Eddie Hallam lives and works in sixteenth-century Greenways Farm, one of the oldest buildings nestling in the unspoilt hilltop hamlet of Riber, high above Matlock. Being a graduate in biology plus a trained metallurgist, as well as a gifted artist able to sketch wildlife, has given Eddie the perfect combination for his current work as a sculptor. The way into this fascinating art form gradually came about by way of his work as assistant curator at Chester Zoo.
Here he graduated first through the larger animals such as rhinos to what became his speciality, European species, especially lynx. It was this fascination for these big cats that led to the opening of Riber European Wildlife Zoo. Breeding lynx was so successful that the zoo was able to supply them to a nature reserve in the Vosges Mountains of France, where from all accounts they are making their home; moving them was carried out with the assistance of the RAF, using of course, Lynx helicopters! Together with these magnificent cats, Eddie introduced several other European species to Riber Zoo, including otters, pine martens and a wide range of birdlife. Alongside running the zoo, he set up a waterfowl conservation park near Retford in Nottinghamshire, work which led towards a post-graduate award in conservation.
His interests also took him to the more remote islands off the British and Irish coasts including St Kilda, where he was able to study at first hand, the habits of the often rare sea birds and passing migrants from afar. Closer to home it was through his concern over the depleted population of grass snakes in Lea Meadows that he was instrumental in setting up the nature reserve alongside Cromford Canal. This led to him becoming the first winner of an English Nature special regional award for conservation, plus several Greenwatch Awards. The fact that the proposed reserve included an old sewage works rather turned people’s noses up in more senses than one, the site having it was suggested, ‘no ecological value’, but wildlife is not so fussy and the area is full of butterflies, dragonflies and nesting birds including king fishers; the canal also provides a home for watervoles, the ‘Ratty’ from Wind in the Willows, making it one of the best places for miles around to see this delightful little animal.
When Riber Zoo closed down (it was unfortunately difficult for many people to find despite the dominating landmark of the castle), Eddie bought Greenways Farm next door. It was here that his lifetime’s interest in drawing came to the fore and with it, an interest in wood carving. With his new career he turned to modelling in three dimensions, creating birds and creatures of the wildwoods, moors and shoreline.
From wood carving it was an easy step towards sculpting in bronze, because as Eddie said, bronze is more tactile than wood and by using it, he is able to bring alive each living creature, so much so that people’s first reaction is to touch and feel the sinuous lines of the piece. It is also virtually impossible to break a bronze sculpture and rather than fade with age, its appearance improves. Eddie found that wood carving had its limitations and he frequently had problems getting proportions right, so began to use metal for such as birds’ legs.
About ten years ago he was commissioned to make a wood carving of an avocet by a client who was concerned that it might get damaged. During their discussion, the client asked Eddie if the bird could be cast in bronze, to which he agreed and was immediately hooked on this, to Eddie, unknown media. He found a suitable foundry in Birmingham where the manager was happy to explain the technical problems they would have and how to overcome them. From then on there was no looking back and as he said “I felt I could capture more of the movement, flow, feel and look of whatever bird or mammal I was sculpting”.
The process of creating one of his wildlife pieces starts with a drawing or photograph, or simply what was already there in Eddie’s mind. For larger animals such as the lynx he has been working on and off for several years, the ‘skeleton’ is made from a wooden frame which is then wound over and over with plaster soaked rags; smaller pieces such as birds are based on a wooden block, or like the pine marten he was currently making, the slimmed-down version of the larger animals. Making the bird’s head separate from the body is due to technical constraints in casting.
Each piece then becomes the roughed-out version which needs careful sanding together with infilling and shaping by clay until it is just like the real thing. The next stage, at least for Eddie is to hand it over to the foundry where it is moulded in sand and the resulting matrix filled with wax. The process known as the ‘lost wax’ system is at least 4,000 years old and has never needed to be changed.
Each wax reproduction of the carved item is then packed in moulder’s sand and melts as molten bronze at 1200° Celsius fills the space made by the wax shape. After cooling, the mould is broken to reveal the reproduced piece. Usually thirty of each sculpture are made this way with each piece coming from its individual wax effigy. Once the foundry has finished its part of the process, the castings are sent back to Eddie for the final stage in the process and that is when he gives each piece its own magic touch. One of the beauties of bronze is that its appearance improves with age in a process known as ‘patination’.
Fortunately it is not necessary to wait for hundreds of years as a patina can be created by the application of a clever alchemy of chemicals and heat; apparently it helps if the mixture is applied with an old worn toothbrush. Each patination can never be repeated and every bronze will be unique even though it is one of a limited run of thirty. His tiny showroom is a treasure trove of birds that look as though they are about to fly away, or animals crying out to be stroked. My own favourites were the pair of gannets greeting each other, the wise eyes of an owl that seemed to follow me round the room and the upper part of an otter as it swims along the display counter. There was a squirrel running like an acrobat down a tree trunk and a blackbird just about to take flight, but it was a life sized green puffin that made me look again.
Apparently it had turned green from exposure to the sea air as one of two travelling between Aberdeen and the Shetlands in the aft restaurants of MV Hrossey and MV Hjaltland NorthLink Ferries. Made by Eddie as a special test piece to see what would happen in such an environment, this one found its way back home a little while ago. Several open days and two special exhibitions are held each year at Riber. Details are posted on the web site: www.wildlifesculptures.co.uk.
The showroom is open most days, but please telephone 01629 583108 or 07714 418174 to make sure. Wildlife Sculptures is situated at Greenways Farm in the historic hamlet of Riber. Follow the sign from the A615 in Tansley.