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So Long, Roy Emmins

July 15, 2021
by the gentle author

Roy Emmins died on Wednesday aged eighty-two

Roy Emmins (1939-2021)

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At the furthest end of Cable St are the Cable St Studios where Roy Emmins cloistered himself, working six days every week alone in his 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 his studio was crammed to the roof with innumerable creations that bore 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 artefacts than a Pharoah’s tomb, I did not know where to look first. Roy smiled indulgently at my reaction. Not many people made it into the inner sanctum of Roy Emmin’s imagination. He was not a demonstrative man and he had no big explanation, not expecting praise or inviting criticism either. In fact, he had 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. In his work, Roy emulated 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. There was a sublime quality to Roy Emmins’ 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 sculpted so eloquently and the humble material from which each figure was fashioned.

It is a paradox that Roy, an English visionary, exemplified in his own personality – which was 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. Always working on several sculptures at once, Roy often returned 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 made models too, though, in contrast to Roy, he made 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 was a unique talent and a true sculptor who grasped 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.

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We are seeking a permanent home for Roy’s sculptures where they can be displayed – a museum, a gallery, or a local school or city farm perhaps? If you can help please drop a line to spitalfieldslife@gmail.com

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Sea birds – painted wood and milliput

Rain Forest – painted wood enhanced with milliput

Coral Reef – paper maché and milliput

I spy breakfast – painted wood

Arable Life – Cedar wood

Bush Life – painted wood and milliput

Coral Reef – ashwood

Wood Mouse & Butterfly – painted wood with milliput

Owl – branch and painted milliput

Galapagos – limewood

Hare – painted milliput

Jungle – painted Zeldovia wood

White Horse – paper maché

African Mountain – painted wood and milliput

Stag – paper maché

Roy Emmins with his sculpture ‘The Shadow of Man.’

Roy’s paper maché lion sits upon my desk in Spitalfields.

23 Responses leave one →
  1. Kathy Taylor permalink
    July 15, 2021

    Oh these are just lovely, I could live with that Hare. I wonder what will happen to all of these pieces, it would be nice if they went on display somewhere

  2. mlaiuppa permalink
    July 15, 2021

    Those are just stunning. I do hope you find someone to provide a space to display them and I thank you for sharing Roy and his art.

    I also thank *you* for documenting all of these wonderful people and places over the years. As they say, the internet is forever and I hope your efforts immortalize these people and places forever, or at last for as long as the internet exists.

  3. July 15, 2021

    Mr Roy Emmins — R.I.P.

    I love your “I spy breakfast”, and I just now learned what “Milliput” is….

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  4. Carol Davies permalink
    July 15, 2021

    Extraordinary. What an incredible talent. I hope a suitable home is found for the collection. Thank you for giving us a glimpse into his life.

  5. Christa permalink
    July 15, 2021

    Dear Gentle Author,
    Thank you for the wonderful articles that pop up on my screen early every morning.
    What a joy to start the day with.
    The last few ones about the three wood sculpture artists were particularly poignant to me because my father, a master cabinet maker and carpenter made lovely wood carvings as his hobby.
    Huw Wedderburn, g.Gibbons and Roy Emmins each made such wonderful work and the pictures of Huw‘s Workshop reminded me vividly of my father‘s workshop, all the pieces in progress, the wood shavings, the sawdust, the smell of the glue pot. And my father grew tomatoes that came up to the windows outside along the wooden wall of the workshop building, even tobacco plants, immediately after war when cigarettes were precious commodities.
    Looking forward to many more interesting, fascinating, amusing, blogs.
    Best wishes,
    Christa Freestone

  6. Bill Goodall permalink
    July 15, 2021

    Vale, Roy. You were a lovely – and talented – guy. It was a pleasure to work with you for a while at The London.

  7. July 15, 2021

    What amazing talent and an amazing body of work.
    R.I.P Roy.

  8. Jill Wilson permalink
    July 15, 2021

    These are brilliant – so full of life and energy!

    I do hope a suitable home is found for them. I think they would appeal particularly to children so somewhere like the City Farm would be perfect…

  9. July 15, 2021

    What an amazing and unique life, although it left me with a sadness. I do hope that Roy felt fulfilled and never lonely. Although no longer here, I feel I want to give him a hug. I was also amazed by the materials he used for his sculptures, and truly hope a deserving home can be found for them all, for others to appreciate and enjoy. RIP Roy Emmins.
    Thank you Gentle Author for sharing this part of Roy’s life.

  10. July 15, 2021

    Let us know when we can view these in a gallery.

  11. Bernie permalink
    July 15, 2021

    Truly astonishing! A home MUST be found for them. Surely a tragedy that his work was not better known?

  12. Annie S permalink
    July 15, 2021

    RIP Roy.
    I do so hope a good home can be found for his amazing work!

  13. Jill permalink
    July 15, 2021

    He was a lucky man to live a life through such creativity. Hope his story will always accompany his finished works. May he rest in peace knowing his carvings and story remain for enjoyment in years to come.

  14. Peter S permalink
    July 15, 2021

    What a remarkable talent and remarkable man. How refreshing to learn of someone motivated by the passion for his work and not fame or money. A story well told. Thank you GA

  15. John Parham permalink
    July 15, 2021

    Very sad to hear this news. I knew Roy for many years and we used to meet up for a drink of a Sunday afternoon at the Queen’s Head (now Tayabs) on Fieldgate Street when he was still working as a Porter at the Royal London. I was really glad for him when he became a full-time artist in his later years. and when the Queen’s Head closed down we’d meet often and I’d always see him around the local area.

