Words by Martin Holman
Anthony Bryant’s sculptural vessels warm to the heart of hardwood.
In the course of his 40-year career, Anthony Bryant has acquired renown among collectors and fellow makers for his vessel-shaped objects of extraordinary beauty. His material is British hardwood which he works while it is still supple with sap. In that way he achieves a breathtakingly thin, almost shell-like surface. No part of the vessel gets much thicker; even the base is thin, giving the entire piece its poise and visual impact.
Bryant applies decades of knowledge to judge how far the wood will allow him to go. He sees his task as literally bringing the character of the wood to the surface. Practical experience enables him to transform a promising but unwieldy round of felled timber into an artwork. A keen sense of design helps him to release into plain sight natural properties of lustrous colour, delicate pattern and varied, oscillating profile. Bryant’s genius lies in letting the wood be true to itself.
The quality that he adds is form. The traditional bottle and bowl shapes he uses have ancient origins. Organic materials have been crafted by hand into containers for storing and carrying food and liquids since the earliest time. Their makers are still associated with manufacture, producing multiple items from a single prototype that will have a use, often as homeware. Woodturning is widely connected with carving finials, balusters and handles. Indeed, in western cultures, utility marks the great divide between craftsperson and artist. In the UK, each has a separate funding council to support their initiatives. Although both professions involve the hand, the functionless, one-off work of visual artists invariably attracts a higher value by seeming to belong to the life of the mind. No modern craftsperson has matched the global fame or astronomical prices of Andy Warhol or Damien Hirst.
So, describing Anthony Bryant involves contentious territory. A number of titles fit him and his activity simultaneously. Woodturner and craftsman are two of them, although he has never been part of the craft community. But reflecting the porousness of these labels, the term that best suits this consummate technician is artist. He has adopted the vessel form only as a convention; in fact, he subverts that model by often incorporating holes vacated by knots that perforate the body. These vessels are carriers of effects and possibilities rather than of produce.
His choices and actions can transform our expectations in other ways. For example, oak is a traditional timber with which everyone is familiar for its strength and solidity. To have a ‘heart of oak’ has entered the language as a guarantee of stability. However, Bryant has shaped vessels hollowed thin from an oak log until their silhouettes waver sensuously like a gentle curl of soft butter pulled from a slab.
Comparison with fine ceramic comes to mind: wood can be made to resemble malleable clay modelled by hand and pinched into shape. Bryant, however, intervenes only with natural processes, drying slim wafers of oak so they warp into lithe and subtle folds. Polishing then opens up a tiger-brown surface restless with a cascading pattern of the ray-like grain or figure. Crowning the object is a coarse open rim of beefsteak-coloured, bark-like indentations like the rolling flow of hills in a landscape capped with hedging.
These are artful works. They make a smooth transition from workshop to metropolitan art gallery, and from observable effect into visual metaphors that stimulate the imagination. Lifting any vessel overturns the assumption of a wooden form necessarily being heavy. A thin, lightweight structure is the distinct feature of Bryant’s output. Sycamore turns on his lathe to an edge fine enough for light to penetrate while holly, a pale white wood with virtually no visible grain but liable to whirls of dark-coloured knots, can be milled to a width of one eighth of an inch.
He has known about wood all his life. Growing up in Ashton in west Cornwall, where his father was in construction, Bryant was introduced to the workshop environment at an early age. Surrounded by tools and the fragrance of timber, he started working it as a teenager for pleasure but had no way of developing skills. “I can’t make a table,” he says, “but the sensual experience of handling wood and knocking in nails runs so deep I have never wanted to work with clay or glass or stone.”
At school he followed the standard academic curriculum. Music came first in his priorities and when he chose a career, he joined the Midland Bank for a steady job with prospects. Based first in Devon and then Redruth, he applied himself to accountancy and law exams, working his way into management – but growing increasingly miserable. At lunchtime, he would leaf through woodworking magazines at the local newsagent. On one visit he saw an advertisement for a week-long residential woodworking course. He applied straightaway, which is how he met Mike Law: “He changed my life,” Bryant happily admits.
