Monday, 30 November -0001

Rock gods

The inspiration for sculptress Emily Young’s latest monumental work comes from the hills near her home in southern Tuscany

Written by Celia Lyttelton

Emily Young is a formidable talent, a sculptress who carves some of the hardest stone that’s as old as the earth itself. Many of her sculptures have sprung from billionyear- old quartzite. This spring heralds a display of six of her colossal heads – weighing up to four tonnes each – called The Metaphysics Of Stone, in London’s Berkeley Square.

The heads are: Time Boy, Heraclitus, Selene – Etruscan Moon Goddess, Tempesta – Etruscan Goddess Of The Wind, Fana – Etruscan Goddess Of The Forest and Planet – Birthplace And Tomb. They are carved and polished from huge boulders of volcanic rock that were found in an old quarry beside Monte Amiata in southern Tuscany, near where Emily lives. To behold these somnolent, Chthonic and elegiac heads is to soak up their serenity. They stand like sentinels and, she explains, ‘are memorials for the future. They are guardians and messengers warning us that we are not looking after our planet’s future’.

Emily has a profound understanding of her material and an enduring fascination with geology. She extols the virtues of Carrara marble and its fine crystal coherence, river quartzite, that she has metamorphosed into a callipygian female statue, or the mottled obsidian green forest serpentine stone from which she has carved a female torso. Of her onyx discs, she comments that they ‘drink’ in light, whereas alabaster is opalescent and has a water content.

house-mar30-02-590Left: Selene - Estruscan Goddess Of The Wind (2011); right: Emily working on Time Boy

Being a sculptress working with natural stone, she occupies a magical realm between humanity and the millennia of geology. She says: ‘As a child, I was fascinated by geology. There was a lot of stone in my childhood because I grew up in Rome and in Wiltshire, near Avebury and Stonehenge.’ Emily’s meteoric rise has resulted in many commissions, notably her Purbeck angels and archangels at Salisbury Cathedral and St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

She was born in Bayswater (in JM Barrie’s house, where Peter Pan was penned) into a distinguished family. She is the daughter of the Liberal peer, the late Wayland Kennet, and sister of Louisa, a novelist and children’s fiction writer, while her grandmother, Kathleen Scott, was also an acclaimed sculptress. Kathleen sculpted at least two statues of her husband, the Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott, and some of her busts are in the National Portrait Gallery.

Emily’s life has been far from dull; an odyssey travelling for several years to the US, Afghanistan (where she was briefly jailed), Pakistan, India and France, living in palaces and castles, slums and hovels, returning to Italy – her Ithaca – two years ago to live in a semi-ruined monastery in the Maremma, not far from Rome, where she lived as a child. ‘It is an easy place to live – sunny, contemplative, monastic…’ says Emily.

Her West London studio is down a gritty lane beneath the Westway. It is a sanctuary and the roar of the traffic recedes as we sit down for tea among a pantheon of silent immortals in marble and erotic female stone torsos, flanked by alabaster models for moon temples. Preparing for The Metaphysics Of Stone in Berkeley Square and a related exhibition at The Fine Art Society, she is remarkably calm and unfazed by this Herculean task.

‘The sleeping heads in Berkeley Square are pre-emptive mourners. I want to encourage people to look not outwards but inwards; by closing down the senses, you are creating space, a sense of peace and the infinite. When I sculpt, I like to leave some surfaces raw and untouched. Nature is the greatest teacher – the greatest artist.’

Emily allows her figures and heads to emerge from their stones through intricate carving and polishing, until sinuous patterns within can be seen. For her, part of the creative process is to allow the character of the material to prevail. ‘When I see a quarry or stone yard, the stones talk to me; I am not imposing my will on the stones.’ This intuitiveness has always been central to Emily’s work. ‘I always leave some of the quarry skin of the stone showing, so that its formation in nature can be seen and touched.’

house-mar30-03-590Heraclitus (left) and Selene are two of six heads comprising Emily's The Metaphysics Of Stone in London's Berkeley Square. They are carved from vast boulders of volcanic rock found in Italy

During the 1960s, she lived in the family home in Bayswater and went to Holland Park School. ‘I bunked off sometimes while pretending to be a virtuous schoolgirl.’ With her best friend Anjelica Huston, she went to gigs on Eel Pie Island to hear blues and The Pretty Things play. Notting Hill was ‘hippy central’. It was full of the best of the 1960s. Pink Floyd played at the All Saints Church Hall, Powis Gardens. ‘There was a pervading romantic philosophy then, and a potent cocktail of psychedelia, existentialism and Zen,’ Emily recalls. ‘My ears were wide open.

‘After leaving school, I went to India and Afghanistan, and up the Himalayas, and eventually to university in Perugia. I was away from England for three years. All the while I was drawing. When I was 21, I went to study sculpture under Bobby White at the American Academy in Brooklyn; in the late 1970s I began stone carving and loved it.’

Pretty and thoroughly feminine, it is difficult to envisage Emily, drill in hand, donning a face mask and hacking away at unwieldy rocks. ‘The stone can be hard. It takes diamonds to cut it. I can hurl myself at a stone, full strength, with hammer and chisel, and not a lot happens. I do that a few times, and it will accept a small mark. It’s strong, wild, ancient and it has a quiet, dark heart.’

In her late 20s, Emily fell in love and lived with Simon Jeffes of The Penguin Cafe Orchestra; sadly he died 15 years ago, and their son Arthur has followed in his father’s musical footsteps. Another great musician, Brian Eno, succinctly sums up her work: ‘Emily Young gives form to time: time held in stone.’

The Metaphysics Of Stone is in Berkeley Square, London W1 until 25 April.

For more information on Emily and her work:

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