YOU know you’ve arrived at Geoffrey Dashwood’s house when you turn the corner and come face to face with a monumental bronze bird of prey glaring down the driveway.
Actually finding the secluded spot near Ringwood is another matter. I have to be redirected by a kind near-neighbour who admits patiently that yes, he does sometimes have visitors for the sculptor performing complicated U-turns outside his property.
When I finally sit down with Geoffrey in his living room, filled with artworks and grand views west beyond the Avon Valley, the 70-year-old only half-jokingly grumbles: “I don’t know why you’re interviewing me.”
In a way, he has a point.
Despite decades of selling sculptures for up to £250,000 and exhibiting in art hotspots such as New York, Paris, Geneva and London, he’s relatively unknown in the New Forest where he has lived since his mid-teens when his parents moved from Sholing in Southampton.
His now internationally-known style came to fresh local attention in August when he was invited to the relaunched St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery in Lymington to stage a third solo exhibition of his cast-bronze birds whose spare, simplified lines bring to life their wild, graceful essence.
On his sofa, lighting up a roll-up cigarette which he puffs throughout, he launches into the tale of his career. It starts unpromisingly when, as an unqualified 15-year-old, he quit a scholarship at Southampton Art College after just a few weeks.
“I have always had a deep, instinctive resentment for authority, especially institutional. That’s why I left art college. I wanted to study art but I was told I had to do other things as well. I don’t think it’s arrogance – it’s freedom of spirit.”
He confirms he was a “very” difficult child at school. His self-deprecating story is spiced with expletives, and he admits his rough and ready demeanour clashes “all the time” with the refined atmosphere of the art world.
“It’s reflected in my work. I do not succumb to hints from dealers about what I should do. I do what the f*** I like. I do not do commissions, they always end in tears. You get offered a lot but I always politely decline.”
Aged 16 Geoffrey and the family moved to Minstead. His love of falconry, inherited from his father who worked at the Vosper Thornycroft shipbuilder’s in Southampton, “amused” the London-based lady of the manor sufficiently for her to agree to rent them a cottage, he recalls.
As a child who loved the outdoors he would collect natural artefacts – feathers, bones, skins and fossils – which eventually had to be housed in a garden shed.
After quitting art college Geoffrey burned through a string of jobs, from labourer to petrol pump attendant, eventually settling as a Forestry Commission keeper when he was about 20 on a low agricultural wage.
His life began to change in the 1970s when a note was sent to staff asking if anyone could draw. Keen for a few extra quid, he applied and was shocked to get a call from the head of the local Forestry Commission, the Deputy Surveyor himself, making him the unofficial artist in residence.
He illustrated guide books and leaflets before Hampshire County Council noticed his skills and offered him more work. That was enough encouragement for the “young and impetuous” Geoffrey to quit his job in the hope of becoming a full-time artist.
It wasn’t a success. There followed more than a decade of “scraping a living” trying to entice art galleries to sell his paintings. He recalls: “I would do anything: a letterhead design to a portrait of a dog or a horse, anything, I would do it.”
The shift to sculpture that ultimately made his name began when a friend with a ceramics company in Scotland asked him to produce bird figures. Inspired, Geoffrey later poured a £5,000 bank loan into creating small, detailed bronzes which, armed with a packed lunch and thermos, he carried from the New Forest to hawk around London’s high-end commercial galleries.
“I went up to London where I used to go with my drawings and paintings – I never got anywhere with those. You have these pretentious people in pinstripe suits and you feel like dog s*** that’s been walked in on the carpet.
“I had no letters of introduction, no phone calls. I just went off the street looking like I do now.
“At the end of the day, in the commercial art world they look at any artwork and say, is it any good and can I sell it? So your letters of introduction all go out the window.”
The direct approach worked so that by the time Geoffrey was in his early 30s his creations were being sold at Harrods, among other “posh shops”, and the cheques were coming in. But there was one step left.
“I got bored with doing that sort of work. It’s academic work. I wanted to do something that was more personal to me and more expressive and poetical.
“Over a few years the experimentation and simplification and abstraction went further and further until I ended up doing these simplistic forms.
“The irony is that although what I did was very self-indulgent, it was very successful because it gave me an identity.”
