Tommy Rowe Sculptor

When I was two years old (1943) my grandmother died, and we went to live with my Grandfather, a retired fisherman. Until I was old enough to go and play with other boys of my age, I spent all my time with my grandfather.

We had a shed called ‘The Linney’. I suppose this came from lean-to, a shed open on the sides.

Our lean-to had been closed in so over the years became ‘The Linney’.

We spent hours there making 'things', things for boats, model boats, things for the house, anything that was needed was made under ‘The Linney’.

The tools we used were ancient, handed down over the years, and they made hard work!

My father, Sidney, had served his apprenticeship or ‘his time’, as a carpenter, not carpenter in the modern sense, but trained to build wagons, wheelwright, making coffins and anything that involved wood, my father would make.

You didn't buy windows from Everest or doors ready-made, everything had to be made by hand.

Father made new windows and doors for the house and over the years turned what was the old fish cellar, under the house, into a kitchen. For those jobs father would bring home his tools, these were different from those my grandfather and I used. These were cut throat, razor sharp and well maintained. We were not allowed to use these, but on the odd occasion I managed to get hold of them a new world was opened up to me, making things became easier and a pleasure. No more struggling to push blunt planes and chisels with hands full of blisters. What a difference!

Eventually father taught me how to sharpen and look after tools, allowing me to make more 'things', mostly boats. Although I could never make them as good as I wanted, I hadn't then learned to be patient so tempers would flare and things would get smashed! What I made was never good enough. I can't remember my father ever saying “you've done a good job there”!

At school we would have what was called clay modelling lessons. This was in fact Plasticine and we were left to do what we wanted, which mean all the boys making boats and all the girls making houses and prams!

I passed my eleven plus and went to the grammar school at Penzance. There I met and became friends with a boy (David) from St Ives who, like me, was interested in painting and drawing. We both worked for our A level art. This was in the 50's and teenagers were being invented – we preferred the beatnik side of life to the teddy boy side!

The art colony was well under way in St Ives and students from art schools all over the country would come there in the summer. David's parents had a guest house and we were given the attic to do whatever we wanted with. I practically lived in St Ives from then on.

At school there was another development. The sculptor Denis Mitchell came to teach part time and I started carving. I liked this, the idea that you could make something using tools which didn't have to be a door, a window or a chair or a bloody pipe rack, but something of beauty that was just itself. Everyone liked Denis and we seemed to get on very well. He asked me if I would like to help him in his studio, finishing bronzes which he needed for an exhibition, and he would pay me. This was certainly better than working in the kitchen of the 'Man Friday' café!

So started a lifelong friendship and working relationship.

Here with Denis I learned to work with bronze. How to plug holes which were left in the castings, which in those days were pretty poor. It would be common to bore and plug one hundred or more holes in one bronze! I remember one particularly bad one where 500 'fillings' were put in!
Some castings were so bad they had to be scrapped.

After a couple of school holidays working for Denis, the financial situation, which was always tight, become impossible. It was then that Denis took me up to see Barbara Hepworth and ask if she would be willing to take me on. This she agreed to at the wage of 5 shillings an hour (equivalent of 25p today!). This was double what Denis was able afford to pay.

Barbara taught me to carve marble and work with Plaster of Paris. She showed me how to work forms and purify them. She would caress the form with her hands and mark surfaces with a cross for a hollow and a circle as a high, or what she would describe as “an invisible hummock”. In the morning you would find your piece of work covered with circles and crosses, and arrows indicating which way the form should be worked. This went on until she was satisfied the form was perfect.

In the case of stone, the process started with the roughing out which had to be done in such a way as to avoid any one particular “cut” to be lower than any other. Carving with a “point” would be done in parallel cuts, each one no deeper than the last, then with a “claw” connecting the cuts made by the point, then with grinding wheels, Barbara didn't like angle grinders so we always used wheels on a flexible drive. After the wheels came the hand work, carborundum stones and then files and then carborundum paper of ever finer grades until finished. This method applied to all materials.

In wood it would be large deep gouges then shallower gouges, surforms or rasps, files and different grades of glass paper.

