Roy Emmins, sculptor
At the furthest end of Cable St are the Cable St Studios where Roy Emmins has cloistered himself for more than ten years, working six days every week, alone in a tiny workshop. A former porter at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, after more than thirty years service Roy took early retirement to devote himself to sculpture, and today his studio is crammed to the roof with innumerable creations that bear testimony to his prodigious talent and potent imagination.
When Roy opened the door to me, I could not believe my eyes. There were so many sculptures, it took my breath away. With more artifacts than a Pharoah’s tomb, I did not know where to look first. Roy stood and smiled indulgently at my reaction. Not many people make it here to the inner sanctum of Roy Emmin’s imagination. He is not a demonstrative man, and he has no big explanation – not expecting praise or inviting criticism either. In fact, he has no art world rhetoric at all, just a room packed with breathtaking sculpture.
First to catch my attention were large carvings hewn from tree trunks, some in bare wood, others painted in gaudy colours like sculptures in medieval cathedrals and sharing the same vigorous poetry, full of energetic life and acute observation of the natural world. Next, I saw elaborate painted constructions in papier-mache, scenes from the natural world, gulls on cliffs, fish in the ocean, monkeys in the jungle and more. All meticulously imagined, and in an aesthetic reminiscent of the dioramas of the Natural History Museum but with more soul. I stood with my eyes roving, absorbing the immense detail and noticing smaller individual sculptures in ceramic, bronze, and plaster, on shelves and in cubbyholes. Turning one hundred and eighty degrees, I faced a wall hung with table tops, each incised with relief sculptures. I sat on a chair to collect my thoughts and cast my eyes to the window sill where sat a menagerie of creatures, all contrived with exquisite modesty and consummate skill from tinfoil and chocolate wrappers.
The abiding impression was of teeming life. Every figure quick with it, as if they might all spring into animation at any moment, transforming the studio into an overcrowded Noah’s Ark, with Roy as an entirely convincing Mr Noah. Yet, in his work, Roy emulates the supreme creator, reconstructed Eden – fashioning all the beloved animals, imbuing them with life and movement, and creating jungles and forests and oceans – imparting a magical intensity to everything he touches. Like Stanley Spencer’s murals at Cookham, there is a sublime quality to Roy Emmin’s vision. Roy’s sculptures are totems, and his carved tree trunks resemble totem poles, with images that evoke the spirits of the natural world and nourish the human spirit too. Even Roy’s tinfoil stags possess an emotionalism – born of a tension between the heroic dignity of the creature he sculpts so eloquently and the humble material from which each figure is fashioned.
It is a paradox that Roy, an English visionary, exemplifies in his own personality – which is so appealingly lacking in ego yet tenacious of ambition in sculpture. Originally apprenticed as a graphic artist, he developed Wilson’s disease, which caused him to shake, yet spared him military service. After years attending the Royal London Hospital, a drug was founded to treat his affliction but by then, Roy admitted, he preferred the atmosphere of the hospital to the design studio because it was an environment where he always was meeting new people. Taking a job as a porter, Roy also attended evening classes at Sir John Cass School of Art in Whitechapel, pursuing painting, ceramics, life modelling, and wood-carving. Once these closed down in 1984, Roy joined a group of wood-carvers who met at the weekends in the garden studio of their ex-tutor Michael Leman in Greenford. When the hurricane came in 1987, they hired a crane to collect fallen trees – and one of these became Roy’s first tree trunk carving.
When he took retirement in 1995, Roy was permitted to retain his caretaker’s flat in Turner St at the rear of the hospital. After a stint at the Battlebridge Centre in King’s Cross, where he had free studio in return for one day a week building flats for homeless people, Roy came to the Cable St Studios and has been here ever since. Always working on several sculptures at once, Roy often returns to pieces, reworking them and adding ideas, which may go some way to explain the intensity of detail and richness of ideas apparent in all his sculpture.
Looking at Roy’s work, I wondered what influence it had on his psyche, wheeling patients around for thirty years at the hospital. The sense of wonder at the natural world is exuberantly apparent, but this is not the work of an innocent either. In a major sculpture that sits outside his door entitled “The Shadow of Man,” Roy dramatises the destructive instinct of mankind, yet it is not a simple didactic work because the agents of destruction are portrayed with humanity. Again, it brought me back to medieval carving which commonly subverts its own allegory, picturing villains with charisma, and there was a strange pathos when Roy placed his hand affectionately upon the head of a figure wielding a chainsaw, a contradictory force embodying both destruction and creation.
Roy inherited his love of people from a father who worked his whole life on the railway and ended up manager of the bar on Liverpool St Station, while Roy’s mother was skilled at assembling electrical parts, which she did at home, imparting an ability in intricate work to her son. Each of Roy’s three uncles, a master carpenter, plumber and builder were model makers and Roy’s brother makes models too, though, in contrast to Roy, he makes ships and cars, mechanical things. I am fascinated by the creative skills of working men expressed in areas of endeavour parallel to their working lives. Roy’s work exists in the tradition of the detailed handicrafts undertaken by sailors and prisoners, and the model railways of yesteryear, yet in its accomplishment and as a complete vision of the world, Roy’s work transcends these precedents. Roy is a unique talent and a true sculptor who grasps of the essence of his medium.
Showing me a wire and plasticine dancer, with a skirt made from the paper cases manufactured for buns, Roy explained that a figure must have three points of contact with the ground to stand upright. In this instance, the ballerina had one foot pointing forward and a back foot that met the ground at toe and heel. Roy placed the precarious figure on a surface and, just like his spindly tinfoil creatures, it stood with perfect balance.