financial Times says: ‘Her sculptures meditate on time, nature, memory, man’s relationship to the Earth.’

Emily Young was born in London in 1951 into a family of writers, artists and politicians. Her grandmother, the sculptor Kathleen Scott (1878-1947), was a colleague of Auguste Rodin, and widow of the Polar explorer, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, known as Scott of the Antarctic. Her works include a statue of Edward Smith, captain of the Titanic, now in Beacon Park, Lichfield. She later married Emily Young’s paternal grandfather, the politician and writer Edward Hilton Young, 1st Lord Kennet. Emily Young’s father, Wayland Hilton Young, 2nd Lord Kennet, was also a politician, conservationist and writer. Her mother is the writer and commentator Elizabeth Young; her uncle was the ornithologist, conservationist and painter, Sir Peter Scott.

She was still a student when she achieved fame (or notoriety) in 1971 as the inspiration for the Pink Floyd song See Emily Play written by Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd. But the song has earlier origins in the 1960s. She was 15 when she met Syd Barrett at the London Free School in 1965. ‘I used to go there because there were a lot of Beat philosophers and poets around,’ she said many years later. ‘There were fundraising concerts with The Pink Floyd Sound, as they were then called. I was more keen on poets than rockers. I was educating myself. I was a seeker. I wanted to meet everyone and take every drug.’

As a young woman, Emily Young worked primarily as a painter, while she was studying at Chelsea School of Art in 1968 and later at Central Saint Martins. She travelled around the world in the late 1960s and 1970s, spending time in the US, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, France, Italy, Africa, South America, the Middle East and China, encountering a variety of cultures and developing her experiences of art.

In the early 1980s, she abandoned painting and turned to carving, sourcing stone from all around the world. Travelling from a London childhood, to a European education, to a life lived as an artist round the world, she began to interact with the timeless quality of stone to produce breath-taking sculptures of luminous intensity and great beauty.

As well as marble, she carves in semi-precious stone – agate, alabaster, lapis lazuli. These not only reflect and refract the light – but glow with a passionate intensity (as Winged Golden Onyx Head), revealing the hidden crystalline structure of the material and the subtle layers the time has laid down, showing the liquid qualities of hard rock.

The primary objective of her sculpture is to bring the natural beauty and energy of stone to the fore. Her sculptures have unique characters because each stone has an individual geological history and geographical source. Her approach allows the viewer to comprehend a deep grounding across time, land and cultures. She combines traditional carving skills with technology to produce work that is both contemporary and ancient, with a unique, serious and poetic presence.

She told an interviewer: ‘I carve in stone the fierce need in millions of us to retrieve some semblance of dignity for the human race in its place on Earth. We can show ourselves to posterity as a primitive and brutal life form - that what we are best at is rapacity, greed, and wilful ignorance, and we can also show that we are creatures of great love for our whole planet, that everyone of us is a worshipper in her temple of life.’

‘Wind Head,’ Mountain Clastic Rock, by Emily Young (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Her work echoes a sculpting tradition that looks back to humanity’s earliest relationship with stone. She fuses this sense of tradition with a distinctly contemporary approach, creating a strong paradox between the age-old principles of carving and a progressive, widely informed attitude to form and composition.

She recently explained: ‘So my work is a kind of temple activity now, devotional; when I work a piece of stone, the mineral occlusions of the past are revealed, the layers of sediment unpeeled; I may open in one knock something that took millions of years to form: dusts settling, water dripping, forces pushing, minerals growing – material and geological revelations: the story of time on Earth shows here, sometimes startling, always beautiful.’

Emily Young now divides her time between studios in London and Italy. Her permanent installations and public collections can be seen in many places, including Saint Paul’s Churchyard, Saint Pancras Church, NEO Bankside, and the Imperial War Museum in London; La Defense, Paris; Salisbury Cathedral, Wiltshire; the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester; and the Cloister of Madonna Dell’Orto, Venice.

After years of being feted as ‘Britain’s foremost female stone sculptor,’ the art critic of the Financial Times called her ‘Britain's greatest living stone sculptor.’ The Daily Telegraph has written: ‘Emily Young has inherited the mantle as Britain’s greatest female stone sculptor from Dame Barbara Hepworth.’ The Financial Times said recently: ‘Emily Young is remarkable in that she now stands quite alone in her field, not just as the pre-eminent stone-carver of her generation, but as virtually the only sculptor of her kind at all, a true carver working with figurative imagery, of any real and sustained distinction.’

‘Stillness Born of History,’ by Emily Young, (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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