Hidden down a twisting lane, high up on a hill on the outskirts of Falmouth in Cornwall, the workshop of sculptor Ben Barrell is a hive of activity. Ben stands in his yard, surveying a giant pebble as it glistens in the morning sunlight. It looks for all the world like it has just been washed up on the shore, yet this 1,300kg creation is forged from a careful fusion of concrete, Cornish granite and hours of hard graft, not to mention lots of love.
Pebbles might be as old as the hills, but the creation of his now renowned outdoor Pebble Seats marked a turning point in Ben’s career. ‘I was a sculptor-maker for
a long time before I realised I needed to be a bit more of a business,’ he says. With an art foundation diploma from Falmouth College of Art, as well as a fine art and sculpture degree from Bristol University, he was clearly talented, and while sales of his sculptures from galleries were steady enough, his was a precarious existence.
ART OF STONE
When well-known garden designer Robert Myers commissioned Ben to produce a Pebble Seat for his Chelsea Show Garden in 2009, it brought his creations to greater prominence, prompting a commission for 21 Pebble Seats from Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay, one of the largest garden design projects of its kind in the world. ‘I realised I had hit on something repeatable – the pebble had become “a thing”,’ he says. His unique designs, Pico (oval and available in five sizes), and Pendeen (all large in a choice of three shapes), have kept him busy for the last few years, and his distinctive Pebble Seats now feature in locations from Sweden to the US, and from Dundee to Penzance. ‘After years of being a sculptor making a hand-to-mouth living, I hit on something that could be my bread and butter.’
With several other artists now employed to help on the Pebble Seats, Ben is free
to spend more time sculpting and being creative. ‘I’m starting to feel that energy again, like I had at college. I will concentrate on working with bronze, which allows me to do almost anything. It’s really exciting.’
IN THE FLOW
The success of the Pebble Seats also motivated Ben’s move from a tiny studio
at a nearby farm to his current space. Next to his two huge workshops are two shipping containers, stacked one on top of the other, and Ben’s office is housed in the top one, flooded with sunlight. The sea sparkles in the distance. While the adjacent workshop is entirely dedicated to the ongoing creation of oversized pebbles,
the other one houses an array of fluid, figurative and tactile creations all in various states of completion. Each one, in its way, speaks of the sea.
‘I grew up on a small dairy farm on the north coast of Cornwall, between Millook and Crackington. My three siblings and I lived the dream really – it was an amazing spot and we spent all our time driving tractors, swimming and surfing.’ They also attended art classes in Boscastle every Saturday morning with esteemed painter and sculptor, Carole Vincent, arguably best known for her Armada Dial in Plymouth, which is cast in concrete. ‘Carole had a huge influence on the fact that I work with concrete,’ says Ben.
When Ben’s father was eventually forced to give up dairy farming following the controversial introduction of milk quotas in 1984, he returned to his old love of sailing, buying a boat and gaining his instructor qualifications. He began teaching sailing in Falmouth, the same year that Ben began studying at the town’s art college. ‘I have led such a charmed life,’ Ben says, laughing. ‘I swapped my green wellies for my yellow wellies and my old man let me sail his boat. I used to take it with my mates to the Isles of Scilly – how lucky is that?’
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BOATS & BOUNTY
Ben’s love of sailing saw him spend a year sailing around the world, crewing on people’s boats. ‘I’ve sailed to a lot of places and lived on a super-yacht in the Caribbean, but eventually I was counting the days until I got home to Cornwall.’
Like his father, he gained his sailing instructor qualifications, eventually splitting his time between teaching sailing in Falmouth and sculpting to make ends meet. ‘It was a great back-up, and after spending hours on my own in a shed, interacting with people gave me confidence,’ he comments.
His artistic bent heavily influenced his approach to teaching. ‘I grew up on a stunning coastline and I have drawn on all of these things over and over again, studying and ingesting them. The transference of energy, of wind to sail through the keel to the pressure of the water, the squeeze, the way the rudder moves – all those things really engage me. When I was teaching sailing I would make people look at the boat and feel
the energy and use their senses.’
Striking visual images from his time on the water continue to inform his work. ‘I was sailing across the Irish Sea to the Isles of Scilly one night and we went through a large shoal of fish. As they swam away from the boat, they left a tail of effervescence, with each fish glowing white. Our sail suddenly lit up. They looked like little angels swimming around.’
More recently he lay on his surfboard just off Porthtowan, on Cornwall’s north coast, until one o’clock in the morning. ‘It was so calm. I almost fell asleep just bobbing around as the sun went down. Then the moon came out – it was so bright I could see jellyfish glowing white. It was stunning.’
Ben still spends a lot of time in the sea. When not surfing or sailing his small boat, he takes early morning swims off Falmouth’s Swanpool Beach, or paddleboards. ‘I just love being in the water – those little “wow” moments when the water runs off a rock in a certain way or you catch the sun on the horizon.’ He travels around Cornwall
in his campervan most weekends with his wife and two young children, aged eight and three. ‘As soon as the sun rises we’re out and about. To wake up in the top field car park at Sennen or on a cliff top at the Lizard – it’s magical.’
The sense of possibility in his Cornish workshop is palpable. From the half-finished concrete bench that mirrors the fluidity of the waves, to the elegant bronze sculpture that recalls the flight of the swift, an energy flows through every expression of Ben’s work, his charmed life there for all to see.
The artist’s coastal inspiration
‘We used to holiday in the Isles of Scilly every year as kids. We’d go at Easter as summer was harvest time. We flew there in a helicopter and it was so exciting, like another world. The water was cold but it didn’t bother us back then. In later years I used to sail to the islands a lot too.
• Bryher is probably my favourite island. It has a softness and scale, as well as the wildness of Hell Bay. I’ve just read my kids Michael Morpurgo’s When the Whales Came. It’s all set on Bryher, and it’s brilliant, so evocative.
• I also love Samson, and I’ve spent a lot of time anchoring off there. Standing on Samson Hill looking out at low tide is just perfect – the water is almost all sand and the colours are so rich. I call it Cornwall’s Caribbean.
• St Martin’s is another special place. When I was working on day boats, we used to anchor off the back end of the island and have a barbecue. We had the place to ourselves. I was being paid to be there – not very much, but still,
I felt so lucky. The Isles of Scilly are truly magical.’
Find out more about Ben’s work at barrellsculpture.co.uk
Where to see ben’s work in the UK
• Worthing, Sussex – A circle of Pico Pebble Seats on the promenade
• Mawgan Porth, Cornwall – A large sculpture at The Scarlet Hotel
• Conwy, Wales – Pico Pebble Seats on the seafront
• Dundee, Scotland – Black Pendeen Pebble Seats on the waterfront development
• marazion, cornwall – Bronze Wave sculpture on display at The Godolphin Arms
• Havant, Hampshire – A welcome sculpture and seating at Havant Arts Centre
• surrey quays, london – 14 Pico and Pendeen Pebble Seats
• Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens, CornwaLL – Pendeen Pebble Seats outside the gallery