Over his career he’s made about 200 originals, each recreated in limited series combining to sell more than 2,500. The most expensive is the monumental-size peregrine falcon which took more than a year to complete and was sold to an American for £250,000.
Each piece has a grim start as Geoffrey will only work from dead bodies, which he picks up from conservation groups and bird gardens. He’s delighted at recently getting hold of an American eagle, a species on his wish list that he’s been waiting 30 years to sculpt.
“All the poses, body language – whatever you want to call it – come from observation and are then triggered by the animation of the sculpture. I do not use photos, you can’t measure from photos.
“In the studio I work entirely from corpses. Those are my terms of reference. I do not have it stuffed. I do not want it in a pose.”
He jumps up from the sofa to point intensely at sculptures around the room as he explains how he modifies proportions, smooths detail and exaggerates features: “What I seek is a hybrid between the bird and art.”
He fashions each model in his studio from where, thanks to the internet, he can now sell his work direct instead of relying solely on art dealers. A foundry creates the bronzework itself – like Henry Moore and Rodin, he points out, conscious of being accused of not crafting it single-handed.
The metal can be coloured through a chemical process which he says he gets no recognition for trailblazing: “No one had done pink or mottled bronzes. I was quite revolutionary doing that – I am not being pretentious about it, but I was. I do not get any credit for it.”
He’s almost entirely self-taught, he admits, and actually turned down the offer of a teaching position at a UK sculpture academy because, he reasoned, he had no qualifications to lecture.
Despite his discordance with the “pinstripe suit” people, he proudly claims never to have had a single negative art review of his work, which ranges from vultures and flamingos to sparrows and gulls.
“I think it’s because my work, if you compare it to the rest of what’s going on, like Damien Hirst, is figurative – it looks like what it is. So critics will ignore my work because they think it belongs to a particular genre. But if they are obliged to contemplate it they see it’s very sculptural.”
He can’t resist a swipe: “I have to look up some of their words in the dictionary. I think they choose a word and then find a more complicated one to use instead.”
His discomfort with the art world is further revealed through his repeated mantra: “I am not being pretentious.” But his enthusiasm for his subject can’t be cooled: “I have always been mad about birds.”
He points to their sculptural aerodynamics and goes on: “It’s very difficult to analyse and explain. I have always been interested in art too so it was perhaps inevitable that the two would come together.”
Another constant for most of his life has been his wife Val, from Lymington, who he met at 17 and married 46 years ago. They have three grown-up sons: James, Max and Leo.
The couple have lived at their picturesque property, just north of Ringwood, for 21 years since relocating from nearby Godshill. It echoes his art style, ordered but natural, and is home to a gnarled, 800-year-old oak which Geoffrey says is possibly the oldest in the New Forest.
He’s passionate about the area and, with the knowledge of a former Forestry Commission worker, is critical of some of the changes taking place, such as the focus on native plants which he describes as “almost like a type of ethnic cleansing”. How far back do you go, he asks?
He adds: “Millions of pounds were spent on drainage in the New Forest on straightening streams, having a whole network of drains. Now they are spending millions putting it back to how it was.
“I think some sort of a balance needs to be found. I am passionate but I feel a bit helpless because my opinion means f*** all.”
His first local exhibition was at St Barbe 15 years ago, after he was challenged about not exhibiting on his home patch.
“People said I do not exhibit locally. I was miffed – but later I thought, actually that’s fair comment. But where is there in the New Forest to show? So, typical Dashwood, I just found St Barbe and said I am looking to do a local show and they said, who the hell are you?”
His catalogue proved his quality and the first exhibition was repeated 10 years later followed by the third, well-received show in August.
The New Forest is where he wants his ashes scattered, and he says: “It means everything to me. I feel it’s my spiritual home. I’m not being pretentious, I mean that. It had a huge psychological effect on my mid-teens and my working life.
“It was like a breath of fresh air, coming from the outskirts of Southampton. I used to cycle here as a kid. I never dreamed I would live there or live in a house like this.”
As I leave he’s busy preparing another roll-up and, very probably, contemplating how to make his next bronze bird fly.
To find out more, visit www.geoffreydashwood.com.