Equestrian Insider: Tom J Nicholls, Gifted Sculptor & Stone Carver

Tom at work on 'Greenman'

Tom at work on ‘Greenman’

This weeks ‘Equestrian Insider’ features the supremely talented sculptor and stone carver, Tom J Nicholls. We managed to persuade Tom to put down his chisel briefly to chat to Style Reins about his motivation, passion and the inspiration behind his artworks.

We ‘discovered’ you via the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust (QEST). How do you think a scholarship with them has impacted your career?

I have been a very passionate and dedicated artist for many years and worked hard to create a body of work worthy of a QEST Scholarship. When I won the Scholarship back in 2011 I was very proud and excited and took the opportunity to take two years out from my normal practice to study full time on the prestigious Post Graduate Diploma in Stone Sculpture at the City and Guilds of London Art School.   During this time I won two “Carver of the year 2013” awards from the Master Carvers Association and The Worshipful Company of Masons for my degree show. Since winning the QEST scholarship I have had much more time to develop my practice and I feel that my career has really started to take off in the ways I always dreamt it would. I have been a part of so many exciting exhibitions including the Coronation Festival at Buckingham Palace and at the Mall Galleries for the Society of Equestrian Artists two years running. I have also had various large scale commissions including working as a sculptor on the Barge prow sculpture for the Queens’ Diamond Jubilee pageant, designing and carving a stone Grotesque for Windsor Chapel and am currently working on 6 large carved brick relief panels on a mansion block façade on Draycott Avenue near Sloane Square.

All your work is incredible but of course we’re drawn to your equestrian sculptures. What was the inspiration behind your ‘Maltese Limestone Horse Portrait’?

I grew up in the countryside and my family had a lot to do with the Equestrian world so I have always had a deep connection and appreciation for the power and grace of horses. One of my first experiences as a sculptor was being shown how to carve a horse head from Alabaster by my Grandfather at the age of 8 so I guess that may have been what started it all! A central focus of my work has been to explore the relationship between the dynamics and complexity of movement found in figurative (both human and animal) forms, and the context or environment within which they perform. Peter Paul Rubens is an artist who I felt captured this complexity of movement in the horse and the power and beauty of his drawings inspired my first series of marble horses.

With my Limestone Horse Portrait “Cracker” (as I call him) I wanted to explore the individual character of a particular horse whilst emphasising the power and complexity of bone and muscle structure.

This process of carving the piece really drew me in and I feel through the journey of carving him I have learnt a great deal and am very pleased with the final result.

Here is a plaster cast (left) which I modelled as a guide to carve my Limestone “Cracker” horse portrait (right)

Here is a plaster cast (left) which I modelled as a guide to carve my Limestone “Cracker” horse portrait (right)

And here it is on display at the Mall Galleries Horse in Art Exhibition 2013 for the Society of Equestrian Artists

And here it is on display at the Mall Galleries Horse in Art Exhibition 2013 for the Society of Equestrian Artists

Have you any other equestrian works you can share with us?

This is a relief sculpture I made inspired by a Baroque hunting scene painting by Peter Paul Rubens. I find his portrayal of horses very exciting and very expressive of movement and character so felt very inspired to create my own transcription of the piece into three dimensions.

“Hunt Scene” inspired by Peter Paul Rubens, 2012, Clay subsequently cast in plaster

“Hunt Scene” inspired by Peter Paul Rubens, 2012, Clay subsequently cast in plaster

“Vortex Horse”

This piece is part of a series of marble horse sculptures in which I seek to abstract the horse to suggest movement and power as well as evoking a sense of awe inspiring natural forces like the whirlwind or ocean waves

“Vortex Horse” 2009 Carrara Marble

“Vortex Horse” 2009 Carrara Marble

“All Out”

In this piece I wanted to really explore and express the speed and power of a leading racehorse. The horse thus appears to break out of the piece and the frame itself is physically morphing and warping back into the composition to enhance this sense of speed…. as though the horse is too timeless and powerful to be contained by a frame.

“All Out” 2013 Cement Fondue

“All Out” 2013 Cement Fondue

How do you ‘feel’ when you are creating a piece? Is it an emotional roller-coaster?

I’m always excited when I’m creating a piece but I go through many phases of thought as the process develops.   I’m often quite daunted by the challenges I set myself… I have a vivid imagination and I aim to realise my vision as closely as I can with my work so yeah this can become a bit of an emotional roller-coaster! I think that coming into a relationship with your own roller-coaster is half (if not more) of the battle of becoming a good artist though.

Your restoration and conservation work has enabled you to literally get your hands on work by highly acclaimed artists such as Henry Moore. That must be unbelievably special.

Yes I really feel that being fortunate enough to have been so closely working with sculptures and monuments by some of the greatest artists in history has been invaluable to me. Actually feeling the thumb prints or chisel marks in the work and having time to understand the dynamics of a piece can teach you so much… not just about techniques and materials but also about what drove the artist to create and wish to express.   In this sense I feel my work is a continuation of a way of thinking and creating which I carry with my own voice and direction.

Tell us about the work you did on the Queens Diamond Jubilee barge. How did you get to be involved in such a prestigious project?

At the time I was actually in the process of modelling my horse head “Cracker” in clay at Art College.   The head sculptor of the barge project has close affiliations with the college and happened to be visiting the college to recruit for the project at that time. He spotted my clay modelling and asked me if I would like to spend three weeks away from college to help with the Barge project. I obviously wasn’t going to refuse such an offer and was very excited! I was very fortunate to have been given a great deal of responsibility and freedom as an artist on the project. The project was massive and involved the use of over 3 tonnes of clay to create a wild composition of Heraldic beasts and ornamentation…I worked on all the elements of the clay modelling but was given particular responsibility to create the vast River God heads as well as the huge Tudor Rose, Clams and Shamrocks. I really loved having such freedom and used the opportunity to push myself and create work in my own style to the best of my ability. The finished Sculpture was subsequently cast and gilded before being attached to the barge and floated down the Thames for the Diamond Jubilee Pageant in June 2012.

The complete barge prow sculpture on board the Spirit of Chartwell

The complete barge prow sculpture on board the Spirit of Chartwell

Are you exhibiting anywhere currently? I’m sure our readers would love to see your work.

I am currently working on a number of relief sculptures focused on the dynamic power and grace of horses (the race relief “All out” shown above being an example of such works) which I intend to exhibit early next year.   There will be an exhibition at Windsor Chapel which opens after Evensong on 11th September 2014 where my grotesque sculpture will be displayed along with other sculptors work and displays explaining the various design and creative processes that were involved in that project.

If our readers would like to commission you or buy an edition of one of your horse sculptures how can they contact you?

The best place to find me is my newly revamped website tomjnicholls.com.



Style Reins Autumn 2017