Stockport sculptor John Blakeley reflects on his long career

PUBLISHED: 12:37 16 May 2011 | UPDATED: 19:22 20 February 2013

Stockport sculptor John Blakeley reflects on his long career

Stockport sculptor John Blakeley reflects on his long career

Stockport sculptor John Blakeley reflects on a long career which has taken him around the world, as Paul Mackenzie reports<br/>Photography by Kirsty Thompson

John Blakeley thinks he may have cast his final bronze. The 83-year-old recently completed a bust of Che Guevara and after 50 years during which he has worked on pieces all over the world, he senses he may be nearing the end of his career.

But he could be tempted to make one more bronze if he were asked to produce one of Fidel Castro.

He is the same age as me and he has stories to tell, said John, who has a few stories of his own.

And dont be fooled by the apparent political nature of his subjects - John is adamant that his work transcends all boundaries of politics, race, class and religion.

I wash all religion and politics out of my work, he said. It makes no difference to me what people think or believe, or what country they were born in, art doesnt see any of those boundaries.

The bust of the iconic Cuban revolutionary was unveiled at Johns Stockport home and studio in April and it will be dispatched to Cuba later this month.

Im sending it straight to his house, to Ches daughter, he said. We were over there on holiday and made friends who took us to the museum and persuaded me to use my work to record him for history and theres no better thing than bronze for doing that.

Everyone has an image of him and when he died his daughter was just a little girl - they should all get something different from the finished piece.

I was supplied with all sorts of photographs from the museum and then its a matter of combining different facets of those flat, two dimensional images into a 3D piece. A photograph captures a moment, a sculpture should capture the whole person and the depth of their character - it over-rides any instant flash.

John was born in Salford in 1928, one of five children, and the family moved to Stockport when he was five years old. His earliest memories are of collecting clay from the banks of the Irwell before they made the move and baking his models in his mothers oven.

When other children were playing with toys, I was making them. I would make treasure boxes and I was always the one who would be making the arrows and catapults.

I left school at 14 and went to a cabinet makers in Stockport, now long gone. I went to Stockport College too, doing painting and drawing and it reached a point where they couldnt take me any further. So I took myself. I was in the Marines for two years then I went to study in Italy.

After two years at the studio of the great professor Carlos Nicholi, John travelled extensively, particularly in Canada, taught and, in the years after the war, became a reasonably successful portrait painter.

But his big break came in 1967 when he was asked to create a bust of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, for the headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah.

That was the big one, John said, and he took it seriously, travelling 8,000 miles to not just see but insist on handling and taking precise measurements from, Smiths death mask. He also personally oversaw the quarrying of the half-ton block of marble it took.

When youre working with Carrara marble you can only do it once. Its not like a painting you can change and change, once you do something to that marble, its done for ever.

The furthest thing away is a feint heart, thats the last thing you need in your box of tools. It really is a case of blood, sweat and tears. You have to find extraordinary control - you cant have any harsh things in your soul. Im lucky. I was blessed with patience - I can wait and wait until inspiration comes.

You get the nose first and make sure theres enough for the ears. Its hard to explain how you go about creating it and I certainly couldnt teach it.

I am one of the few people who knows how Michelangelo felt when he got up in the morning.

John was still working on the Smith bust when he last featured in Cheshire Life, in September 1975. Commissions came regularly and he now has work across the globe - a memorial at the Ravensbruck concentration camp chapel, a piece for the War Graves Commission, sculptures for big businesses looking for a statement piece and items for private collectors.

And the depth of research for the Joseph Smith sculpture was not unusual - when he was asked to create a piece depicting the 14 stations of the cross for a Stockport church John visited schools in Jerusalem to research how Jesus would have looked as a 12-year-old.

I got one or two awards and after that it all just fell together. I did a piece for the Queens silver jubilee which is now in the palace and one thing has just sort of led to another, he said, matter-of-factly.

But if Johns work seems to have followed a neat trajectory, his recounting of it doesnt. His stories tumble out in a torrent, each one triggering another, none of them quite being finished as he moves continually around his conservatory where press cuttings have been mounted as a backdrop to the Che unveiling.

Each feature, interview and story pinned to the boards - including a yellowing copy of that piece from Cheshire Life in 1975 - sparks another anecdote or reminiscence.

The slight figure from the photographs taken in his studio 36 years ago has filled out and the hair has greyed but there remains an alertness, an almost childlike enthusiasm for his art.

Havent I been lucky? Ive been all over the world, met all sorts of people and done what Ive wanted to do.

And his innocence extends to his attitude to money, too. Money can not affect what I want to do, he said. As far as Im concerned its not to do with money, its to do with using the skills that Mother Nature has given me. Money wont open the doors to my studio and language, culture and religion make no difference to me and they never have.

But while his ethos may have remained unaltered, his perception of his work has shifted over the years. Your ideas change as you grow older and mature, he said. Emotions and characters mean different things. I did Lowry in 1969 and again years later and the results were very different.

I might pick the painting up again one day, but having said that, when I pass a piece on the sideboard, I pick it up and clean it and see where I went wrong. You never know whats coming next.

From the archives

We featured John Blakeley in our September 1975 issue, when he was described as "a hard man with a soft centre"

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