When Laurence Edwards looks out of the window of his studio and foundry he looks straight on to the saltmarsh of Butley Creek with its wide expanse of water fringed by tall reeds. Here lay the inspiration for his sculpture of the oarsman and his skiff atop its column beside Stoke Bridge that marks the start of the Riverside Path from Ipswich docks up to Sproughton. "Against The Tide" aims to portray the interaction of man with his aquatic and industrial environment — a paradigm for the port and town of Ipswich and also the picture of itself that the River Gipping has suggested to the River Action Group.
So members of the River Action Group were delighted to accompany their chairman, Tom Gondris, to make their way out to Butley on a wet December morning to witness the casting of the sculpture. Laurence was an informative and enthusiastic guide as he showed us not only the dramatic moments of the casting itself but also the artistic and technological operations that led up to it and the finishing processes that followed.
The oarsman is cast in bronze and is fixed to the steel shell of the boat, which was prepared separately. As it is rowed upstream against the tide, the boat reminds us of the man-made element of our surroundings, of how man has exploited his environment by, for example, using the river for transport, food and safe anchor. The figure of the oarsman is stylised but recognisably human. His shape is made up of twisted reeds so that we can see how he derives his existence from the life of the river.
The reeds of Butley Creek were not only an inspiration to Laurence. They also provided an integral part of his sculpture. We were shown how he uses reeds, leaves and twigs to create the shape of his figure over a core of wax. The whole is then coated in a thick covering of plaster which thus becomes the mould. When the plaster is dry the mould is baked in an oven so that the wax melts and drains away while the reeds burn off, leaving their negative shapes in the plaster. This refinement of the "lost wax" process could be thought of as "lost reeds". Next comes the moment of real drama as the furnace brings the metal up to about 1200 to 1300 degrees. The bright orange glowing liquid bronze is carefully poured into the mould, special channels or "runners" in the plaster ensuring that there are no airlocks to spoil the casting. Cooling can take a day or so, but we were able to see our oarsman shed his plaster coat and show himself for the first time before he was cleaned up and prepared to join his boat.
"Against The Tide" has its inspiration in Butley but is now very much at home on the bank of the Orwell. It was a rare experience to witness the birth of a sculpture and landmark. Welcome to Ipswich, little oarsman.