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A Zoom Call with Richard Deacon (Part 1) 

Made in Plymouth’s Community Reporter, Linda Bell, interviews Richard Deacon. This is part one of her look into the life and works of one of the city’s most influential sculptors.

Interviewed by Linda Bell 

At the forefront of British sculpture since the 1980s, Plymouth’s Richard Deacon’s sculptures are characterised by a controlled, abstract structure that is combined with an imaginative and unexpected use of materials. Whether executed on a domestic or monumental scale, his sculptures explore the interactions between surface and space, interior and exterior, mass and lightness, motion and calm. Made in Plymouth’s Community Reporter, Linda Bell, interviewed him over zoom. This is part one of her look into the life and works of one of the city’s most influential sculptors.

Howling wind and driving rain provide an atmospheric backdrop in which to interview the artist Richard Deacon. 

Richard grew up in Plymouth and attended Plymouth College and now exhibits across the globe. His large scale sculptures fabricated from wood, metal, stone, ceramic, cloth, rubber and concrete, along with his intricate drawings and captivating photographs, are featured in private collections, major museums and public locations around the world – including our very own sculpture ‘Moor’ right here, in Plymouth!

Richard Deacon Portrait 2023, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Villa Kast, Salzburg, Austria. Photo Markus Huber

Having recently returned from an exhibition opening at Marian Goodman Gallery, Los Angeles USA, Richard cheerily waves and says ‘hello!’ as he joins me on a Zoom call. A life-long collector of objects and an avid bird watcher, Richard is a Turner Prize Winner and Honorary Fellow of Arts University Plymouth. He has a little time before heading out from his London work studio to face the storm and travel to Poole, Dorset, for an exhibition opening event.

In the meantime, Richard is very generous in offering to share with me, Linda Bell, his memories of growing up in Plymouth, from stories of school trips, reflections of Plymouth’s Aquarium and the Quay Club (Now Angels) to tales of family myths, John Lennon’s AI release, the Television South West Art exhibition and the difference between Carving and Fabrication. As the churning waves cascade over the lido’s edge and the wind whoops through the now leafless trees, it is a real treat to listen to Richard’s impressions of Britain’s Ocean City and what his time here meant for him – in particular, his thoughts about the importance of the unsanctioned and the alternative.  

LB : Richard, you were born in Bangor and spent some of your childhood in Sri Lanka. How was it that from there you came to be in Plymouth? 

RD : My dad was in the air force, so we moved around a lot. So I was born in Bangor, but actually he was away in Northern Ireland at the time. And then we moved to Scotland and then from Scotland down to Plymouth. Plymouth had an RAF station at Mount Batten, a small, coastal reconnaissance station and they had flying boats in the Sound and motor torpedo boats. We lived in Plymstock, actually we lived in lots of different places. To begin with we had a bungalow in Cattewater and then we moved out to Yelverton, up on Dartmoor, and then down to Plymstock where they were just building it, with married quarters and I went to school in Hooe, at the Hooe Primary School, and then we went to Sri Lanka. Then we came back to Plymouth, to the same house actually, for another two and a half years and I was again at Hooe Primary School, and then I took my 11 plus, from Hooe and I got a scholarship, a Devon County Scholarship, to Plymouth College. So then I started at Plymouth College in 1959, I think, but as a boarder, because you know father’s in the Air Force, travelling around a lot. And then I stayed at Plymouth College for 8 years. 

LB : Great, So I believe you still have your Plymouth School books, as part of your incredible life-long collection of objects? 

RD : (laughing) Yeah I do have a few! 

LB : And as a young boy, you attended an afterschool art club. And so I was wondering if you can tell us a little bit more about any specific memories of Hooe Primary School or of Plymouth College? 

RD : Er, well Hooe I used to cycle to. You won’t know it now, but in front of Hooe was the estuary, it’s all been filled in now and it used to, sometimes you’d arrive and the tide was out, sometimes you’d arrive and the tide was in, and the school faced out onto the water with a big playing field behind it. Two strong memories of watching an eclipse, out in the school playground, and the second was a was fancy dress. Where I went as a robot,

LB : (Laughs)

RD : Robbie the Robot out of cardboard boxes. So, actually we had good teachers, and we went out on a field trip to Dartmoor which was, they drove us in their cars, there wasn’t a, it wasn’t like a coach trip, and I went in the side car of one of the teachers’ and we went up on Dartmoor to look at the stone circles, and the stone pathways, on Dartmoor.