An industrial woodturner in north Cornwall, Law had no difficulty passing both his unreserved dedication and dexterity on to his students. Bryant returned twice more, each time building his knowledge and enthusiasm. Realising where his future lay, on 25th September 1982, a date clearly inscribed in his memory, he left the bank and celebrated his ‘independence day’ that night at jazz saxophonist Barbara Thompson’s gig at the Winter Garden in Penzance. Telling Law of his decision, his mentor roared back his reply: “You fool!”.
Bryant has encountered the hard times that Law foresaw. Years followed when he sought to establish his individual perspective on working with wood. He recalls the perilous existence of spending his savings on materials when sales were still few. While benefits eventually appeared – some of his first patrons were American collectors after he showed in New York – the concentrated physical labour has continued. It is integral to the process: “Nothing gives me a bigger thrill,” he told fellow woodturner Andy Coates in a recent interview, “than getting my chainsaws out and cutting up an interesting log even when it’s pouring with rain, I’m covered in mud and the chainsaw refuses to start.” The elegant end-result, however, belies the effort.
Bryant attributes his growing confidence in pushing techniques while identifying his particular way forward to good fortune in meeting people. He mentions, among others, Mary ‘Boots’ Redgrave who ran the New Craftsman gallery in St Ives, a hub for contemporary Cornish creativity, and Lady Philippa Powell, the founder of the prestigious Chelsea Crafts Fair. His selection to take part in the 1985 event on the basis of just one slide was a watershed moment. For inspiration, however, he has been more likely to turn to artists and architects, whose outlook on the role of the artwork he shares. That affinity has come through in his own paintings, exhibited as a suite of large and texturally dynamic abstract canvases at the Penzance Exchange gallery in 2010. Moreover, crucial to his own artistic development has been his partner, the figurative painter Nicola Bealing.
Nonetheless, an important figure for Bryant from the world of craft is the Japanese-born British potter Takeshi Yasuda, now a master porcelain maker in China. They have exhibited together and Yasuda stresses the eastern cultural attitude that anything made by hand can be totally abstract to begin with. Its meaning emerges from the way that people respond and, should they wish, give the object its use. So meanings multiply and contradict, and all are equally valid, an interaction which corresponds with how Bryant’s vessels can be approached.
Each piece is latent with narrative. Wood contains startling effects of colour and pattern that derive directly from its history of growth. In a sense, they record the material’s memory. Although he has worked in the past with exotic varieties, such as ebony and with Australian woods with characterful knot burrs, Bryant is drawn almost exclusively to native species – ash, beech, sycamore, elm and oak. Beech and ash are commonly prone to staining called spalting; it occurs when airborne fungi colonise the wood and extract nutrients. Merchants reject these trees, viewing the condition as a sign that the wood is weak. To woodworkers, spalting is a gift. Bryant spots the contoured watermark it leaves and traces the dark dotted and lined patterns across the vessel like an intense filigree of ink marks in a pen drawing. In freshly sawn ash, the pink-tinged creamy white wood can also contain discoloration. With an experienced eye, Bryant exploits this natural factor to imply the imagery perceived in clouds, such as two faces meeting.
With yew, although not strictly a hardwood, Bryant uncovers the curly and irregular grain of orange-brown heartwood peppered with knots. Streaks of dark brown veins fold around the spherical surface like ripples reflected in daylight. The challenge with yew comes from tearing and splitting. So Bryant works with its brittle character, drawing light inside the hollowed wood that gives its craggy and crusty edge a tantalising ambiguity. The creamy sapwood, coaxed into a narrow seam, appears to fall like meltwater over a rocky ledge. When these thoughts occur to the onlooker, Bryant touches on poetry.
Anthony Bryant is showing new work this summer at Make Hauser & Wirth, Bruton, Somerset, 25th June to 29th August, and at the Scottish Gallery, Edinburgh, 1st to 24th September.