How often have you stopped, on entering the Queenâ€™s Gallery at the foot of the Royal Mile, to admire the magnificent unicorned bronze hinges and figurative door handles, and wondered why and where they came from?
â€œI have always believed in the power and importance of figurative art; it has been a necessity throughout the history of mankind. I believe that people relate to this with enormous pleasure. In turn it gives me great pleasure working with and for the public.â€ So says sculptor Jill Watson, whose work, along with the heraldic lion above the door, they are.
Jillâ€™s public work commissions, which do indeed give many people enormous pleasure, are to be found in the UK, USA, Italy, Germany and Taiwan. Like many artists, she describes her personal favourite as â€œwhatever Iâ€™m working on at the momentâ€ but one of the most striking, and typical of Jillâ€™s figurative work, is a family of three, set into the pavement outside the Taipei Financial Centre. A small child runs towards her father, who has just left work and welcomes her with open arms, having placed his briefcase on the floor. It perfectly sums up what Jill enjoys about her work.
â€œThey look Chinese because I used my Chinese friend and her assistant as models,â€ she says.
â€œMy ideas are about everyday activities and situations, so people relate to them. Theyâ€™re not mysterious. I watch people in the street and every so often I see a wonderful, natural group. Something grabs you – a gesture, a movement, a composition. We all recognise people that we know in the distance long before we see their faces, because of their unique and characteristic posture.â€
Jillâ€™s sculptures can be considered as falling into four types, Figures, Columns with Figures, Archaeological Landscapes and Sheep. Although coming from a medical family, Jill grew up on her grandfatherâ€™s farm between Perth and Dundee and says, â€œmy sheep carvings came as a result of many years working with and watching their natural groupings and behaviour. They, too, have characteristic poses and these stimulate a sense of natural peace and tranquillity. For me, the sheep carvings and bronzes have a strong spiritual element. Looking after sheep one sees everything â€“ birth, life and death â€“ giving a philosophical base to oneâ€™s work.â€
Training at Edinburgh College of Art
Jillâ€™s training at Edinburgh College of Art was inspired by Bill Scott, who taught drawing and George Mancini. Manciniâ€™s father had come from Rome to London to start a foundry. He later came to Edinburgh and worked, casting for artists, exploring his own passion for bronze. â€œI was lucky to have the opportunity to work with him,â€ Jill says, â€œlearning the traditional techniques. Most of all I learnt from his single minded passion, his love of the material and his total commitment and concentration while he was working.â€
Jillâ€™s own calm concentration and thoroughness is modeled partly on what she admired in Mancini.
Rather surprisingly, Jill left College, having specialised in Sculpture, but knowing little about carving. She did, however, know that she wanted to make a career in sculpture and believed that she could. But first, she went to Italy, originally for a year, to learn to carve. At first she went to Florence but found mainly painters. Then she moved two hours away, towards the coast to Pietrasanta. With the help initially of a scholarship, she rented some space in a marble carving studio. In this studio, she practised under the watchful eye of the artisans, who corrected her technique and helped her learn more. Jill feels very lucky to have been there while these traditional skills were still in common practice.
â€œI discovered there were also many bronze foundries there and, together with the marble studios and specialised tool shops, Pietrasanta provided the perfect environment for sculptors. Theyâ€™ve been making sculpture there for centuries and we can keep learning from their techniques. I felt very comfortable working there, where sculptors are accepted and respected in the community.â€
But every artist eventually needs an audience. In medieval days, artists survived through the offices of patrons, or public commissions. Today, public commissions donâ€™t come to the unestablished, and it is the owners of art galleries who give an artist their opportunity to impress. Jillâ€™s first one man show came in 1980 at Kellie Castle but her big break came two years later at the Scottish Galleryâ€™s Christmas Exhibition. At the request of George Mancini, Bill Jackson of the Scottish Gallery came to Jillâ€™s degree show and liked her work. â€œCome back when youâ€™re ready,â€ he said. In 1982, Jill was ready.
â€œIâ€™ve always been lucky that Iâ€™ve been able to sell my work,â€ she says. â€œIt can be appreciated on many levels.â€
Jill has always kept a studio in Italy, but in 1998, she was invited to work with architect Ben Tindall on the renovation of The Hub, for the Edinburgh Festival Offices. It was to be a turning point in her life, in more ways than one. The dramatic staircase features shelves, in a repeating Pugin-like pattern. Jill was asked to produce 236 figures for the shelves. These figures represent fifty years of festival performances. Some of them are modeled on real artistes who, Jill suspects, recognise themselves!
But Jillâ€™s collaboration with Ben Tindall sparked more than a professional relationship and the couple married. Jill now has a studio in the basement of their St Leonardâ€™s house as well as her studio in Pietrasanta.
Following this prestigious work, Jill has been offered other commissions, including, in Edinburgh, a four foot model of a public statue to Robert Ferguson and the bronze figures for Standard Life Bank HQ Entrance. This was followed in 2002 by the commission for the heraldic carved limestone lion and the bronze hinges and door handles for the Queenâ€™s Gallery. New commissions are also on the way in England, where Jill is working on a new entrance at the Clore Learning Centre at Hampton Court.
Her miniature sculptures intrigue. The â€˜Columns with Figuresâ€™ series recreates the feeling of being amongst vast columns in Roman ruins, or the feeling that hits you when you walk in to enormous buildings. The sculptures themselves are often less than 300mm x 300mm, offering the unusual perspective of enabling the viewer to look down on these â€˜hugeâ€™ structures. In the archaeological landscapes, the visual scale becomes larger still, with the columns and figures becoming minimal. Contrasts abound, in time and timelessness, shape and space, static columns and moving figures, while the onlooker ponders his own place in these miniature worlds.
â€œWhen I first spent long periods in Rome,â€ says Jill, â€œI was fascinated by its streets and buildings with their subtle and rich colours, showing layer upon layer of history. Yet amidst the history, there are everyday scenes of modern life.â€
It is this â€˜ordinarinessâ€™ that enables anyone to understand Jillâ€™s sculptures; as in a well crafted novel, we relate to these three dimensional fictional characters. They have a life beyond the moment at which we have caught them.
While so many of Jillâ€™s works of art are on view every day, some small treasures can be seen at the Line Gallery in Linlithgow.