ANTHONY Bennett’s studio is a fantasy world. Walking through its door is like stepping into a parallel universe, one in which men have insect legs, sculpted figures take on uncanny realism and where life-size model horses oversee everything that’s happening in the space.
Needless to say, this is no ordinary working environment. But Anthony Bennett has no ordinary job.
He one of Sheffield’s best-known sculptors and one of the right-hand men of one of Britain’s most sought-after contemporary artists.
And if this studio is an indication of what goes on in Anthony Bennett’s mind, then it is a bizarre and surreal but intriguing world.
But it’s one that Anthony has inhabited since graduating from Psalter Lane art school in 1983.
Since then, he has created sets for a permanent Wind in the Willows exhibition in Oxfordshire, the Beatrix Potter museum in the Lake District, York’s Jorvik Viking Centre and – more recently – a ballerina for the wall of the Royal Opera House as part of the Olympics cultural programme.
That was a commission from Yinka Shonibare MBE, one of Britain’s most acclaimed contemporary artists, whose vision the encased ballerina was.
This ‘ballerina’ is a life-size sculpted model, constructed entirely by Anthony in his Sheffield studio.
“It is now suspended in a clear ball on the wall of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.
Anthony says: “The ballerina Melissa Hamilton came up to the studio for me to model her. She was so toned and muscular, I wanted to capture that.
“She has a globe for her head and she spins in the bubble.”
His work for Shonibare has taken him from Italy to Japan, installing sculptures at some of the world’s most prestigious art institutions.
“We have a great working relationship,” says Anthony, “Yinka lets me know what his ideas are and I create the figures.
“It’s the best of both worlds - my work is displayed in top art galleries but no-one knows who I am.”
But when it comes to his own work, Anthony’s much happier exhibiting in everyday surroundings.
“I much prefer having sculptures in public places, where people have to stop and think about them as they go about their everyday business, rather than art galleries,” he says.
One of his latest works is of Sheffield’s last grinder, Brian Allcock, with whom Anthony has been working for a forthcoming exhibition called Swarf Horse, which will be on show across Sheffield with its main HQ at the Millennium Gallery.
One of the pieces for Swarf Horse is a rusty-looking head, cased in lumps and brown sediment.
“That’s a collection of all the debris from the grindstone after six months, it’s all the stuff that flies off the wheel and it’s pretty much held together by rust.”
The head is formed from a mould of Brian’s head, which Anthony left next to a grindstone in order for it to collect all the debris.
“This is the stuff that Brian works with every day,” says Anthony.
“It’s a shame because he is Sheffield’s last grinder man and there is no-one to pass his skills on to. They will die with him.”
Anthony hails from the Black Country but, having lived in Sheffield for more than 30 years, he classes himself as an ‘adopted Sheffielder’.
And it is the Sheffield-based projects that he gets most excited about.
“I enjoy the historical aspect of this stuff,” he says. “And the men who worked the grindstones were the ones who created the cutting edge that paved the way for Sheffield’s industrial revolution.”
But his interest in all things historical isn’t limited to Sheffield.
One of his projects is Omi, an eerily realistic life-size model of a man cast in fibreglass and covered in tattoos.
But, strange and surreal as he seems, like many of Anthony’s works, he is based on an historical figure.
“He’s based on a man called Horace Ridler, who was referred to as The Great Omi,” says Anthony.
Horace was a well-to-do officer who served in the First World War but left soon after with the rank of major.
But it was a trip to Morocco that turned him on to exotic tattoos.
“It must have been the stuff he was smoking out there,” laughs Anthony.
“But I think it was the effect of the First World War as well.”
Horace visited London’s famous tattooist of the 1920s, George Burchett, with plans for his ambitious tattoos – knowing he could make a living from being an attraction at fairground and circus shows.
The Great Omi became a sensation in his own right, especially in the 1930s, when the hunger for all things Art Deco made Omi’s heavily-stylised body sought-after entertainment.
Horace may no longer be with us, but Anthony has recreated him in his studio. “He’ll be in the Bear Pit at Art in the Gardens in a couple of weeks’ time,” he says.
And it is clear to see where Anthony learnt his trade.
“My daughter came along in the 90s and at that time there was a lot of work around making models, so I made most of the models in the Jorvik Viking Centre, which was great fun, and most of the Wind in the Willows models.
“But it was a lot of work – each figure for the Wind in the Willows took about two weeks to create.”
His portfolio is a testament to the breadth of his work.
And yet, amid celebrating the successes of his ballerina for Shonibare at the Royal Opera House, creating a sculpture of Sheffield’s last grinder and preparing Omi for Art in the Gardens, Anthony still has time to think about future projects.
He says: “I’m always thinking about ideas for sculptures. But when I look back at myself, I realise that this is always what I pictured myself doing: being a sculptor.”
Anthony Bennett’s The Great Omi will be on display at the Bear Pit at Art in the Gardens on Saturday (September 1) to Sunday from 10.30am to 5.30pm at the Botanical Gardens.