Hidden under Putney’s railway arches is one of London’s most influential creative establishments: Arch Bronze. We spend a few hours with the man behind the powerhouse – cheeky, serial-entrepreneur and local Putney boy, Chris Nash.
Nash and his team work with Britain’s top artists to realise their artistic visions, day in and day out. And it’s been 31 years since Nash and his wife, Gabby Brisbane, converted the studio into a bronzework business.
‘We met a guy called Jay Jopling,’ says Nash nostalgically, as he sparks up a Marlboro Light in the lively (and very dusty) studio. ‘We met him before he started White Cube and got on really well and he started sending all his artists over to us.’ Fortunately for Arch Bronze, this was just as the Young British Artists (YBAs) were on their ascent and the foundry rose to notoriety on the same wave as the artists.
Nash and his team worked closely with YBAs, such as Marc Quinn, Gavin Turk and the Chapman Brothers. And who, of the notorious group, was the most fun to have around?
‘Marc [Quinn] was the most interesting because he was pretty maverick and quite eccentric. He used to come in here in a Comme des Garçons suit smoking a big cigar, aged only about 26 or 27. He was here pretty much all the time for about 10 years.’
Nash tells how Quinn would disappear to Sainsbury’s and return with big bags of self-raising flour. ‘He would then make dough and lay it into moulds of armatures or busts. He’d put it in the kiln; the dough would rise and you would end up with a wonderful abstraction of either Marie Antoinette, Louis XIV or Dr Pangloss, which the foundry team would then cast into bronzes,’ recalls Nash.
And this wasn’t the only unusual project tackled by the foundry. ‘We did a series of casts for Gavin Turk which were basically perfect facsimiles of bin bags,’ says Nash. ‘Can you imagine trying to cast a rubbish bag, which has absolutely no integrity? I think we made about 70 altogether. It was really bloody difficult – I’m not telling you how we did it.’
More recently, Nash’s team has spent seven months creating bronzes for the opening show at Tate St Ives, by the hugely successful Rebecca Warren (who was nominated for the Turner Prize back in 2006). ‘I can’t tell you what they are, though,’ he says. ‘It’s all a bit hush hush.’
So what’s the trick to Arch Bronze’s success?
‘It’s all about skill, really,’ says Nash. ‘At a lot of foundries, people are designated to do one thing all the time – but it’s better that each of my team here is involved in every part of the process.’
And it’s a long and complicated process involving claywork, silicone moulding, waxwork and, of course, the precarious pour of the molten bronze into the mould. The team then allows the magma-like alloy to set before finishing and mounting the final product. There is a lot of room for error with so many processes.
But the foundry team has the safest hands out there (there are around 10 skilled artists-in-residence the day we visit) and the team is always at full capacity, with around 25 pieces moving through production processes at any one time.
Nash is quietly confident about the future. And it’s hard to blame him. As the old adage goes, quality (craftsmanship) speaks for itself.