Inspired by…Harness

Seamus Moran, the sculptor behind our latest “Inspired by…” exhibit, tells us about the inspiration and creative process of creating “Harness”.

The inspiration for this piece came to me after a visit to the Tower in 1995. I was struck by the concept of armour for horses and for children which I saw as darkly inappropriate. I wondered just how willing a horse would be to take on its new role as a weapon of war, or how it would feel to be trained as a child for a life of fighting. It seemed very alien to me, until I realised, that to some extent, everybody is living their life according to somebody else’s rules. The things we accumulate around us for our own protection can be the same things which weigh us down and stop us reaching our true potential. I saw armour for a bird as a good metaphor for this.

© Bernie Pettersen

As I am a sculptor and not an armourer, I decided from the outset that I would sculpt ‘Harness’ rather than try to learn the craft of the armourer. As I would have to have reached a very high standard of armour making in order to make the piece look good enough I thought this would be quicker. I was also aware that the design was likely to change during the creation process and that my skills as a sculptor would give the piece a convincing finish. It was never my intention to produce a fully articulated armour, but it had to look like it was – A tall order.

The first step was to create a model with clay over a metal armature, I got the overall shape pretty much the way it is now, with most of the major plates in place and the general style established. It is not based on any particular bird, but I remember using a photograph of an Avocet as I liked the long elegant neck. The great thing about clay is that it’s easy to try different things and see how they look. This would not have been easy if I was using steel. The drawback with clay is that I knew I was never going to get the sharp hard lines I need to make the piece believable, so when I thought I’d taken the clay model as far as I could go, I made a mould of it.

© Seamus Moran

The mould was in two pieces made of silicon with a GRP jacket. From this, I cast a resin replica of the original clay sculpture which was easy to shape with sharp tools and files, but could also be added to by applying more resin where necessary. At this point, it was all in one piece with the wings and neck still attached. As the work progressed I found myself changing more and more of the detail as I became dissatisfied with aspects of my original design. The shoulder was a particular problem as I did not have anything I could use as a reference. A bird shoulder has an incredible range of movement and the armour had to look like it would accommodate this.

After a huge amount of work, I finally got to start on the banded etched decoration on the surface of the armour. I did the “etching” straight onto the resin surface by carving it in with pointed tools and tiny chisels which I made myself. I incorporated bird-like motifs and winged animals which I adapted from photos of other armour. This was by far the fiddliest part of the whole affair and was made worse by the fact that it had been many years since I started the piece and my eyesight was not what it used to be.

By this time Harness was in three solid pieces, the body and two wings. Before it was ready for the final mould-making I had to hollow it out and cut it up into sections which could be moulded. I needed to remove a lot of material, and in places, the resin was so thin it was translucent. I ended up with the helmet, the neck, two shoulders, two wings, a breastplate, and a backplate. At this point, they resembled an Airfix model kit with little locating lugs so that the sections would sit back together correctly when reassembled. I added all the rivets, which were actually just the heads of panel pins which I glued into holes I had drilled in the model, then it was mould-making time. I made a full set of moulds using a special high-temperature silicon which would be able to handle the molten metal. Like the initial mould, the silicon inner sections were held together in a GRP outer case.

© Seamus Moran

The casting was interesting as this was the first aspect of the whole project with which I had no experience, so there was a lot of trial and error as I taught myself how to cast pewter. It is a very low-tech process requiring little more than a camping stove and a suitable melting pot. My most high-tech bit of kit was a laser thermometer. Eventually, and with a lot of re-melting of my poor casts, a good set of components were produced and after polishing they were soldered and glued together.

The final stage was to attach the mail which I sourced from a butcher’s apron and the red velvet trim which was stitched up by my wife from offcuts from the re-trimming of the seats at Redruth cinema.

A wooden stand was made which attached to the main body of the piece and supported the sockets into which the wings were attached. Finished at last.

© Bernie Pettersen

“Harness” will be on display at the Tower of London until July 14th, it will then move to Fort Nelson, before being displayed in Leeds in 2018.