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Beguiling by Nature

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...I like to reawaken a contemplative spirit that we seem to have lost. People with no time to spare become spellbound when you show them an altered reality in the fabric of a sculpture. David HarberScroll for more
David Harber portrait

David Harber's Oxfordshire studio is a reminder of how sculpture was once made: not by a single person but a visionary artist-craftsman in charge of an atelier, making art for passionate patrons.

In the shadow of a Bronze Age hill fort sits David Harber's growing workshop. It is a hive of activity. In one building, craftsmen painstakingly attach hand-selected Welsh slate within the mould of a huge hemisphere. In another, an engineer polishes stainless steel to shiny perfection, so that it will catch and reflect the sunlight when placed in situ.

It is a glorious example of the artist's studio, perfected since the Renaissance, and updated with David as leader, stopping to check on progress and quality as he walks around the site.

From beginnings making sundials, David now creates a huge array of artworks - some in editions, others one-off - for a growing list of clients around the world. "I started in a small shed and it has somewhat expanded" he says with characteristic understatement, surveying his domain.

David's work has moved from his earlier specialism of sundials to artworks for exteriors, interiors and, latterly, the creation of large pieces for public spaces, with a growing waiting list of people aiming to commission a bespoke piece from the workshop.

It is easy to see where ideas come from on a walkabout with David. He displays an inquisitive mentality, grabbing objects and holding them up for inspection in the light. A thumb-sized item resembling a glass honeycomb is taken off a shelf in his office, and rotated in front of my eyes.

As David turns it, one can see that it is made up of hundreds of tiny tubes that disappear from sight at each end, only to re-appear in swirling, silver-grey patterns as the line of sight changes. "Imagine this on a larger scale" he explains.

Of course, David has imagined it, and has started to make a piece - called the Alveare. In an adjacent room he shows me a model of it, about half a metre high, with long tubes within that make the changing patterns of light and shade all the more miraculous and beguiling.

"Now imagine that each of those tubes within has a reflective inner surface," says David, "so the outside world is also on the inside, an integral part of it"

It is a work in progress, and in the studio downstairs there is a computer simulation that is already bringing the Alveare to ghostly life.

This is how a David artwork happens. A simple physical event like a shadow, reflection or ripple might produce a visual effect, leading him to experiment with materials to achieve and crystallise the effect in an artwork. Harber often describes these events as double-takes: moments of high visual intensity where something is revealed.

These visual effects might be called illusions, mirages or trompe l'oeils, but Harber determines to make them durable, translating them into physical form using materials - brass, copper, steel, stone - that will last hundreds of years.

"If I were only interested in ephemeral effects, I probably wouldn't be working like this," he says. "These are massive, solid materials, and the whole point is that they'll last for generations, not just for a temporary effect.

But somewhere along the line you've got to give them that spark, that magic that goes beyond their sheer physicality."

David Harber sketches

One of Harber's great personal memories dates from the mid-1990s, when he was restoring a 16th-century sundial.

As he removed half a millennium of accumulated verdigris, he was suddenly confronted with the original maker's name, shining from the exposed metal like a semaphore - a message from a mind that had grappled with exactly the same issues of light, shadow, location and time that David himself is always trying to resolve.

This echo through the ages showed him the shared values of these sculptors: transmitting elemental delight to our own generation and beyond.

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