In bronze it would be grinding wheels, files and carborundum paper, all ending in the “perfect” form.

This is where I met Dicon Nance who was the head assistant. When it came to making anything Dicon was beyond equal.

I learned so much from him, how the tools and the job in hand were linked. Sometimes the carvings defied the conventional gauges and rasps. Dicon's answer was to make a tool that would fit the job so the two became one, making the tool to make the carving. This was new to me but made me realise what my father had been doing in keeping tools sharp and maintained, connecting the tools to the job. The practicalities of making something had a great deal to do with the finished product.
The tools and the material are one, they work together.

In 1960, I and three others from Penzance applied to Bath Academy of Art at Corsham, in Wiltshire. Here art was taught by practising artists, some of whom I knew from St Ives. The course was a teaching course, the first two years involving art and education and the final year your two specialist subjects. The social life was good and I got to do sculpture with John Hoskin who taught me to weld, all but at a fairly basic level. It was good though to watch John producing his own work.

On leaving Corsham I wasn't really interested in teaching. I had carried on working for Barbara and she had told me I could work there when I left Corsham. This is what I did.

After two more years I was still getting the same money as when I started years earlier so I plucked up courage and asked for more. There was no ill feeling but suffice to say I didn't get my wage rise so I worked my notice and left.

From St Ives I went to north Wales and worked in forestry, felling and planting, driving tractors etc.
After just over 12 months I came back to Mousehole where I took up commercial fishing on day boats for mackerel and eventually on the larger trawlers, working seven or eight day trips.

During this time I received a letter from the sculptor John Milne asking if I would be interested in working on some bronzes as he was preparing for a show. This seemed like a good idea so I started to work for John. Denis and I always kept in touch and I had worked for him, on and off, over the years but things had begun to pick up so I worked for Denis for three days a week and two for John. Gradually this became five days for Denis. This continued, interspersed with periods of fishing until Denis died in 1993.

I spent a further four years working on bronzes Denis had had cast before his death.

After this it was full time fishing in my own boat, fishing and making my own sculptures. I continue to do this, not in Cornwall but on the west coast of Scotland, where I moved to in 2009.

My grandfather and great grandfather and their brothers and uncles and sons were all fishermen so I was always surrounded by boats and things to do with boats. As a child we made and sailed model boats, we played at boats and went aboard the boats in the harbour when the men were not around. We would watch the boats going to sea. In the holidays, if the weather was fine we could go to sea with them overnight. We knew all the boats and could name them all. As many as 60 or 70 boats would go to sea from Newlyn and we would watch them passing Mousehole and name them all.

Everything worked in seasons. Our lives revolved around boats

We always had a boat in the family and my grandfather would take me fishing and sailing. My father and I would fish most weekends through the summer months and any holidays would be spent at sea, if father wasn't rebuilding the house. He was clever enough to save those jobs for the winter months.

When I came back from Wales in the mid-sixties, looking for a job, fishing seemed the obvious choice so I started work on the trawlers. Over the years I worked at all forms of fishing, trawling, long lining, ring netting, drift netting, hand lining and crabbing.

In 1973 my father and I were thinking of buying a boat as the one we had, at 13 foot was too small. We knew a retired shipwright who suggested we build one. “I'm not going to do any work”, he said,
“ but will tell you what wood you need and how to do it”. That is what we did and on Easter Monday 1974 the “lily” was launched, a proud moment for us both. Along with working for Denis and producing my own sculpture, this little boat has provided me with a living ever since and still does. (Her shape is just another sculpture).

What has interested me, is not so much the single form, as that form in relationship to another.
I first became aware of this during life drawing at Corsham, how the curves of shoulders., arms, knees etc. related to shapes around them. The curves of a shoulder to the straight line of a wall. The rocks on the cliffs that sit on one another or lie next to one another or have been split by frost. Going up and down the coast while fishing, looking ashore and seeing the huge boulders that have fallen and cracked, the weight of these rocks.

All these things you try to portray but like the things I made as a child, they are never good enough and when one is finished it is put to one side and the next one will be better.