Inside the studio of sculptor James B Webster

A bust of a man's head on its side on a workbench.

Via artworks in progress, pieces from postponed exhibits and a dog called Dave, Webster tells the story of a sculptor's life in lockdown

By Jess Kelham-Hohler   Images by James B Webster   Thursday 30 April, 2020   Long read

For James B Webster, lockdown has proven to have some advantages – in large part thanks to his studio, a converted stable in the garden of the north Suffolk home he shares with his husband, fashion designer Roland Mouret.

Working primarily with clay and porcelain, Webster trained under Marianne Luchetti in Florence, before moving to London and, eventually, his rural home. His work, which takes inspiration from Greek myths and the natural world, has been exhibited across Europe and at Frieze London. 

‘Life is so demanding and having exhibitions mostly in Paris and Brussels has meant a lot of travel,’ he says. ‘Being trapped here has been amazing and made me fall in love with the studio all over again.’

Inspired by the design of Soho Farmhouse, Webster worked with a local building firm to use reclaimed scaffolding boards, corrugated tin and the original wood to convert the stable into his ideal studio. During lockdown, the doors have remained largely flung open, so Webster can take inspiration from the view and be joined by his husband, who often sits just outside the space they have taken to calling ‘the cafe’ during lockdown.

Here, Webster takes us on a visual tour of his studio, giving a glimpse of the objects that inspire him, the pieces he’s currently working on and his creative process.
A workbench with sculptors tools and an iPad on it.
white sculpture of two male figures wrestling
Top image: Kasen 
‘This piece was going to be part of Art Paris this April. It’s a portrait of Casen, a hairdresser who I met on Mount Street [in London] at the deli while I was visiting Roland at his shop. He has a lovely face and was such a kind, warm guy who was happy to sit for me. He had this amazing long hair, which I thought was really interesting – that elegance as a man and the femininity and softness of that length of hair and his face, which I thought would be wonderful to capture. To maintain his identity in a static material, capture something in the moment and still give the illusion that it’s breathing, is always fascinating to me.

Above left: The swimmer
‘I found this swimmer on Instagram and asked to follow him. He ended up sending me some pictures and I made that very small, fist-sized head of him. To be able to try and capture that nose and shape of his face is amazing. But he also has this soft, youthful look, and to depict both was a real challenge. 

Smaller objects like this are easier to transport safely, but they tend to feel more precious, too. You have a different kind of relationship with them. And during social distancing, we may be moving more towards people wanting to collect smaller artworks like this, rather than risk going to crowded galleries. I think there are exciting opportunities in that.’

Above right: The wrestlers
‘This is a new piece in plaster that I will now work on and sand, so I can then cut into pieces and cast into porcelain. It’s an evolution of some of the work I’ve been doing about men and sexuality. I made some pieces called “Love Tokens”, which were explicit cubes of concrete with people coupling – a close-up of two bodies cuddling inside of it. This is an extension of it on an emotional and practical level. They’re not in an act of lovemaking, they’re wrestling, but the movement, the compromise of the bodies and the gestures were really interesting.’
The exterior of a wooden shed-like building in a garden with trees.
Above: The studio
‘Learning to live here has really been about using what you have and refining it, rather than changing it. If I let my imagination run away with me, we would have created a big monster on the side of the property. We punctured the building with slightly larger windows and put some skylights in and the wood burner. That’s really all I needed. With porcelain and clay, it’s better to have limited sunlight. The low roof and flatness of it was perfect for allowing a bit of light and maintaining the coolness of the air inside.’
A wax model of a female body next to a black glove.
A dog sitting on a chair in a sculptors studio.
Above left: Working in wax
‘I’ve been working with wax since my A levels and I use it as my sketching process. It’s easy to take a mould from to make a piece in a different material, but it also has its own beautiful qualities. The textures of it here, the way it moves from her legs around her breasts and onto her shoulders, are lovely.’ 

Above right: Grandfather's table
‘This is Dave, my Jack Russell who I swapped for a painting while I was in Paris at The Westin hotel for Roland’s show. He’s been in this house as long as we have and he has many chairs in the studio.

You’ll see that my grandfather’s table is well used. When he retired in 1978, the year I was born, he started woodwork, and in the 1990s he began making rocking horses. Having been a doctor, he was meticulous, and this was transferred beautifully to everything he made. While that table looks like the ricketiest thing, it is solid and beautifully made with a mix of boxwood, mahogany and all sorts of things you would never expect in a table. It’s an amazing thing.’ 
A wall with various objects hanging on it.
Above: Collecting
‘The room really reminded me of Shaker houses, so we put up this rail with oak pegs, so I could hang as many objects and things I find that inspire me. I found the flint on the left in a field where I was walking Dave – I thought it looked like a woman dancing. And I discovered the red leather cord with a bit of stone on Dunwich beach. There’s also the porcelain skull of a stork and a little plaque that the guy I bought the kiln from gave me when he delivered it, which I thought was fantastic. It reminds me of the important things on a daily basis. 

I picked up the crucifix in a charity shop when I was living in Norwich and working in Pizza Express. I used the money to see a tutor in Florence. Religion was something I was learning about there and was a real precursor to a lot of the work that I started to do. The terracotta head behind it is a little one I made while I was in a bedsit in London. I always saw myself as a sculptor, but that was hard to do in my little home, so I ended up falling into painting. This small piece has survived as an artefact from that time. 

The picture is of Jenny Saville’s “Girl With A Red Face”. It’s a picture that I’ve had prints and photocopies of since my A levels. It’s stayed with me for so long, because there’s something both violent and grotesque about it, and then this beauty that she gets in the eyes. I’ve been listening to Stephen Fry’s “Mythos” recently, and that made me realise how much this painting reminds me of Medusa; those eyes so sad, they could turn you to stone.’

jamesbwebster.com

Interested in sharing a glimpse inside your studio? Get in touch at membersformembers@sohohouse.com