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  • Writer's pictureRichard Atkinson - Willes

Talos Gallery, our bit of history

An interview with Owner and Restorer Richard Atkinson-Willes

Welcome to the Talos Gallery, a new venue showcasing contemporary sculpture, including bronze sculpture cast using traditional techniques by Talos Art Foundry Ltd. The gallery is the brainchild of Talos Art Foundry owner Richard Atkinson-Willes and brings some of the very best contemporary bronze sculpture to Broads Green Farm, near Calne, in Wiltshire, where it can be seen in the context of some of Wiltshire’s most beautiful countryside. Richard explains, “the Talos Art Foundry casts the work of over seventy established sculptors and works on national and international sculpture projects. Much of this fabulous sculpture goes straight from the foundry to its final home in private and national collections. The Talos Gallery offers everyone a brief opportunity to enjoy these sculptures, which are destined for private collections or venues overseas, and also provides buyers the opportunity to invest in their own editions.” It’s a unique chance to see and ‘get up close’ to bronze sculpture straight from the foundry, set amongst a dazzling display of mixed media work and paintings by contemporary artists.

Originally built as the dairy for Bowood House, the yard at Broads Green Farm is a history lesson in Wiltshire vernacular architecture. “I have added very little to these old buildings,” says Richard, “I’ve mostly taken away the ‘refurbishments’ of the last hundred years to reveal the simplicity of the structure underneath.”

The operation has been more like an archaeological dig than a building renovation project. “I had no idea how much of the original structures remained,” explains Richard, “so modern additions were painstakingly removed – with spectacular results. Beneath several layers of concrete, I suddenly found ancient, cobbled floors and post holes for centuries old cow byres. To give you an idea of the scale of this ‘spring clean’, we removed nearly a metre of rubble from the old cart shed to return the floor to its original level”. The cart shed now has its original barn doors back thanks to Richard’s woodworking skills. “I had to make them actually in the opening,” explains Richard, “because once made they were too heavy for me to move on my own during lockdown!”

Gallery dog Frosty kept a close eye on the renovation

Richard, who trained as a sculptor himself, is hugely experienced when it comes to assembling and curating large exhibitions. Having shown his own work in London and later around Hampshire, he became co-founder of Project Workshops near Andover, a complex of sixteen artists’ studios and workshops which he built up and ran for nearly thirty years. The foundry was the first business to move to Project Workshops in 1988 and is still based there. “The foundry set up a makeshift furnace in one of the old farm buildings and was soon producing the most beautiful sculptures,” Richard recalls. “It was like alchemy, watching them turning grimy ingots of raw metal into treasures using technology passed down from antiquity - it was magical.” 30 years on and it all seems a long time ago when you visit one of the foundry’s annual exhibitions today, set in smart, purpose-built facilities at bustling Project Workshops. The new foundry building was completed in in 2009 and provides facilities to cast bronze sculptures up to a ton in weight for over seventy artists and a growing list of international clients.

Richard at Aintree with recently restored bronze of Red Rum by Philip Blacker, cast and restored at Talos Foundry

Despite its modern facilities, however, the processes used at the Talos Art Foundry to produce bronze sculptures are largely unchanged from the Bronze Age, which began in the middle East around 4000BC. “We use a technique called the ‘lost wax’ process, says Richard, “which we think was developed by the ancient Egyptians around 2500BC. It’s the perfect solution to a thorny question: how can you make a mould of a complex object, which is tough enough to withstand the heat of molten metal, but which is also flexible enough to allow removal of the artist’s original so that you can pour molten metal into it to create your bronze sculpture? The answer is that if the artist makes the original sculpture out of wax and coats it in clay, the clay can be fired to make it hard enough to withstand the temperature of the molten metal and in the process the artists wax original will simply flow out of the mould leaving it empty, ready for bronze to be poured in. “It’s brilliantly simple,” says Richard,” and it’s a testament to the ingenuity of those ancient civilizations that no one has come up with a better solution in the intervening five thousand years.”

