The sculptor the smart set (and royals) love

In a howling gale last January the sculptor David Williams-Ellis parked a forklift truck in a field in Oxfordshire, with an enormous sheet of plywood attached to its mast. Then he walked half a mile away from it and spent the rest of the morning photographing and sketching it. By 2023, in place of the truck, will stand a 15ft by 26ft bronze ram’s head, which will be seen from nearly every corner of the estate. “I’ve never worked on something of this scale before, and it’s nerve wracking,” he admits. “The truck allowed me to get a sense of how big I need to make it to be experienced from afar.

I want it to inspire people to go closer and see more of it – and for it to change and evolve in the setting.” We’re standing in the meadow at Williams-Ellis’s home in Oxfordshire, where he lives with his wife, Nikki, admiring a model of the enormous ram, its swirling horns framing the surroundings. He can’t tell me exactly how much it will cost to cast the finished version, only that it will stretch into the hundreds of thousands; bronze costs are rising exponentially, he explains, and foundries take many months to cast works of this size.

David working on the wax for his latest Diana The HuntressCredit: Alun Callender

Collectors, however, seem unperturbed.

Since the start of the pandemic, Williams-Ellis – whose work is collected by Bryan Ferry and the Duke of Westminster – has been flooded with so many new commissions that he’s barely left his studio. “I think people have been craving visual stimulation,” he says, as he points out other examples of his work rising out of the long grass: Hurricane Girls, the original of which graces the end of a pool in Antigua; and a sculpture of the Welsh  painter Kyffin Williams. “I thought at the beginning of the pandemic I’d be unemployed, and yet I’ve experienced the most intense working period of my life.” It was serendipitous, of course, to be sculpting a ram at a time when life models could no longer get to him. He worked from a skull he bought on eBay, which he named Tommy, and took inspiration from the sheep grazing the Cotswolds.

It took him a while to get started, not because he wasn’t excited by the subject matter but because there were so many people locking down with him: at various times he welcomed his three ? stepchildren and their families, including Nikki’s son, Edoardo Mapelli Mozzi, or Edo, who is now married to Princess Beatrice, and his own three adult children. “It was a bit like running a hotel,” he says. “For the first month I didn’t do much except cook.” It was wonderful though, he says, to get to know his new family and spend time with his own children and, once he’d got used to the living arrangements, he relished the concentrated time in his studio with no meetings or trips. The ram, which still bears his thumb prints and finger strokes, was a departure from the figurative work he is best known for and required all his mental and physical energy. “I get mouth ulcers when I work the creative side of my brain,” he says. “Once it was finished I felt a huge sense of relief – and then I worried that I’d made a huge mistake.”

A study of the Welsh painter Kyffin WilliamsCredit: Alun Callender

His client was ecstatic, though, and immediately commissioned miniature maquettes of the ram to adorn railings and gate posts while he waits for the sculpture to return from the foundry. “Landscape sculpture can do that to you – it gets you viscerally, right in the pit of your stomach,” Williams-Ellis says.

We’re in his studio now; a light-filled cathedral beside the house adorned by a sculpture of Apollo, where classical music blasts from the speakers and the air smells of the melting wax he uses to make 3D sketches of his sculptures. There are clay body parts on the floor and evolving sculptures on metal stands, the figures pushing their way out of the clay. Alan Turing gazes out from his portrait bust on a table, beside a sculpture of the Queen feeding grass to a horse. “I got a friend who is a cousin of Her Majesty to model for it,” Williams-Ellis says.

He first sculpted as a small child in sand, and then in plasticine, and, as a schoolboy at Stowe in Buckinghamshire, he spent five years soaking up the temples and monuments of Capability Brown’s landscape – and discovered clay. “The art teacher adopted me and by the time I left I was quite advanced technically and already selling work,” he explains.

