The Spirit of Britons collection - Background Information Page
Sculptor Ian G Brennan has always rather enjoyed the challenge of trying to create something from nothing. All the sculptures created for the Spirit of Britons’ sculptures using this diverse collection of old once scrapped materials could no doubt have been made, quicker and easier using brand new off the shelf materials if available, but all would have all been totally devoid of any age and history, so what would have been the point of that.
Although the vast majority of Ian’s work involves creating detailed bespoke 'one off ' sculptures in a variety of different subjects and materials and prefers to concentrate on creating original art work and tries not get to much involved with restoration projects, however now and again he rather enjoys working with organisations such as the Royal Household, Private and Government organisations along with the Museum service and English Heritage to assist on a wide variety of historic restoration projects. Such commissions have included replacing or restoring antique, wood carvings, ornate plaster mouldings and bronze sculptures for Government buildings, Museums, Churches, Southwick House, (were D Day was planned) The College of Arms in London, Windsor Castle. Also carving a replica of an 18th century ships lion figure-head for a Museum, along with replacing the original intricately carved entrance port on Lord Nelson’s historic Flagship HMS Victory.
Despite oak being the ‘National Tree of England’ given the preference Ian prefers not to carve solid oak unless it is specifically requested by the client, which as it happens appears to be more often than not. There are many examples of Ian’s solid oak carvings around, such as the carved oak Pascal candle stand commissioned for St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, to an oak bas-relief carving of a Knights Coat of Arms placed within the crypt in St Paul’s Cathedral just a few feet from where Lord Nelson’s tomb can be found today and despite Ian’s preference not to carve oak decided to spent the past twenty five years working on and off; on his ‘Spirit of Britons’ collection carving some of the oldest hardest oak around; original centuries old oak from Windsor Castle and HMS Victory.
Working with old historic timbers and other materials have their own special challenges especially in the case of original oak from the medieval Windsor Castle and Lord Nelson’s Flagship Victory built in 1765 at Chatham Dockyard in Kent. All of the material and oak ships beams Ian was given to work from were of all shapes and sizes but all had one thing in common, they were in a poor condition, no longer serviceable and generally unfit for purpose in one way or another which of course is why in the case of the Victory they were removed from the Victory’s hull in the first place.
Many of these beams still had thick layers of paint on them along with nails and bolts and occasionally iron hooks still attached to them, ‘welded’ or rusted in place in the beams over the centuries and are almost impossible to remove, even with his trusty old lump hammer.
Victory oak is an exceptionally hard timber and it has to be said not a particularly pleasant timber to work with for many reasons, but the simple fact is if it wasn’t for the history and provenance of these old ship timbers, Ian wouldn’t have bothered working with them in the first place. Having only ever been used to working with the finest quality seasoned timbers to during the past thirty-five years as a woodcarver and the ten years he spent in the early days as a cabinet maker, he thought given the contrast working with such old timbers would be a bit of a challenge. Although oak from the Victory is always examined by the shipwrights to see if they could be returned back onto the ship in one form or another, it was usually deemed either impractical or not cost effected to so. Not only the condition of the oak but also with the possibility the oak beams having metal hidden inside. With some of the metal often found in these old ship’s beams being forced into the oak beams by the Dockyard Brits at Chatham in 1765 and others by the French guns at Trafalgar in 1805. So, for this reason attempting to saw up old Victory oak beams to rework them especially with potential metal hidden away was always a problem.
It has been said it was for a similar reason that old Plane trees which lined many of the streets of London when felled were rarely cut up in sawmills as many of these trunks were found to contain shrapnel from the London Blitz in the 1940’s deeply embedded inside the trunks. The potential damage to the massive saw blades cutting through the trunks often reduced significantly what profit there might have been made cutting the logs up, so many such trees weren’t.
Over the years having carved using Victory’s oak the only thing you can guarantee is that you will often find a nail or bolt hidden away somewhere in these old ship’s timbers and providing the old beam is not covered in paint which many are, you can sometimes spot were an old iron nail was hiding away by the distinct black colour of the oak as the nail would react badly over the years to the oak, so often where there is black timber, there is also rotten timber. Sometimes even old copper screws hidden in the ships beam, which unfortunately in this example Ian didn’t spot until a the rather pretty display of sparks suddenly appeared as the expensive circular saw’s dimond tipped blade cut its way down the whole length of the brass screw.
An often-typical piece of Victory oak with an emended old iron hand made nail and a brass screw can be seen in this off cut of a Victory oak from the Victory Sculpture. Although the black stain and rotten oak in the same piece of oak was is in good enough condition to carve something with, along with the small 32 pounder gun he set into the lump of oak just as the hundred or so Ian carved for the Victory sculpture.
When Ian was a child raised mainly in Dover in Southern England in the early 1950’s during the post rationing error and the make do and mend period you soon learnt not to waste anything you found lying around and in the remains of old bomb sites they used to play in, so even in at the age of seven such as using an old piece of a packing crate to make a Knights wooden sword to battle his similarly armed friends, little did Ian know at the time fifty years later he would be commissioned to make a Knights sword for the future King of England.
When he was a teenager in the 60’s being around and occasionally working in the building trade helping to restore old buildings, so much old interesting, sometimes ornate plaster or old finely carved pieces of timbers were being removed from these old buildings and usually ended up in a skip or in an oil drum simply warming our hands, a small part of British Heritage was once again being lost forever.
Ian felt then and does so today it was such a waste, so in his own small way, first as a restorer and later as a professional sculptor he has attempted to preserve a small part of British History in one form or another to give it a new lease of life using some of this discarded but often historic material if and when the opportunity arose and it arose quite often. The sculptures hidden within these materials have always been there, the material just required revealing.
