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UK’s largest cast bronze sculpture to be installed in Plymouth

The Theatre Royal Plymouth has commissioned artist Joseph Hillier to create the UK’s largest bronze cast sculpture to be revealed in Spring 2019 as part of a 7.5 million regeneration project

Hillier’s inspiration for the sculpture came from a split-second pose struck by an actor during rehearsals for Othello, Theatre Royal Plymouth’s award-winning and explosive co-production with Frantic Assembly in 2014.

Theatre Royal Plymouth has announced that Messenger, the UK’s largest cast bronze sculpture, will be installed in front of the theatre on Royal Parade in Plymouth in Spring 2019. The monumental sculpture catches a young actor in mid-performance, embodying the energy and creativity at the heart of the Theatre Royal and cultural life in Plymouth.

Weighing in at nine and a half tonnes with a height of seven metres (23ft) and nine metres (30ft) wide, Messenger is the largest lost-wax cast bronze sculpture to be cast in the UK and by far the largest bronze sculpture by volume at 25.6 metres cubed. Commissioned by the Theatre Royal Plymouth as part of a 7.5million pound regeneration project which saw the theatre reopened in 2014, Messenger has been created by the acclaimed contemporary artist and sculptor Joseph Hillier.

Hillier’s inspiration for the sculpture came from a split-second pose struck by an actor during rehearsals for Othello, Theatre Royal Plymouth’s award-winning and explosive co-production with Frantic Assembly in 2014. The sculpture has been created using 3D scans taken from an actor poised before bursting forward into the choreographed chaos of the play. Although gargantuan in scale, the pose of the sculpture is small, crouched and loaded with the potential to spring forward at any moment. A monument to creativity, Theatre Royal Plymouth’s sculpture will reflect the rapid pace of cultural and economic development in the city and its creative future ambitions.

Joseph Hillier said: “The title, Messenger refers to the pivotal role the performer takes to breathe life into the words of a writer and the intent of a director. The sculpture celebrates the potential of creativity as a dynamic catalyst for change. This work offers a young powerful woman, a potent force, about to transform the world by her actions. The actor carries the voice of her playwright or director - she carries a message. It’s a metaphor for what great theatre does.”

The Messenger sculpture is made up of 200 panels, which are welded together to form a whole

Messenger is currently in the process of being cast at the Castle Fine Arts Foundry in the tiny Welsh village of Llanrhaeadr-Ym-Mochnant, using the ancient technique of lost wax casting, and is due for completion in Spring 2019. Made from over 200 bronze panels, each section of the sculpture must be cast individually before being welded together by over 30 master craftsmen at the foundry.

While monumental in scale, Hillier is keen that the digital design of the sculpture, made using 360-degree Computer Aided Design (CAD) to scan the actor's body, will be clearly visible when unveiled, showing a true marriage of technology and tradition, old and new. The Theatre hopes that the sculpture will be installed and unveiled to the public in Spring 2019.

The first step of the process was to carve sections of the 30-ft sculpture from a giant block of polyurethane foam. Pattern cutters broke down Joseph’s design for the sculpture into the 200 panels that make up the sculpture. A giant cutting machine was then programmed to carve each panel into polyurethane using a drill bit revolving at 7,000 times a minute. Once all 200 panels were cut they were transported to the Castle Fine Arts Foundry in Wales.

The foundry creates a silicon rubber mould around each polyurethane panel to make a negative version of each of the 200 panels which are then hand-painted with layers of wax. A shell of ceramic is then built around the wax. This is fired in a kiln, which burns off the wax but leaves behind a hard-ceramic surround. Ingots of bronze are then heated to 1200 degrees C before the molten bronze is poured into the new ceramic mould. Once set, the ceramic shell is broken away leaving behind the bronze version of the pattern. Once each of the 200 bronze panels are forged, they are then welded together to create the finished sculpture.

Artist Joseph Hillier standing underneath the legs of his enormous sculpture
Artist Joseph Hillier stands beneath his half-finished Theatre Royal Plymouth sculpture “Messenger”at Castle Fine Arts Foundry in Wales. The sculpture will be installed in Plymouth in Spring 2019

Joseph Hillier said: “By combining contemporary technology with ancient sculptural processes this piece of sculpture will harness a moment from the work of the Theatre Royal Plymouth and present it at a monumental scale in bronze for perpetuity. The work is an attempt to capture a vital, fleeting moment from a performance and hold it as solid tangible form, to stand as a monument to creativity, to transform the way Plymouth is seen and its potential felt.”

Adrian Vinken, chief executive of the Theatre Royal Plymouth said: “We always knew we wanted this piece to have scale and impact but it’s only when you come here and see a small section of it and feel the excitement and pride from the guys working on it, when it starts to really dawn just want a big undertaking the project is and how many people are involved in bringing it into reality. It’s a bit mind blowing really.”


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