“I live in a magical place,” explains the artist, Silvia MacRae Brown. “I am totally in nature here, and that certainly influences my whole life, my routine and my work.” Silvia doesn't say precisely where she is in rural East Sussex – only that she has lived within the same 10-mile radius for much of her life, and in the same flint cottage for over 40 years.
“My morning begins by feeding our white doves,” she explains. “I wander around looking at the trees with a mug of tea. It is idyllic – but I have to point out – it is an incredibly simple life. There’s nothing like television or central heating. And the winters are really tough because we’re in a frost hollow. You wouldn’t believe the number of layers I have to put on before I go into the studio.”
Silvia’s studio was once an open cattle shed at the end of her garden that dates back to around 1780, when the cottage formed part of a smallholding. It is a rudimentary, deeply private space with a concrete floor, wood-burning stove, a water tank and little else besides her sculptures.
When we speak, Silvia’s studio is uncharacteristically empty, aside from her shelves of shapely maquettes. “They really are just for me,” she says. “I think of them as ideas squeezed in clay, or little poems, scribbled.” In recent weeks, she has been busy setting up an exhibition at Charleston Manor – a private estate not to be confused with Charleston House. “I've only ever exhibited my clay portraits before – I've never exhibited my own personal ideas, so it's quite a big step for me,” she admits. “But I’ve reached a stage now where I think it's time for it to go out [in the world] otherwise, what's the point of making it?”
The exhibition includes several of Silvia’s clay portrait sculptures – her award-winning depiction of the composer, John Tavener, is here, his eyes closed, his thoughts consumed by new melodies – and her expanding body of garden sculptures. These pale, textured forms include a mother and child joined in the shape of a crescent moon, an angular seat that can be read as two companions and a series of still, contemplative figures with hollow ovals at their centres, framing the view beyond.
For Silvia, the cost of casting her works in weatherproof material (bronze, jesmonite or resin) is prohibitive. Instead, the work is displayed in direct plaster and only cast once it is sold. The downside to this is that the work cannot be displayed outside: “I needed a barn,” she says. “And I’d known of this wonderful place since I was a child…”
Charleston Manor was instrumental in Silvia’s decision to become an artist. The former home of the portrait painter, Sir Oswald Birley, and his wife, the artist and gardener, Rhoda Birley, it became known throughout the 1960s and ’70s for its longstanding festival of music and the arts. From the age of nine, Silvia attended with her mother. “I think my own interest in portraiture possibly goes back to those days,” she reflects. “Sitting in the audience, I would just be mesmerised by these interesting artists. I remember all their faces terribly well, and I think that started me off on portraiture. It had a huge affect on me.”
Having studied the piano throughout childhood, Silvia recalls a “sudden craving to work with [her] hands – not just at piano, but actually physically work.” Her career began in restoration with the National Trust, who enrolled her on a year-long history of art course at the V&A. The following year, she moved to Florence, Italy, where her mother was from. There, she worked as an apprentice to a furniture restorer and began taking life drawing classes – a discipline she continues to this day.
On her return to East Sussex, she began a three-year degree at the City and Guilds of London Art School. The course – which she began in the mid-’80s – focused on conservation and involved ornamental carving in wood and stone. Before long, Silvia discovered the sculpture department: “I knew instantly that that was what I wanted to do.”
Silvia met her long-term partner, John Roberts, at art school. (He was her carving tutor.) “I can't tell you how brilliant he was,” she explains. “He was a superb craftsman and he made the most beautiful work.” After she graduated, Silvia divided her time between East Sussex and Putney, where John lived. The couple worked in their separate studios, six days a week so their Sundays were precious: “We’d go out and about and take lovely long walks together and talk about anything and everything.” In 2002, John became ill and died of cancer at home in the flint cottage. He was in his mid-50s; Silvia was 43.
Following John’s death, Silvia relocated permanently to East Sussex to set up a clay sculpture course at the Gardner Arts Centre, which was part of the University of Sussex. She also began to teach life drawing classes across the county and continues to teach at Charleston House – the former country home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. “Sculpture, for me, has always included life drawing,” Silvia says. “What I do now – and what I want to do for the rest of my life – is to teach life drawing during the summer and, for the rest of the year, to be in my studio, creating other ideas.”
Silvia’s connection to Charleston House goes beyond her life drawing classes. Fifteen years ago, she met the gardener, Mark Divall, with whom she now lives. After Duncan Grant died in 1978, Mark became responsible for the careful restoration of the gardens at Charleston House. He lived on the top floor of the house and – for the last ten years of his tenure – Silvia and Mark spent weekends together in the rooms next to Vanessa Bell’s studio. “It was my weekend home,” Silvia says with glee. “Can you imagine? How lucky was I, to be able to go from one idyllic place to another.”
Interview by Nell Card.
Photographs by Jo Metson Scott.
For details of Silvia MacRae Brown’s life drawing classes at Charleston House, visit life-drawing-days.weebly.com
Silvia invites you to see her sculptures for gardens until 10 October 2022 as part of an exhibition at Charleston Manor (not to be confused with Charleston House). Booking essential; please email firstname.lastname@example.org.