Interview: artist Tristram Lewis

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Tristram Lewis did not have the most conventional start to his artistic career. Far from it, in fact.

‘I started off working in property in England,’ he explains, ‘but I’d grown up in Spain and had a fanatical desire to go to sea. I ended up spending 16 years as the skipper of tuna fishing boats.’

He could still be living life on the open seas, had it not been for close family ties that were an enduring lure to the UK.

‘I absolutely loved what I was doing, but I was constantly going backwards and forwards and it just all became slightly untenable.’

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Artistic inclinations

In a bid to reduce his time away from wife and children he then built up a fish trading company, selling high-quality tuna to the Europe, the US and Japan.

That went pretty well, but it didn’t appeal in the quite the same way as had being the skipper of a boat.

He tried, as he puts it, ‘fiddling about in commodities’, but realised that wasn’t for him either. ‘I did all right at it, but not especially well,’ he recalls.

What really appealed was art. ‘My mother was an artist and I knew I could create artworks. I felt I’d reached a stage in life where I had to do more with my art or I never would, so I decided to throw myself wholeheartedly into it,’ he says.

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Famous inspirations

Lewis started with painting, in particular racehorses and other animals, and he quickly I realised sculpting was also something which also appealed. In this he was following in the footsteps of one of his artistic heroes.

‘Just prior to deciding that art was the thing for me I’d also committed to writing a biography of [20th-century] sporting artist Sir Alfred Munnings. I’d been interested in his work since I was a teenager.’

Munnings also provided practical inspiration for Lewis. ‘He produced a famous bronze of a racehorse called Brown Jack that started off as a hurdler and ended up as an amazing flat racer. To make the model he used a mixture of beeswax and oil to create a sort of plasticene.

‘I operate in a similar way, albeit I use a modern material called Plastolene, which is essentially a commercial version of plasticine, but it’s much harder and durable. It can withstand the rigors of the molding and casting processes at the foundry without falling to pieces. It’s a lovely, flexible material and, unlike traditional clay, if you come down in the morning and decide something’s not quite right from the day before you can change it around.

‘I also focused on making my own armature to provide a very accurate framework. I thought that if I got that right then I’d have a starting point and everything else would come together from there.’

Lewis found further inspiration in the work of another great equestrian artist, George Stubbs, who revolutionised the depiction of horses in the 18th century.

‘Stubbs knew that, if you want to portray a horse in a convincing manner, it’s very important to know how they operate inside. He spent three and a half years studying horses’ anatomy and then personally engraved all the plates for his book The Anatomy of the Horse. That job took him seven years.’

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Subtlety and grace

Lewis stresses the importance of remembering that he’s creating an artwork and not a model for veterinary students. ‘I think a lot of bronzes are too orientated to showing every muscle. To me, a horse has a thick skin that reflects light. You don’t see the horse equivalent of a body builder walking along. I prefer to show what I see – the grace, power and calm serenity of the horse.’

Those characteristics are certainly visible in one of Lewis’ latest creations, a bronze of Denman – winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2008.

‘A friend of mine was riding him as a hunter (after the horse retired from racing). I thought if I could get a study of a famous horse in bronze that would really help my career.’

What Lewis has done is a triumph. Not only has he captured the power of Denman, who was nicknamed ‘the Tank’ on account of his fearless, forthright approach to fences, there is also something of the horse’s glory, a sense of calm determination and bravery. It is small wonder that Paul Barber, Denman’s owner, was moved to tears when he saw the initial model.

That success as led him into more projects, Lewis adds: ‘A lot of the feedback I’ve had is that my bronze of Denman, for example, looks like a horse and, more specifically, it looks like the horse it is meant to. That thrilled me because there’s a lot of tremendous sculptors out there, but I don’t know if they tune in to the character of the animal.’

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Lewis is likely to be a busy man, especially as his biography of Munnings is not only attracting interest from distributors across the globe, and has also led him to get involved in a major exhibition of the artist’s work next year.

‘Munnings was commissioned by the Canadian government to paint the Canadian cavalry in the First World War. His 1919 exhibition of those pictures really launched his career. I’ve been working with racing broadcaster Brough Scott to bring the Canadian war paintings over here and we’ll be having an exhibition at the Mall Galleries in 2018. These pictures are amazing, very much the fulcrum of his career, and possibly his best work.’

Adding exhibition organiser to his list of job titles sounds like something this former fishing skipper turned writer, painter and sculptor is rather looking forward to.

Tristram Lewis is on Instagram @tristramlewis.

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