In the case of HMS Victory around 15% of the ship we see today in Portsmouth harbour is original timbers from the day she was launched in 1765. Over the centuries approximately 1,600 tons of original Victory timbers have been removed from the ship and replaced, either through battle damage, updating, restoration, woodworm, rot or general wear and tear over the centuries. The eventual fate of such timbers subsequently removed from the ship during the past 250 years have amongst other things been, begged, borrowed, bartered sold and two decades ago 35 Tons of Victory oak was sold off by the MOD to one Company alone. Victory oak has also been used in the past as firewood, traded, mislaid, donated to charities, placed on exhibition, given as gifts, turned into souvenirs, furniture, and other wooden objects, with 47 of these 3,200,000 pounds of original Victory oak; a mere drop in the Ocean, was used to carve the Victory Sculpture.
From 1984 onwards working as a professional woodcarver and restorer working on a wide variety of often historic restoration programs, over the decades he occasionally ended up with various old pieces of somewhat material especially timber most of which were well past its sell by date, that were either unrestorable or surplus to requirements, which were subsequently made available to him. In the case of old timbers received as both larger pieces, or simply as smaller off-cuts, but were all old and in various state of disrepair. Or in the case of the original 1940’s Supermarine Spitfire armoured glass windscreen Ian was given in 1983.
The one thing most of these various old and historic materials had in common was they were once again surplice to requirement; no longer ‘fit for purpose’ as they say and any originally discarded materials were then either purchased, gifted or on occasions rather than Ian accepting a fee for the particular commission working with these historic objects, he could keep any materials left over. Sometimes the clients would request Ian try and create a carving from part of the original materials, so the ancient bartering system practised all over the world of simply exchanging labour, skills, objects, or services in place of cash, once again came into play.
This ancient, traditional method of working over the years continued for Ian in the early 1990’s when he was commissioned to help restore HMS Victory as he was later given some old battered, original ships beams that were also deemed unrestorable and surplice to requirements. All were different shapes, size and condition with most of the timbers showing signs of worm damage and rot with many also contained old nails and bolts still attached. All had been removed from Victory’s hull mostly from the lower gun deck area during the Ships restoration program.
Carved Victory oak panel 1 – ‘The Trafalgar Scene’ - Carved Victory oak panel 2
The pair of bas-relief carvings donated for the BBC ‘Children in Need’ program and the five feet long ‘Battle of Trafalgar’ shown on display in the Royal Naval Museum Portsmouth.
The carvings Ian produced included these pair of larger Victory oak bas-relief carvings which were then donated on behalf of the Dockyard Staff and Ship’s Crew for the BBC ‘Children in Need’ program. Later Ian then carved these five feet long ‘Battle of Trafalgar’ scene from one large oak beam removed from the Victory’s lower gun deck, which was later gifted for display in the Royal Naval Museum in the Dockyard; shown below. However eventually, as time and taxes wait for no one Ian put the obsession to work out the complexities of carving from these old ship timbers and get on with his much-delayed commissions.
However so as to impact as little as possible from the original found condition of the materials used in the ‘Spirit of Britons’ collection; sculptures such as ‘Fire in the Hall’ and the ‘Family Seat’ required rather less impute from Ian, than ‘A view from Redoubtable’ and ‘Victory sculpture’ which required considerably more effort.
‘The Family Seat’
‘Fire in the Hall’
‘A View from Redoubtable’
The Victory Sculpture
Centuries old Oak Ship Timbers which in the early 1990’s was removed during restoration from HMS Victory’s Hull and were simply dropped into a skip placed alongside the Ship before being stored alongside other such Victory oak and copper in the basement of the Georgian building close by.
This original Victory oak and copper was later removed and much of it was sold off by the MOD before the building itself was demolished to make way for building the new ‘Mary Rose’ Museum. Almost two Decades later some of these old Ships original timbers were ‘recycled’ by Ian, into a smaller scale version of itself and when a next door neighbour replaced his old 1970’s Mahogany framed Conservatory and put it in a his skip Ian was offered all the well-seasoned mahogany planks and turned them into a unique sculptured display cabinet to eventually house the equally unique Victory Sculpture.
Ian still finds history is all around if you care to look, even when he is working peering though his studio window, across his back garden into the woods beyond, he can see the many dozens of massive oak and Scots Pine timbers which were originally planted centuries ago to then supply the local ship building industry on the nearby Hamble river, that centuries ago built wooden ships including some for Nelson’s Fleet.
These once busy yards during the Napoleonic wars era-built warships such as HMS Hotspur which was built less than a mile from where Ian built his sculpture of HMS Victory. Along with HMS Elephant, a 74-gun third-rate ship of the line built in Bursledon a mile or so further down the river. In 1801 Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson chose HMS Elephant as his flagship due to amongst other lings its shallow draft required during the Battle of Copenhagen and it was on this ship that he is said to have put his telescope to his blind eye and claimed not to be able to see a signal ordering him to withdraw.
In the case of the original 1940’s Supermarine Spitfire armoured glass windscreen, Ian received as a way of a gift in 1984 from an old friend who once co-owned a scrap yard in the middle 1950’s and amongst things they subsequently scrapped during this period was old MOD equipment and vehicles, including damaged or surplice WW2 aircraft. The eventual result was to be the ‘One of the Few’ sculpture which like all the others were produced in Ian’s studio in Warsash, a Hampshire village less than 10 seconds away as the Spitfire flies; from the former Supermarine factory where they were original designed and built in the 1930’s.