Design & Decoration S03 ep11 : Robert Bowman, Bowman Sculptures, [UK]
Interview with Robert Bowman
The Robert Bowman Gallery is run by husband and wife team Robert and Michele Bowman who specialise in the dealership of an exceptional range of 19th and 20th Century sculpture collected from Europe, The United States of America and Australia. Robert Bowman specialises in sculpture made of bronze, marble and terracotta. The gallery houses an exquisite range of pieces from early 19th century neo-classical works through romantic, animalier and English new school to symbolist and impressionist.
Robert Bowman Gallery deals in sculpture from 1830 right the way through to the modern day.
The main focus is Rodan and his contemporaries.
It would be lovely to be able to say that yes we’re the third generation but actually my father’s a
farmer in Kent and he farmed just like Tom Bridge Wales and that is a generational thing but as
there were three sons and only one farm it could only be farmed by one of them and my middle
brother chose to do that.
I was a bit of a lost sole really, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. A friend of my parents
said look if your son’s not really doing anything why don’t I get him a job at Sotheby’s so he got
me a job at Sotheby’s as a porter, I was literally moving furniture. It was just you know a gap year
thing or a year off to try and find myself and I just completely found love with the whole works of
It was 1978 I joined Sotheby’s, I got a job as a porter and then I got a job as a receptionist and as a
receptionist you think it’s a fairly easy job but in fact most of the time you’re having to call the
right expert down to look at the right thing and if you call the guy from the Japanese department
down to look at something that’s Chinese you’re you know, he gets very angry with you. There
was one particular guy, a guy called Collin McKay who was always beautifully dressed and he
would come down and he’d say good morning madam, pick up a piece of porcelain look at it and
say well I think it’s Chen Leung 1730’s, 1740, possibly part of the northern part of the region, this
pinkish colour really only came in, in the 1730’s and if one turns it over and looks on the back you
can see this firing mark which is particular to the Waa Low Hoo village and I just thought, I just
want to be you, I want to be the man that knows and talks causally about things for tens and
thousands of pounds.
I was there for 15 years, it was the tail end of a small family firm and what was marvellous about it
was not only the depth of expertise but also the willingness of the experts at the time to share their
knowledge. As it’s become increasingly about money, the great experts aren’t there any more.
I’ve never sculptured, I’ve never painted, I really have absolutely no formal education whatsoever
in the art world but basically I applied to be a junior cataloguer in every post that came up,
manuscripts, antiquities, everything.
I didn’t get any of those jobs because I had no expertise and no experience and in those days quite
importantly no connections. What I did get at a job was in valuations sort of go around and see
people and try and spot good things. In order to do that job you then went and trained in a series of
different departments and it was while I was in the furniture and works of art department I really
discovered my love of sculpture. Became a junior cataloguer, a cataloguer, director and then when
I left in ’92 I was board director of Sotheby’s London.
When the American Taubman came in and bought the company it became very much a question of
cost consciousness of firms of accounting and very much looking at the bottom line all the time
rather than looking at the overall artistic picture. We would quite often sell things of low value
which were artistically interesting, we then got into the situation where everything had to be
accounted for you could only sell things beyond a certain value.
I achieved as much as I could do in my area, it was becoming a little bit repetitive and when
you’re an auctioneer you have to deal with what you’re given. When you’re a dealer you go out
and choose the things that you want to handle and so everything here on my stand I’ve bought.
Any human being looks at a work of art and you think you either like it or you don’t, gives you
pleasure, promotes some emotional stimulus in you or not. When someone then explains to you
abut the object if a piece actually itself has a story, that’s really important.
A classic case the piece immediately to your right here is a bull and a bear sculpture. It’s a very
powerful piece of sculpture and as you say, immediately the bulls and bears of a stock market, but
where does that come from, where does the bull come from, why is it a bear market or a bull
market? It goes back as far as ancient tradition that bulls go in with their head down and try and
gore you and then lift you up, they’re always going up with their neck to drive their horns into you
and lift you up. Bears, as can be seen by the sculpture here, when they fight they grab you and then
try and drag you down to the ground where they maul you, and hence the terminology of a bull
market trying to push it up or a bear market trying to drag it down.
This particular piece here that’s called “Thought” and it’s by a sculptress called Winifred Turner.
It dates from 1933. So she sat down with a lump of plaster and modelled that with her hands and
when she’s happy with it she would then have given it to the foundry, the foundry would have
taken a mould of it and produced a bronze. What’s particularly interesting about that, as well as it
being very beautiful, is the fact that it’s a unique plaster and there is one bronze and people have
said to me well why is there only one bronze, that bronze is in the Tate Gallery and was bought
from her a year after the piece was first exhibited. And the answer to that is that Winifred Turner
was, came from quite an affluent family but for a woman particularly of a certain class, to be
working to being a professional was completely unacceptable.
Up until the First World War and shortly afterwards sculpture was really made to demand so
Rodan would have made “The Thinker” for instance in plaster, perhaps had one or two bronzes
made and then clients would have come to him and said oh Mr Rodan can I have one of your
Thinkers please. He would have then have contacted the foundry where he deposited the original
plaster and then said can I have a bronze cast of that Mr Rudier and it would have then been
Well there are two techniques of making bronzes. One is the same technique, lost wax, … the
reason it being called lost wax is that because the wax is literally lost, it runs out and is replaced by
the bronze. The second technique and the technique used to make this particular piece here is a
sand casting technique. And the sand casting technique, the easiest way of understanding that is if
you imagine you’re at the beach and the water has just come in and then it’s just gone out, what it
leaves is some wet sand. If you place your foot into that wet sand and take it out, it leaves a perfect
imprint. If you could imagine taking that perfect imprint and then filling it full of liquid bronze,
when the bronze cools you take out the bronze and it’s got the exact shape of your foot.
I bought this rather important set of four marble sculptures here of the Four Seasons and you can
see they’re life size, each carved from one single block of marble. But when I bought them I didn’t
know who they were by because they’re not signed, I knew that they were I thought they were
probably Italian, which means sort of 1870 and 1890 sort of stylistic wise, and while they were on
exhibition a lady came up to us and said excuse me, do you know who those sculptures are by, and
I said no, I don’t actually, would you like to know, and I said I’d love to, that’d be fantastic. She
said they’re by Carlo Nicholai and I said oh how interesting, not an artist I know, when were they
done, oh they were done in 1884 and he did two sets and the first set was made for the Gallery
Umberto in Naples and they were made for the façade of this huge gallery, public gallery. I said oh
marvellous, they were commissioned in 1884 but Carlo Nicholai then did a second set which were
much more detailed because they were designed to be seen one on one as opposed to high up on a
building and this second set he kept and because he loved them very much he wouldn’t sell them
and they were handed down to his son who in turn handed them down to his son, she said I bet you,
you bought them in Lugano. I said that’s absolutely right that’s where they came from, I said do
you know that’s absolutely fantastic and what was the name of the grandson, and he was called
Carlo Nicholai as well after his grandfather so I said that’s absolutely marvellous, how do you
know all this? She said my name’s Mrs Carlo Nicholai.
OFFICIAL WEBSITE: Robert Bowman, Bowman Sculptures, UK