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Rock, otters and the Isle of Skye ... a sculptor's tale

from 'The Skye Magazine' Summer 2007

It could be said that the rock at the heart of sculptor Laurence Broderick’s work has the word Skye running through it. For while thegallery an talla dearg raw material itself comes from Cornwall, the career of this internationally-known sculptor might never have reached its artistic launch pad without the Isle of Skye and its otters.

However, like any good riddle, this is not the start of the story. In fact, one part of the beginning takes the Broderick family tree back to Braes, near Portree, and the Nicholson family at the start of the 19th Century. Emma Nicholson married George Broderick in Dalkeith in 1812.

When Laurence stood on the shore opposite Isle Ornsay in the summer of 1978, he knew none of this. He was Director of Art at Haberdashers' Aske's School and sculpted in his spare time. He had never been to Skye before and had just carved his first otter, which he had only been able to do after extensive research because, until only a few months earlier, he had never seen an otter.

Isle of SkyeHe could not know that the sale of that otter sculpture later in his visit was going to be the first of a series that would take his work all round the globe. Indeed, only a chapter of chance meetings had taken him to the shores of the Sound of Sleat at all.

In the early 1970’s Laurence was studying for a Bachelor of Science honours degree at night, in the second year of a course that was meant to last five. One of his co-students worked at Hatfield House, the stately home of the Marquess of Salisbury. She advised Laurence to give up the course and concentrate on sculpture – and she told him about Living Crafts, a newly-established event held at Hatfield that demonstrated crafts and arts people at work. He took her advice, quit the course, booked a stand at Living Crafts and travelled to Lincolnshire with a Land-Rover, a friend and a trailer to pick up a block of stone to use.

gallery an talla deargThis proved a challenge – the trailer was almost crushed by the weight and when they got it home, they found they could barely get the block off the trailer by hand – it had been lifted on by crane. In the end, Laurence had to work on the sculpture in the open air because he could not move the stone any further. He also had to carve as much off as possible to make it possible to move the work on to Hatfield! Once he was at Living Crafts, he was approached by John Tiranti, of Alec Tiranti Ltd, makers of sculptors tools. John had noticed that Laurence was using his firm’s equipment – and he was witnessing a very rare sight, a sculptor demonstrating his art in public. He asked to use photographs of Laurence in his firm’s publicity – which also gave Laurence a boost.

gallery an talla deargIn addition, he went on to introduce Laurence to Polyphant Stone, a rare talc-based material from an area of Cornwall between Bude and Launceston. Described by mineralogists as a greyish-green potstone flecked with white and brown, it is relatively soft and very easy to work quickly. Laurence now has around 20 tonnes of the stone at his main studio in Cambridgeshire – but at first he just had an easier kind of stone to work. He did write a widely distributed book about using this type of stone but he needed some way of reaching his potential market.

So fate, and Hatfield, intervened again. He was at the stately home for a second Living Arts event in May 1978 when a couple came up and introduced themselves. They were Richard and Coralie Fowler. Formerly farming in Essex, they now owned Island of Oronsay and another island off Sleat. They admired his sculptures and invited him to visit the islands to see if he could use the rock for his work.

So July 1978 saw Laurence, born in 1935 and brought up in the Bristol area of England, first standing on the pier near Eilean Isle of SkyeIarmain Hotel. He and his family had travelled up in a VW Caravanette with a small boat strapped to the roof. “It looked like a bath,” says Laurence. The family stayed in bed and breakfast accommodation nearby. Because of the connection between the islands and Gavin Maxwell, author of Ring of Bright Water, Laurence had been researching otters in the weeks before the trip and had done his first otter sculpture.

He had also brought his sculpture equipment to try out the local rock and continue work on the otter. A man approached him and asked him if the otter was for sale. Laurence said it was – and local landowner Sir Iain Noble became the proud possessor of the first Broderick otter for £200 ­– a sum that allowed the Broderick family to stay on another week in Skye. The two men also discussed the possibility of using a near derelict building - an Talla Dearg – for an exhibition of Laurence’s work. Two years later, after repainting of the building inside, and the installation of a professional lighting rig, the first exhibition of Laurence’s work took place 600 miles from his home in a venue that had never been used for artworks.

Gallery An Talla Dearg at Isle of skyeThe six-week summer show in 1980 was a runaway success. They went back home and he quit his job. His headteacher told him: “You must be stark, raving mad if you think you can have a gallery on an island and make a living as a sculptor. “ However, that is what happened. For 25 years, Laurence held this exhibition annually at Talla Dearg. In later years, the family also bought a derelict house locally and did it up as an island home.

But there was still one more intervention from fate. During the 1985 exhibition, a visitor came up to Laurence and said he wanted to buy some of his work – but he also offered some advice. At that time, Laurence displayed his own drawings and paintings on the walls of the exhibition hall. The visitor asked what the main focus of the show was supposed to be. "Sculpture", said Laurence. "Then take down the paintings and drawings", said Sir Ian Macdonald of Sleat, who was up from Yorkshire for a meeting of the Clandonald Trust. He then bought a sculpture – and Laurence has never mixed his media since because he found Ian was right. The sales were far better when there were no distractions. He has shown in many galleries since gallery an talla deargthen. Looking back, Laurence said: “ I always wanted to make my living as a sculptor, having trained for six years in art, I just had no idea how it was going to happen.”

Now there are around 2000 Broderick sculptures scattered across the world; otters continue to emerge from stone, around 200 in all; and drawings are very much a hobby – some years ago Laurence abandoned using them to plan his work and now lets the feel of each individual stone melt with his artistic vision so that the sculpture emerges from the stone rather than being imposed on it.

Otters have impinged on other parts of his life as well – he is joint president of the International Otter Survival Fund, a global charity for the conservation of the otter, based in Broadford. Just as that initial visit to Skye brought the family together to Sleat, so the sculpture work is now a family affair – wife Ingrid deals with the finances; son Graeham covers promotion and photography; and another son Roger has his own printing business which deals with brochures and leaflets.

Of course, what first brought him to the Sound of Sleat was the offer of stone from Isle Oronsay. What happened about that?

“Sadly, the stone, a mica schist, was too hard and too likely to shatter,” says Laurence. However, he and Richard Fowler did find some usable green mica below the highwater mark. A complex operation involving a boat, a pneumatic drill, and an empty oil drum for buoyancy enabled them to get a block out. It seems sculpting means some very hard work.

Laurence held his final exhibition at Gallery An Talla Dearg, Isle Ornsay, in 2007. His sculptures can now be seen at other galleries on the Isle of Skye and throughout the UK. For details, please see galleries.

Summer exhibition on Isle of Skye