LB : Wonderful, oh well thank you for sharing those with us. 

I was looking recently at your Plymouth Rock series and they make me think of ice cores and even the destruction of Plymouth and other cities following the Blitz. Could you explain some more about these artworks and their connection to Plymouth? 

RD : They were made much much later, when I was, I was doing something at the Royal Docks, which was being set up and I was asked, they invited me to do a show with Bill Woodrow, we were doing a collaborative, and I went round with him, while they were building and I know all of this area really quite well, I spent years in Plymouth, and the part of the building work was that they were taking cores out of the limestone walls of the old docks, and these, that that stone is actually very like the stone that was used on my School. Plymouth College also has that grey limestone, so you know, it’s quite evocative to me. But I just liked them as objects, so I picked them out of a skip, these cores, and then, well, er, Eddystone Lighthouse, is always, was always sort of interesting to me. Partly because a family myth was that Mr Winstanley who built the first Eddystone lighthouse,

LB : Yes

RD : Was an ancestor! My mother’s family name was Winstanley. I actually don’t think that’s true! 

LB: Laughs

RD : Because Winstanley was a bachelor, a childless bachelor, so it was always the family myth that he was you know a great great great great grandparent, but I don’t actually think that’s true. But he was a very interesting man, 

LB : Yes, 

RD: Very strong sense of practical joker-y

LB : Ok . . .

RD: He built this kind of extraordinary lighthouse, which was, of which there were beautiful models in Plymouth Museum.

LB : Yeah, and I know he was captured by the French . . . And then he was released, so a really interesting life. 

RD : Yeah, there’s lots of stuff there, so and then, Plymouth Rock, is also something that exists in the United States, in Massachusetts, it’s when the Pilgrims first arrived, the first sermon they made in thanks for their arrival, was on a big rock on the coast, which is now called Plymouth Rock. And so there’s also the fact that these were cylindrical cores, and a stick of rock is a kind of cylinder, that says ‘Plymouth’ all the way through it. So you know, it was all those things that, and those are the ones that I used, those plus some concrete pieces to start trying to bring those ideas together in those works. 

There are bits of Plymouth, 

LB : Physically in the sculpture? 

RD : Yes, bits of stone. 

LB: So um you often consider yourself to be a fabricator, rather than a sculptor. 

RD : Oh no, I say I’m a fabricator, not a carver, or a modeller.

LB: Ok, so can you tell me more about the distinction between these different things as you see it? 

RD: Well, when I said that, er, and I think it’s not quite so true now, when I said that, it was because most of the work I made was about putting things together, rather than either by taking away, which is a carving process, or adding, which is a modelling process. And so, I tend to put things together that can be taken apart afterwards. And the skill set is to do with fabricating, rather than anything else. 

LB : Right

RD : But I also quite like the fact that fabrication is something you make up, you know, so if someone tells you a load of bollocks, you say, it’s just, that’s a total fabrication, you know, It’s the idea of the ‘made up-ness’ that I liked in it, as well as a sort of artisanal quality of the idea of a fabricator rather than, you know blue collar kind of activity. 

LB : Great, so Cezanne once said ‘one does not substitute oneself for the past, one merely adds a new link to its chain.’ You have been inspired by the ancient, hand carved cave temples of Ellora and Adjantar in India – as we’ve just mentioned the hollowing out, the carving – as well as Gothic Cathedrals in France and the UK, yet you have also used 3D printing for works such as ‘Little Assembly’. 

Richard Deacon’s Studio 27 September 2013. Collection of Objects. Photo Josh Wright

What impact do you think technology, especially the introduction of AI, is having, firstly on the Art World, and secondly, on the collaborative aspects of your practice? 

RD : Hard to say. Just hearing this morning about how AI was used to generate the Beatles song that’s just been issued. And how John Lennon’s voice is kind of extracted from the tape, so that it is John Lennon’s voice, on the new record, it’s not an AI generated version John Lennon but actually a very sophisticated system for extracting the signal from the noise in relationship to John Lennon’s voice. It’s really hard to say what the impact is. There are certain things that the pandemic has sort of sped up in relation to the kind of discussion we’re having via Zoom. That those virtual meetings have become much more an everyday part of our lives, of our existence, and so working on a big commission project through the Pandemic, I got very habituated to the team being dispersed, but we were all talking about the same thing. So actually that felt really kind of normal and . . . so we’re talking about, you know, a big commission project and on occasion there were very specific questions about what to do, and at the fabricators, they could just move the camera to see what we were discussing, that the structure engineer who’s somewhere else and me, and the guys that are working on it, and we could all just talk about it and it didn’t feel like it was dislocated. On the other hand, big zoom meetings are terrible, you can’t read the room as it were, or a committee meeting, you can’t really read the room. So that’s one side of it. 

