My favourite retreat in St. James’s at the moment is the Southwood Garden next to St. James’s Church, Piccadilly, because Emily Young’s sculptures are there, until January 2018. The garden is always deep shady green and restful, but now it is framed by silent stone heads with flowing hair, and they look as old as eternity and, in their striated colouring, as alive and warm as the next hand you will hold. The very striations in the stones tell their ancient age as well as the potent energy they seem to contain.
And there is colour, so much colour, just as there once was on the statues of the the Aparthenon: green and white brecchiated onyx, blue purbeck marble, white and coppery clastic igneous. Every time I climb the steps to the garden, I feel drawn to the Rouge de Vitrolles Head, made of rich red-orange rouge de vitrolles stone. This one has no hair and the littlest of ears and closed eyes, and, in contrast to its glowing smoothness, a large beige indentation in its forehead that reveals what the stone probably looked like when Emily first found it.
All of Emily Young’s stone heads have such apparently unfinished bits, parts of the sculptures that, in an uncanny way, revel in what might be called their imperfections — like a face with massive scar or birthmark — and at the same time disclose the majesty of impersonal rock and how well it hides its inner secrets, its colours and crystals and cavities. Emily has said that she will sometimes buy twenty pieces of stone in an Italian quarry “because they wave at me, saying, ‘Hey, I’m really beautiful’ or ‘I’ve got lots of moss growing on me and nobody knows what’s inside me.'”
Working with hammers, chisels and power tools in her London studio or Santa Croce one (in a disused hillside convent), Emily then investigates: “I may open in one knock something that took millions of years to form: dusts settling, water dripping, forces pushing, minerals growing — material and geological revelations: the story of time on earth shows here, sometimes startling, always beautiful.”
Born in 1951, Emily has been declared by the Financial Times to be “Britain’s greatest living stone sculptor”. Her grandmother Kathleen Scott, who sculpted in clay, was famously a colleague of Rodin, and Kathleen famously was the widow of Captain Robert Scott who died exploring Antartica. It was Emily’s wide travels in the 1960s and 70s, after Chelsea Art School and Central St. Martins, that inspired her to give up painting and sculpt stone from around the world. The 1960s also saw her meeting Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd, leading to his writing, “See Emily Play”.
All that fame aside, none of Emily’s stone heads are of recognisable individuals and they never will be. “I don’t want to make stone my servant”, she has said, distancing herself from the sculptors of the past who subordinated their work’s earthly matter to the lives they were meant to commemorate. For Emily, the stone sculpture should instead commemorate time and our planet. Her angel heads are messengers to man, telling us how precious the earth is and how we ought to be far better caretakers.
Emily Young’s statues can be found all over London and Europe, but one that cannot be easily seen is The Weeping Guardian, a twelve-tonne piece of carved Carrara marble that has been laid eight metres down on the sea floor off the coast of Tuscany, at Talamore. It is one of 25 pieces of stone being put there to prevent the illegal dragnet trawling that empties the sea floor of so much vital marine life.