    Such a beautiful gentleman, quietly spoken, modest, kind. And what an artist!

    I’ll miss him very much indeed.

  16. Richard Smith permalink
    July 15, 2021

    Thank you for telling us about Roy Emmins and his wonderful sculptures. They are so amazing – every one.

  17. B Langlands permalink
    July 15, 2021

    In 1977 Roy made a guards buzz bee for our son Paul for the Queen’s Jubilee and done a lovely job; my husband Bill Langlands worked has a Porter. at the London hospital for many years.

  18. Mark. permalink
    July 15, 2021

    Working class hero.
    His work is wonderous.
    If you can’t find anywhere to house his collection, I’ll have it!
    May he sculpt for eternity.

  19. Penny Wythes permalink
    July 15, 2021

    Hesitate to suggest as it’s so obvious – but have you tried the Royal London? I’ve been retired 15 years now and am no longer in touch, but while I was working there they were quite enthusiastic about displaying art around the place to brighten it up. With all the new building I don’t know what it’s like inside now but there used to bean interest in displaying art with a local connection, and as he has such a strong hospital connection as well they might be interested.
    Loved the article by the way and the oictures.

  20. Sonia Murray permalink
    July 15, 2021

    Roy’s sculptures are beautiful! Thank you, Gentle Author, for sharing them with us, and with the world, which might otherwise not know of their existence. They deserve to be in a museum, particularly the Hare. Please let us know what becomes of them – they are a treasure to be admired for generations to come.

  21. Elisabeth Amsler permalink
    July 16, 2021

    Roy’s sculptures are fascinating and he loved to work out the animals and nature very precisely. They impress me for 45 years when I got to know Roy. They really deserve to get a public exhibition place, where all the world can see his fantastic art work. RIP Roy.

  22. Terrence Wawn permalink
    July 16, 2021

    We are all saddened by Roy’s passing because he was such a good and memorable person, and he appreciated all of his friends and his friends appreciated Roy. He had the ability to make friends quickly and easily and he became unique in their regards.
    Roy and I were in the same class together at school so it meant that we knew each other practically all our lives. I met Roy a second time when I was in my early 30s attending a life sculpture class at the Cass College, Aldgate, I did not recognise him but he came to me and said, ‘You’re Terry aren’t you?’, and that’s how the  second friendship started. The funny thing was that my mind was totally blank of memories of him at school but he could remember me even down to the things that I said from those early school days over 20 years previously.
    He was one of the most exceptional men that I have ever met that I reached the point where I ceased to be surprised when I heard of some of the things that he got up to! Did you know, for example, he was the guest of the Chinese Government medical authorities to tour China for a month from north to south visiting hospitals and clinics just at the time when China was beginning to open up to the outside world. Also he unhesitatingly befriended young ladies from foreign countries making them feel safe who were wishing to live and work in London, and even welcoming them into his home; the good memory of Roy will stay in their hearts forever. He had a lifelong passion for animals and saving the natural world and this can be seen in his sculptures. In addition to his sculptural work he wrote poetry, spoke Spanish and earned the reputation of the  ‘bebop’ dancer of Whitechapel. Girls used to wait their turn to dance with Roy.
    As I was out of the country for almost 30 years working as an NGO in Russia and three other Asian countries, I lost touch with many of my friends from London, except Roy. On my rare visits back home I would visit Roy in his flat and tell him some of my foreign adventures. Sometimes his eyes would boggle with amazement and other times he would just, tut tut.
    People like Roy are once-in-a-lifetime rare character who on their passing leaves an empty hole in our lives thinking that they’ll never be another like Roy again.

  23. Fergy permalink
    July 19, 2021

    Firstly, thank you for posting these two brilliantly observed and obviously lovingly written pieces but that is not surprising because everyone loved Roy.

    I was sent this link by my dear friend Shaz who was often one of Roy’s dancing partners in Murphy’s aka the White Hart on Mile End Road, now sadly gentrified and where I have not been for some years.

    I always found Roy to be something of an enigma and thank you so much GA for filling in some of the gaps in my knowledge as Roy was never a boastful man and, for example, what Terry wrote above re: the China trip I had no idea about, he never spoke of it to me. That, I think, was the mark of the man. Whilst obviously immensely talented (as your wonderful images show) he never showed off his talent in an ostentatious way. I knew that he sculpted and, very occasionally, he would produce a small piece he was working on for “inspection” at the bar. They were unfailingly brilliant, even if only half finished.

    Looking at the dates I suppose Roy must have been into his 70’s when I first met him and his energy was amazing. When the band got going he would be dancing and would dance the legs off girls that were literally young enough to be his grand-daughters, I remember he loved to jive and whilst I am no Bruno Toniolli or Len Goodman ( Bethnal Green boy, I believe) I would have been giving straight 10’s every time. Roy was always a gentleman in the proper sense of the word, a “gentle man” who, when asking a lady to dance, would always offer his hand to lead her onto the dancefloor and bow when the dance was over, a real class act.

    I hadn’t seen Roy for some years for reasons as described but I never forgot the guy, he was one of those men who just left a mark on you, not by being flash or being loud (he was the complete opposite) but just by the sheer force of his personality and almost encyclopaedic knowledge about any subject the conversation may have turned to. I would never claim to have been “best buddies” with Roy but I would like to think that we were friends.

    Rest easy, my friend.

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