After, 1998, Wood, Stainless Steel, Aluminium, 169 x 960 x 346 cm ‘Richard Deacon’ Installation View, 2014, Tate Britain, London. Photo Dave Morgan

I did start doing a lot of drawing. And er, I’ve never been very good at drawing on a computer, I always prefer to draw, pencil and paper and then if it’s a design process that needs specific alteration then once it’s in the computer, then the advantage of having it as a CAD thing is that you can alter details without having to redo the drawings. But during the pandemic I started drawing a lot and I started thinking about other surfaces that I liked to draw on and it became, I became interested in drawing, first on an iPad, and produced a lot of drawings on the iPad, which I’ve now had translated into textiles. Into images printed onto textile. The problem with taking digital images out is that they’re very flat as opposed to drawing on paper. You know, as when you draw on paper, or any other surface and you have this relationship between the surface and the mark. With digital drawings it doesn’t seem to work like that, it’s kind of flat. I was trying to get them woven at some point, and that would be possible, and there is a really interesting link between weaving and computers. And the early looms were the origin of the punch card, the Jacquard loom and that punch card system is what Babbage used in his original computers, so textiles and computing, for a funny combination, actually work well together. I didn’t get them woven, I got them printed, but the printing does bring them back into the world, it gives them a texture. So now I’m drawing on my iPhone.

Herne Hill #1, 2001, Ink on paper drawing collaged onto colour reversal (R-Type) Print, 735 x 1125 cm

LB : Oh wow, right, 

RD : Which is interesting and I’ll try and find a way of getting them out in the same way. The general question is how does that image making then transform into other aspects of the practice. And I don’t really know the answer to that. It’s still too early. And I’m not satisfied with erm, virtual exhibitions, and I don’t know that I think the VR experience is really comparable to the real experience of real materials and real things. But there is a cross-over that is interesting and to go back to how I started with the AI use of the John Lennon voice, they’ve made a very interesting point, about the sensitivity of the AI to pull Lennon’s real voice out of this rather noisy recording and that it was sensitive, and specific and not generic at all. So there are anxieties around the notion of AI but there are also some really rather extraordinary stories about the other things it can do. There was a thing about reading scrolls from the burnt library, in Pompeii, which had been carbonised, and then using an AI technology to read the texts without unrolling the scrolls. So I’d be interested to have … The question might be: are you interested to use a robot to make a piece of sculpture, and the answer would be yes, I’d be interested. 

LB : Great, thanks for that, I find the link between as you say textiles and technology very interesting especially as you say you think of how we are now entering this sort of digital revolution, and thinking back to the industrial revolution, when textiles were very important at that point in history, so it’s good to hear your thoughts on it. 

RD: Textiles are really important. And for the history of capitalism as well. Trading and textiles is probably somewhere at the base of the origins of banking, and trade and then textiles in weaving and construction does have uses. Very strong links with early technologies, it’s also obviously, textiles are a fundamental technology for human beings, being able to make clothes, you know, makes a big difference. Being able to make clothes, being able to live in a cold climate. So yeah, we need clothes. 

LB : (Laughing) Great, so a slightly different theme on the next two or three questions. 

Richard delivers his speech after receiving his Honarary Fellowship from Arts University Plymouth, 2017

Most sizeable cities in the UK like to think of themselves as promoting culture in a special or unique way. In your acceptance speech for your honorary fellowship from Arts University Plymouth, you said that you felt you owed so much to the city. Is there anything about Plymouth that particularly strikes you as helping people to become an artist, or to live a creative life? 

RD : I owed a lot to individuals in Plymouth, to my art teacher, Derek Holland, to the headmaster of the school, a man called Charles Martin Meade-King, to the school itself which was – was kind of liberal in its evaluation of the arts, to Bernard Samuels who was the teacher of French at the time, but who then who set up the arts centre while I was there. So a number of teachers at my school were actually involved in setting up Plymouth Arts Centre. 

