Issue 208
May/June 2019

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Jul 23, 2019

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Fashioning heads in clay

Tessa Williams talks to Nicole Farhi, fashion designer turned sculptor Nicole Farhi

Sculpted: Nicole Farhi photographed by Iona Wolff

"WHEN YOU'RE an artist, you never retire. You will always have something creative to do."

That's Nicole Farhi – former fashion designer, now sculptor, who will show her work this month at the Edinburgh Fine Art Society. Nicole, 72, originally studied painting at la Grande Chaumiè re in Paris in her 20s. Although she loved painting, she didn't think she excelled at it and her fashion skills far outweighed everything else.

At first she put painting to the background and it was as a fashion designer that her career took off, working first on French Connection, with Stephen Marks who also became her husband, before setting up her own eponymous brand. It was quite an empire that straddled continents and entrenched her name in the fashion set.

However, in 2013 the Nicole Farhi fashion label was sold and she quit her previous career. Now she doesn't miss it one bit.

"I have done that page, I don't bother looking at fashion magazines any more or going shopping. I don't go out much – I don't need to buy clothes, I rehash my clothes, I am not interested – I'm much more interested to go to a museum, or see an art show, I didn't have time to do this before. I far prefer to do that now rather than going shopping or reading magazines," she said, speaking from her home In Hampstead on the hottest day of the year so far.

Her entry into the art world came by a chance meeting: "I was in my 30s when by accident I met a woman at a dinner party who was a sculptor. It just clicked when she said she was a sculptor. At that time, fashion was not enough for me, and I was thinking I didn't really want to go back to painting."

This lady, Elizabeth White, then introduced her to another sculptor, Jean Gibson, who later became her teacher. "As soon as I touched the clay I knew that was my thing," Nicole said.

Another opportune moment that crystallised her career was when she met Eduardo Paolozzi.

"I was making my first bronze in the Royal College of Art foundry, and the day I was doing the patina Eduardo Paolozzi walked by, as he was taking some students round the foundry. He saw me and he stopped and talked to me.

"He must have liked my work as he invited me to his studio, and then he said he wanted to see more of my work," she said. "And then we became very close friends.

"He used to love my cooking! He loved coming to our house for dinner, he loved my pot au feu, my spaghetti with aubergine and prawns, my rabbit a la provenç ale. He was not a gourmet but loved a generous dish.

"I learned about being creative from him from the very first moment I met him. He came to my studio very often for almost a year to show me how to work in plaster and wax. He had the idea that art was part of everyday life – he loved giving away work to friends, but also to hospitals – and he worked on the principle that anything which got art out of its customary ghettos was bound to be a good thing.

"He was my friend, my mentor. I could not have wished a better person, he opened my eyes all the time. We would walk in the street and he would see some rubbish and pick it up and there was something you can use in everything. Always an idea that comes from everything. We were very good friends until he passed away." she said.

Her first show was in 2014 at the Bowman Gallery in London with the title ‘From the Neck Up'. It was a series of busts of well-known people from the worlds of theatre, art, film and fashion including her husband, David Hare, and amongst others, Anna Wintour, Rupert Everett, Stephen Frears and Christopher Walken.

For her show at the Fine Art Society Edinburgh she has created a collection of 25 busts of leading writers, and thinkers of the 20th century from Samuel Beckett to VS Naipaul and Muriel Spark. It's a colourful and insightful collection. The busts are just around 12 cms high.

To research her subjects, she would watch a YouTube video about them every morning. "That was the best way to understand the full picture, I did read a lot of their works too but this way I could see them in 3D."

A fan of YouTube, she is not however interested in much else about social media. "I don't do Facebook. I don't do Twitter. I'm not judgemental about people that do, but if you want to put your life in front of everyone then that is up to you. For me it's not my thing," she said.

Writing Heads, Edinburgh Fine Art Society, 6 Dundas St, Edinburgh, EH3 6HZ, July 25 - August 25. Artist's Talk: My Friend Eduardo, August 1, 9am!

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