Emma Maiden by Bel Mooney


Hidden in the Stone by John Russell Taylor



Emma Maiden

I first encountered Emma Maiden’s work in a Bath gallery a few years ago. Sometimes a work of art is waiting for its rightful owner, and so it was then, with the sculpture I call ‘Family’ – although I think Emma had called it ‘Stele’. No matter; it called out to a private sadness in my life, offering the profoundest consolation, and so I had to buy it. The small, solid row of five joined figures stands in a corner of my garden – more battered now, like the human soul.  There are days when I want to scrub it clean, obliterating the marks of air and rain which have dulled the once-pristine surface of Portland stone. So far I haven’t; the organic process of weathering mirrors that within myself (or vice versa): fluid, changing, healing. In such a way does a work of art embed itself within your life, so that you cannot imagine the terrible moment when you might have changed your mind, and not indulged in the need for possession.

Emma Maiden draws inspiration from a variety of sources, and her work has a corresponding propensity to shift and change before your eyes.  Those elongated carved faces have a Byzantine simplicity, sometimes invoking the tribal sculptures of Africa which Emma likes so much – that pared-down formality which was so admired by Picasso.  Yet the elegance of a Duccio Madonna is there too – in the sinuous line which has the power to convey gravity and levity at once.   The next minute you are reminded of the face of Jeanne Hebuterne, the muse and mistress of Modigliani whose elongated features always appear to prefigure her tragic end.  Modigliani worked with Brancusi in Paris – whose work is a direct influence on Emma Maiden.   Like Brancusi, Emma Maiden prefers carving to modelling, wrestling with the stone and letting its nature dictate her stylisations.  Like him she tries to reduce natural forms to their ultimate simplicity, and convey the essence of life through shape.

Complex in their apparent simplicity, these sculptures are the work of a guiding intelligence equally at home in the contrasting worlds of the living forest and library shelf.  Her owls fly through the trees – but also through our nightmares.  They are playful, or deeply mysterious – or even both at once.  Her creatures belong on the nursery shelf, or in a case of Inuit or Mexican carvings.   I find Emma Maiden’s work an exciting mix of elemental, honed-down form and literary elegance – of abstraction and storytelling.

Refreshingly, in this secular age, she is not afraid to invoke the greatest story ever told in her recurring themes.  The intensity of the love between mother and child is at the heart of creation, and it does not matter whether (looking at her interpretations) you choose to recall the Christian Holy Family of the Nativity, or a thousand images of hope, love and loss throughout the history of art – as well as a century of news photographs.  The vulnerable mother and child seek refuge and pity, all over the world, as they have for all time, and the tenderness of the posture is universal.

Moving back from the iconic image of Mary and the Christ-child to Genesis, Emma’s own treatment of another great theme of Western Art is striking in its originality.  The Fall is that of humankind, yet for Emma the fascination is with the character of Eve – the first mother, the Ur-goddess.  A graduate of English Literature she is influenced by Milton’s’ Paradise Lost’, Saying, ‘I find the moment of transgression where Adam discovers Eve ‘heightened as with wine’ particularly powerful. There is a moment of closeness and peace before all is undone.’  From Eve to Mary, Emma portrays the sacred as well as the sinful, but never the profane.

Bel Mooney

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Hidden in the Stone

In general, sculptors are either carvers or modellers: seldom if ever both with equal ease and inspiration.  Emma Maiden is clearly on the carver side of this great division.   She has made bronzes, and very beautiful bronzes at that. But it seems to me that the aesthetic which informs them is essentially that of carving.

What can that mean?  Well, the sculpture that is carved out of a block of stone has a specific sort of inner dynamism: even in the most static, monumental works, one is conscious of the struggle involved in its emergence from the confines of the stone.  Though the notion that every carving is already present within the block, and all that the sculptor has to do is to liberate it by removing the excess matter, is clearly a convenient fantasy, yet it seems to be a fantasy to which many carvers subscribe.  Maiden says herself that though her bronzes begin their life as models in clay, she usually arrives at the model by carving into a lump of hardened clay rather than by gradually building it up as a ceramic artist would build up a figure or group from moist and malleable clay. 

This is more than a technical nicety: it goes to the root of Maiden’s art. It is also rather surprising, in that in a sense she began as a potter, taking an MA in Ceramics at the University of Wales, Cardiff.  So evidently she can model, but one look at any of her sculptures is sufficient to show that she is one of the world’s few natural carvers, almost inevitably vowed to chipping blocks of stone into the shapes (more or less) that already exist, if not actually in the stone itself, at any rate in the mind of the sculptor.

The bias manifests itself first in a clearly overwhelming love of the stone – or stones, as Maiden uses a considerable variety.  The stones in which she finds her sculptures are nearly all hard and close-grained, and most of them take on, if not exactly a polish, at least a silky feeling when properly finished.  Consequently the precise colour and texture of the stone chosen is very important to her, and most of the stone is selected directly from local English quarries.

This might suggest a degree of insularity, even parochialism, in her work, but that is certainly not so in her practice.  Any slight apparent relationship with twentieth-century British sculptors, particularly the carved work of Jacob Epstein and Henry Moore, proves on closer inspection to result from immersion in the same sources, notably Pre-Columbian, and indeed Maiden has sketchbooks full of drawings made during visits to museums and archaeological sites of Ancient Mexico.  Parallels can also be found in Inuit sculpture and other art forms that used to be labelled “Primitive”.

If these sources have made some contribution to Maiden’s plastic imagination, there is also the less definable input of the stones themselves, their size, their shape, their grain.  While some of Maiden’s figures have the classical calm of Cycladic art of the sleekness of a Brancusi, others seem to twist and writhe with the intensity of a prisoner contorted by the limitations of a tiny cage: truly the sculpture trying to break free of the block of stone which cribs, cabins and confines it.

Between the philosophical calm and the tormented passion lies the whole gamut of sculptural expression.  Maiden’s art is a clear demonstration, sorely needed, that even in an age of assemblage and installation, the main stream of Western Sculpture, which started with Michelangelo, continues to flow strongly towards a still exciting and unpredictable future.

John Russell Taylor

Author and critic

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Bird, Bronze, H51cm