Richard receives an Honorary Fellowship from Arts University Plymouth with Sir Nicholas Serota, 2017

I also owed a big debt to Plymouth from earlier times. I used to visit the aquarium a lot. At the time, now it’s great, there’s a new building for the aquarium. But at the time, it used to be inside the fortress, inside the citadel, and I used to go there a lot when I was 8 or 9 or 10 – fantastic aquarium, so the oceanographic work of Plymouth was important. 

Plymouth was quite, puritanical, when I was a teenager… the pubs were closed on Sundays, run by Plymouth Brethren. Although Devonport was always different, there was always a kind of interesting mix between Devonport and Plymouth. It’s got a rich history, kind of plusses and minuses, and I mean the river was always amazing. I don’t know if it still does this, but every so often, it used to turn white, when they emptied the settling tanks on the china clay works, all the river would turn white from the silt coming down. It’s the only river that I’ve gone from source to mouth. I’ve walked the length of the Plym several times. I used to go to Dartmoor a lot, and Dartmoor figures in the title of my work ‘Moor’. And the Barbican was pretty good when I was a teenager. There was a pub on the corner called the Quay Club, (now Angels) it was a very good R&B and soul club and I did hear the Four Tops there. It was upstairs on the end of the quay. 

The Barbican was again a slightly alternative to one’s impression, of my impression of Plymouth being slightly Puritanical, and then there’s also the museum which now it’s all been taken up with the Box, but the museum had some things that I really liked and the models made by the French prisoners of war, the Martin Brother’s ceramics, Walter Scott’s ski’s up on the wall, and a really good reference library. I used to go to the reference library a lot. 

LB : Great, and you think all of this encourages people to live a creative life, it’s there as a resource, if people wish to…. 

RD : yeah, of course, I left, you have to remember that. I left Plymouth when I was 18. And I didn’t go back again until the time of this commission for ‘Moor’. It was quite a big gap. So I left Plymouth in 1968 and I didn’t go back until almost twenty years later. And because it was kind of so deeply ingrained in me. It was a funny business going back because you could walk around the corner and it hadn’t really changed since I was last there. You think you’re going to meet your teenage self coming round the corner. It’s really a strange thing. But the TSWA commission was fantastic and actually there were a lot of interesting artists involved.

It was four works, works for different places, and the group in Plymouth was a really very good group of artists :  Darrell Viner, Helen Chadwick, Geneviàve Cadieux, Ron Haselden, Donald Rodney, Vong Phaophanit er who else? Oh yes, Magdalena Jetelova. And the works were in really quite interesting places in Plymouth. 

(Richard shows me on screen the publication which accompanied the exhibition) 

It was TSWA, Jonathan Harvey who was one of the co-founders of the Acme Housing Association, who was also at school in Plymouth, Plymouth College, he was the year below me in Plymouth, but he was the person who negotiated the various sponsorships and agreements which perhaps accounts for having such a good group of artists involved. 

I saw all the works, they were all brilliant in very particular locations. I think mine is the only one that stayed there but, it would be good for it not to be forgotten, that it was a very very good show. 

You asked me about Plymouth . . . Plymouth was a really great place to grow up in as it was full of contradictions. Full of history and things to find out. I don’t know if it was always as full of opportunity as it is now. There’s more dynamism in Plymouth now than there was when I was growing up and you know, at the time, Royal Parade, all the department stores were opening and bustling and then there was a kind of sad transition when they declined and now there’s some really important pieces of civil thinking about (how) to reuse that. But it’s, there were also some significant art projects. Liliane Lijn, you may or may not know the piece she did for The Four Cities Project which was this kind of light cone based at the bottom of Royal Parade on the access up to the Smeaton’s tower. 

LB : Richard, you have travelled and exhibited all over the world, but what do you think a city like Plymouth can do to actively raise the profile of ambitious art making both within the city, regionally, or within the UK in general?

RD : Well does it not do it a bit anyway with the University? And Arts University Plymouth (formerly Plymouth College of Art) is a good place and the technological university that is kind of cutting edge science. So having people who…. Ok the things you can do: The art education in schools feeds crucially into the community of students. The community of students is enriched by people coming in from outside. The Box is doing a great job of expanding opportunities, making things showing, making it interesting. I said when I was growing up, something like the Quay Club, which was a sort of alternative venue. You don’t just need sanctioned stuff you need unsanctioned things as well. And I don’t know how you encourage that. 

