Grand Historic Lore of Garden Statuary
– And the English artist, Edwina Sandys, who through her sculptures, keeps the provenance thriving in the United States today
By Dale King and Julia Hebert
When the Renaissance swept across Europe half a millennium ago, mythological gods – perfect in face and figure – returned to reign in a new arena. Sculptures of these ancient heroes stood tall in gardens that grew in Greece and Rome, and quickly spread west as the age of enlightenment was restored.
The popularity of placing classic statuary in gardens crossed to northern Europe in the early 1600s – France and England in particular – where rulers committed themselves to the collection of royal art. In those days, gardens were “museums” in the true sense of the word, that is, “house of the muses.”
But this idolatry didn’t always cut it with the British. During the English Civil War, statues of pagan gods were destroyed and the lead used for musket shot. Placement of sculptures in English gardens revived with the restoration of Charles II, but dropped off again when Napoleon challenged England to battle in the 18th century. After Waterloo, development of garden statuary was scattershot until the mid-1900s when modern abstract art began to appear among the hedges and flowers.
Although the U.S. was left out of the classic statuary creation process, Americans can now find such outdoor galleries in this country, thanks to artists like Edwina Sandys (pronounced “sands”). The London-born painter and sculptor has helped underscore the prominence of English sculpture gardens with her own modern-day twist. Her grandfather, Sir Winston Churchill, who planted and painted his own gardens, would be proud.
A gallery of Edwina’s paintings, drawings and garden sculptures were recently displayed at the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens in West Palm Beach. Created outside the former residence of sculptor Ann Weaver Norton (1905-1982), the 2.16-acre property is home to 300 species of tropical palms and nine monumental sculptures. The gardens, designed by Ann Norton and Sir Peter Smithers, are on land near downtown West Palm Beach across the Intracoastal from the Palm Beach home where Edwina and her husband, architect Richard Kaplan, spend winters. Their permanent residence is in New York City.
Particularly eye-catching, in part because of their bright red hue, were the “Frolics,” six 8-foot-tall pieces, all depicting women and crafted in aluminum, with the signature “cut-outs” that have come to define much of Edwina’s work. In fact, the bold lines of her sculptures are often emphasized by these cut-outs.
Walking past the Frolics that stood along the path from the door of the Ann Norton Gallery building to the gardens, Edwina explained the thought process behind their creations. “I had made them in white. I am now making them in red. Red is my favorite color.”
Edwina’s unique twist is evident in each of the half-dozen Frolics pieces. The one called Hands has two hands atop its head that morph into birds. With the sculpture Fishwife, fish adorn her head in place of hair, much as Medusa wore snakes for hair. And then there’s Princess, a depiction of Princess Diana, her profile turned downward with the Shy Di look she so often displayed in life. Her jewelry is represented as cut-outs around her neck, more strikingly visible because they are voids and not gems.
The cut-outs are uniquely Edwina’s – and they usually have a specific meaning. Angel of the Sea & Sky has a fish cut-out of the body and bird shapes removed from the wings. Sunflower Woman displays a vast sunflower head and breasts created with a swirling cutaway. Eve’s Apple shows a large, white hand with red fingernail polish holding a green apple with a bite taken out of it. The piece has a different look, depending on where the viewer stands.
So does her “digital daffodil,” digital meaning fingers, not some high-tech gizmo. The sunshine yellow painted aluminum piece shows hands gently lifting a delicate flower. When seen from different angles, it presents varying images.
“I don’t know where my creatures came from,” she said. “They just flew out of my fingers, with no sketches and no conscious thought.”
Edwina admits she followed the modern art movement during the earlier stage of her sculpting. “The works I was most aware of were done by Rodin, Matisse, Giacometti, Epstein and Henry Moore,” said Edwina. Moore was a leader of the modern art school of sculptors and garden designers who emerged during the 1930s. However, the fact that most of her creations flow from the store in her own subconscious mind, she does not live in a vacuum. So ancient and modern subtle influences, of which she cannot be fully aware, make up the witches brew from which she draws her inspiration. She is currently working on a contemporary sculpture interpreting the all-time great monument Stonehenge – and thinking about the pyramids.
Edwina touches on contemporary themes and designs in her work, crafting tributes to such subjects as the 2001 terrorist attack on the U.S., children and families, glasnost, feminism and religious dogma. And if pressed to disclose which muse she constantly turns to, she thinks a moment and says, enigmatically, “My art is my life and my life is my art.”
Editor’s note: To see more of Edwina’s sculptures, go to www.EdwinaSandys.com.