We think of the ‘Bronze Age’ as being thousands of years ago, and indeed bronze was superseded by iron as the material of choice for weapons and implements during the late Roman Empire, but bronze has never become a redundant material. With its low coefficient of friction, bronze provided the bearings for the machines that powered the industrial revolution and was relied upon for all the marine fittings for ships and navies around the world until the development of stainless steel in the 1920s. Some of the finest sculptures from the renaissance to the present day have been cast in bronze, and the metal is still used for its resonant qualities in the casting of bells. “Bronze casting is one of mankind’s oldest technologies,” says Richard, “which I think is why it is so venerated as a material. Bronze artifacts and tools survive from periods of history about which we know almost nothing, and here we are, still using it to celebrate and create memorials for events in our history which will survive for centuries into the future. We admire it for its enduring quality, which makes it such an appropriate material for commemorative sculpture. Like the gold in a wedding ring, which symbolises purity, incorruptibility and eternity, the bronze in a commemorative sculpture gives a clear message that its creator intended the memory to last for ever. You can economise and press a plastic ring on to your beloved’s finger, but I have to warn you, it won’t go well; the ring’s message is in its material, and so is the memorial sculpture’s.” Richard’s high regard for his material isn’t limited just to bronze however: “You would have thought that a sculptor who owns a foundry would make nothing but bronze sculpture”, says Richard, “but actually bronze is just one of many materials that I use”. Richard was very fortunate to be taught by a sculptor from the Royal College of Art, who had specialised in traditional techniques like wood and stone carving, moulding and casting and hand building in clay and plaster, so it’s hardly surprising that his work has always been led by materials and process. “This made me particularly unfashionable when I joined the famous sculpture course at St Martins School of Art in 1979, where the mantra was ‘form is the only thing that matters – (provided it’s made of Corten steel)’. My view was that while steel was certainly very suitable for certain applications, it was extremely limiting to assume that it was the best choice for everything – and downright blinkered to claim that it was the best and only material to express contemporary sculpture”.

In hindsight, it appears that Richard’s views were conservative considering Damian Hirst was already making sculpture out of dead cows at Goldsmith’s College, just a few miles away, but at the time, any interest in materials suggested ‘craft’, which apparently had no place in ‘fine’ art. “My interest in materials hasn’t progressed to dead cows yet” says Richard, “but over the years I have made sculpture from plastics, concrete, glass, plaster, ceramics, fabrics, bronze, wood, stone – and just about anything interesting that I have found lying about. It fascinates me how often random selections of things and materials can come together to form an assembly which appears to be a homogenous whole. It’s exactly what Sir Anthony Caro and the ‘New British Sculptors’ were telling me at St Martin’s, of course: if you select the ‘right’ bits of scrap metal and arrange them in the ‘right’ order, suddenly you have a priceless artwork in the Hayward Gallery. I just prefer to do it with lots of different materials; I think they make the dialogue richer”. That’s certainly evident at the Talos Gallery, which is a celebration of the richness of Wiltshire’s vernacular building style. “We’ve added very little to the old dairy buildings at Broads Green Farm,” says Richard, “we’ve mostly taken away the ‘refurbishments’ of the last hundred years to reveal the simplicity of the structure underneath. We’ve removed hundreds of tons of concrete and revealed ancient, cobbled floors, original Elm trusses and antique joinery.” The rooves, too, have been renovated and re-covered with their signature terracotta tiles, made at Bowood, just a mile away. “I doubt these buildings were ever intended to last for more than a few years when they were built 200 years ago – they are just sheds, built over much older cobbled floors which have probably seen a number of buildings come and go in their lifetime.” “I’ve seen so much good artwork looking abandoned and uncomfortable in sanitised, white galleries,” says Richard, “I decided to redress the balance and create a gallery space that celebrates materials and craftsmanship in all its guises.”


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