David working on the wax for his latest Diana The HuntressCredit: Alun Callender

For his 18th birthday he asked his parents for a ticket to Florence, where he knocked on the door of a drawing school and pleaded for a place. “It was quite weird of me, looking back on it, but I was determined to make a go of it,” he says. His family, who are all very artistic, supported his venture; his older sister was a ceramicist and his great uncle, the architect Clough Williams-Ellis, designed Portmeirion in north Wales. “He said to me, follow your bent, boy, which is what I did.” After two years of learning to draw and carve in Italy, Williams-Ellis returned to London, setting up a studio first in Kew Observatory (the council wanted to keep the squatters out) and then in a semi-derelict mansion in Regent’s Park. “It was the real La boheme existence: my studio had a marble fireplace at each end, which I’d keep lighted all winter,” he says. “When we needed money to pay bills, our banker friends would pay to host drinks parties there.”

His reputation soared in his 20s but when he moved to Penrith in Cumbria with his first wife, Serena, and their young children, he found it harder to get his name out. “I don’t regret going there because we had a wonderful place to live and the children loved all the fresh air and space, but there were moments when I thought, ‘Help!’,” he says. He took to travelling the country with a mobile kiln to make portrait busts, before a commission from a Japanese ceramics collector for a series of life-size sculptures began a new wave of large-scale figurative commissions from councils and trusts.

Clay study for a commission in the studioCredit: Alun Callender

It was when he moved to Oxfordshire following his divorce that he received his most poignant commission to date: the Normandy Memorial. The sculpture overlooking Gold beach in northern France commemorates the 22,442 soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen under British command who died during and after the D-Day landings and was unveiled on the 75th anniversary, June 6 2019. “It was a freezing morning; Theresa May was shivering in her linen suit,” Williams-Ellis recalls. “There wasn’t a dry eye.

You cannot but be moved in that setting.”

The Hurricane Girls, commissioned by a private collector for AntiguaCredit: Alun Callender

The memorial led to led several top-secret commissions, which he will work on over the coming years. He tends to know instinctively what shape and scale will work in the surroundings, he says, but deciding on the subject matter is usually a collaborative process with the client or organisation. “It’s got to inspire passion and provoke thought without being a gimmick.” He was touched last year when Edo described the Williams-Ellis he’d commissioned for Princess Beatrice’s birthday as the best gift he’d ever given.

For the sake of his workload, however, Williams-Ellis doesn’t gift many sculptures himself. “I tried to make one of my eldest step-grandchild but I was distracted,” he admits. “I was worried that I’d end up having to do all of them – and there might be 20.”

David in the early stages of a new commission with assistant Ollie MarrCredit: Alun Callender

When baby Sienna, Edo and Bea’s daughter, who was born last summer, needs to make a model for a school project, however, the door to his studio will be open. “When they get older, I’ll help them to make all sorts of things,” Williams-Ellis confirms.

Where to see outdoor sculpture

London

The Marble Arch MoundCredit: Moment RF

The sculpted panels on Marble Arch are by the acclaimed 19th century sculptors Richard Westmacott (north side) and Edward Baily (south side). The grounds surrounding it have become a site for contemporary installations (currently the Marble Arch Mound, until January 9 2022, themarblearchmound.com)

Yorkshire

The wood nymph by David Williams-EllisCredit: Charlotte Graham

The wood nymph by David Williams-Ellis poses in the pool at Newby Hall in North Yorkshire, which is open to the public from April (newbyhall.com). Nearby Yorkshire Sculpture Park is the leading international centre for modern and contemporary sculpture (ysp.org.uk)

Buckinghamshire

The Stowe HouseCredit: Shelly Chapman

Stowe House, a National Trust property with a renowned landscape garden, is where David Williams-Ellis fell in love with classicism.

The grounds are brimming with sculptures and follies (nationaltrust.org.uk)

Hertfordshire

Henry Moore Studios & Gardens at Dane Tree HouseCredit: Hufton+Crow

Henry Moore Studios & Gardens at Dane Tree House near Bishop’s Stortford feature sculpture gardens, a gallery and visitor centre (henry-moore.org)

Angus

Glamis Castle, the setting of Shakespeare’s MacbethCredit: Alamy

Glamis Castle, the setting of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, has a Macbeth Sculpture Trail through the pinetum, created from trees on the estate.

In the centre of the maze you will also find David Williams-Ellis’s sculpture of the Nympth Arethusa (glamis-castle.co.uk)