The unglamorous Sheffield artist

Darren Richardson's Flying Machines, which he made for Yinka Shonibare
Darren Richardson's Flying Machines, which he made for Yinka Shonibare
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DARREN Richardson’s workshop looks like something between The Doc’s garage in Back to the Future and a Victorian madman’s haven.

A huge steel flying machine dominates the room, tiny maquettes pepper the worktop and scraps of paper with scribbled designs on are strewn across the work benches.

Daren Richardson's Macromolecule 136

Daren Richardson's Macromolecule 136

And then, in the middle of all this, in Ford overalls, is Darren Richardson, a sculptor in metal work whose current project - the flying machine - is about to travel to an exhibition in Sydney.

But in spite of the months of graft Darren has put into his fantastical creation, his name will not be on it.

Rather, the work has been created for one of Britain’s fastest-rising young artists, Yinka Shonibare MBE, who has been using Darren’s creations for the past five years as part of his own work.

It’s a prestigious job for Darren. Yinka was commissioned to create an art work for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square - a brief he met with his Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle.

Artist Darren Richardson at the Yorkshire Art Space

Artist Darren Richardson at the Yorkshire Art Space

His works make reference to British colonisation and African heritage, with bright, bold African print fabrics and nods to Victorian imperialism.

Yinka met Darren through another Sheffield-based artist, Anthony Bennett, who makes Yinka’s famous headless models. “The first thing he asked me to make were the flying machines. Anthony was doing the figures and he needed the machines.”

This was around five years ago. Darren has been producing complicated mechanical devices for Yinka’s art works ever since. Other works included Crash Willy, a 1902 car, modelled on a Mercedes, with warped wheels and a crash victim lying back in shock, clad in Yinka’s trademark African fabric.

Now, with a global following and patrons including the Saatchis, Yinka’s works are bought for six-figure sums.

“It’s very strange when you’re doing something like this,” says Darren.

“This thing,” he says, pointing to the flying machine, “has taken over my life since June and yet it’s just another of Yinka’s many projects. I go home at night and I am still thinking about solutions for the piece at 10pm at night yet it’s not my art work really.

“When I’m working on it I have to imagine what Yinka would be thinking and what he would want.

“If I were to build a flying machine the way I wanted it it wouldn’t look like this. I am always the one making the brackets and the mechanisms that allow art works to be displayed. I guess I am an ‘unglamorous’ artist.”

But he’s being modest. Darren’s flying machine is immensely complex, fantastical and striking. While complicated, Yinka’s instructions were far from detailed.

“I knew he wanted something akin to Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘wings’ and some kind of ‘Victorian flying machine’ - that was his original concept, so I made a collage of what I thought would work and a maquette and he liked it.”

While these lofty commissions pay the bills, Darren’s keen to pursue his own sculptural work.

“I really want to create something with toy soldiers and glitter. It’s funny - when you first come out of art college you have lots of time and no work so you have to do all sorts just to get a portfolio together. Now I have work and no time.”

Darren kick-started his career raiding skips and making all manner of sculptures that looked like chairs or other furniture items.

Then he decided that making sculptural furniture would give him a niche. He was right. He was soon picked out to design the Red or Dead shop in Nottingham.

“It was great - the brief was that I could do anything I wanted as long as it looked different from any other shop. I was given only £6,000 and that had to cover everything - including lighting, materials and my time. I thought to myself ‘I could do a rushed job of this and go home with a bit of cash’ but I wanted to make the best job of it that I could.

“I didn’t make any money on that but it was worth it. I was asked to do the shop design for all the Red or Dead stores, including one in Israel and the flagship store on Oxford Street.”

For now, Darren will be putting the hours in at his Yorkshire Artspace studio: “This thing has to be shipped in January to Sydney and there’s no stopping that shipment. It’s not like I can call up and say it’s not ready.”

Like Yinka’s other works, the flying machine will attract comment from art critics across the globe with a price tag to match. But at the heart of it all is a man in tatty overalls, working in a studio on Brown Street.

Ship in a Bottle

Yinka Shonibare’s Nelson Ship in a Bottle has become centre of a huge campaign. The Art Fund charity has offered £50,000 to kickstart a project which will see the huge sculpture housed permanently in this country, outside Greenwich museum. Greenwich museum has the largest Nelson collection and the largest collection of model ships in the world. In an interview Yinka Shonibare said: “This is a bargain price - a huge discount. I did have interest from a very wealthy South Korean, who would have put it in his garden – but I thought I would wait for a better offer.”