And the dockyard remains an important place, so you also need an industrial base of some sort as well, and not just a cultural and educational base. And Plymouth is easier to get to than it was. It’s funny, as it’s a very important place nationally in terms what it is. But it’s also a long train ride from London. Although the train itself, when I talked about ‘Moor’, because I know that train route quite well, is a fantastic piece of railway engineering, particularly along the coast as it goes in and out of the cliffs by Dawlish there. And there’s great nature nearby on Dartmoor, and it could be better. There are various people trying to improve the conservation efforts on Dartmoor um, er, how does it get better? I don’t think you can programme it but Plymouth is making good efforts. Civic pride is also an important part of this stuff.

14 Lock, 1990, Laminated Hardboard, Aluminium, Vinyl, 242 x 382 x 301 cm

There is the oceanographic research establishment, which is associated with the Navy, so there is a kind of strong knowledge base. The Schools need to be providing opportunities for people, for students to learn outside of the classroom so that.. one of the important things about my educational experience was that not only was there a really great art department in the school, and also a really good science department, but there was a really great art, and good biology department, and um, the head of biology was one of the founding members of Plymouth Arts Centre, so there was an art-science connection, and there was also quite good cinemas in Plymouth. There was a very alternative cinema, that used to run foreign films down by the bus station… 

And there was also a nice mixture of sanctioned and unsanctioned things going on and er, I suppose that’s what I think is important.  So somewhere like the Quay Club was an alternative, is as important for the development of a life as a symphony orchestra would be.

So you know, the kind of dynamism of a place comes out of a place having those things going on and there being enough interest to generate an audience and an enthusiasm for those kind of things. If you’re talking, kind of rock and roll, you also need opportunities – as has happened in Coventry – for young bands in Coventry, or perhaps in London, there’s always quite interesting moments when young bands appear.  You can’t manage it, but you can create opportunities. 

LB : One final question, who are some of your heroes, artistically, or not artistically, and why? 

RD : Artistically or not artistically: Gosh, I’ve got a lot of heroes. 

Obviously in terms of my own biography, Derek Holland, who was the teacher of the art school, whose someone I’ve written about, remains a kind of hero to me, another one is Donald Judd, an American sculptor whose work I like a lot, er, but I’d also rate, you know, Nelson Mandela quite highly, or Mahatma Ghandhi, depends on where you want to put it. In terms of politics, or .. . . I think the team that came up with the Covid vaccine, is pretty good, an extraordinary example of scientific collaboration under high pressure, and an effective result, to go from first detection of a virus in early 2020 to an effective vaccine within less than 2 years is just really outstanding. And when times like this weren’t particularly hopeful, it’s good to remember that there were collaborative efforts and they did produce results

Painters? Um, Heroes, are we talking about . . . . 

LB : Yeah, other artists who have perhaps had a great  influence on your own practice, or your decision to become an artist perhaps as well. 

RD : Well, the decision to become an artist was quite a tricky one. I, because I couldn’t actually believe that I was ever going to be it, but I also knew that I was never going to stop doing it. So actually it was .. At school, I was mostly a maths and science person, you know I liked maths, I was good at numbers, and I kind of went to art school as a way to just continue doing something that I was really enjoying and thinking that there was a way that I could delay making a decision about what I was really going to do. And I managed to delay things for about 9 years by doing first doing a foundation course and degree course, then finally a postgraduate course, with taking a couple of years off in the mean time and then gradually realising that actually I was never going to stop and that I’d better take this seriously. Not that I wasn’t taking it seriously before but that you know, I had a young family, that was quite a hard decision. But I felt that things could work out. And then if I didn’t try, I’d be disappointed. And I didn’t want to end up my life being disappointed. I think that’s what it was, a sense of thinking well, we should try. 

LB : Even despite the uncertainty of the financial aspect of how to make it work?

RD : I think it was highly irresponsible what I did. I had a young family and er, there was no guarantee that I was going to make a living, so it was kind of selfish, and it’s lucky that it worked out. 

LB : Yes, I think it was Manet that said if you have something to fall back on then you probably will, so it has to be all or nothing, 

RD: Who said that? 

LB : I think it was Manet. Was it Manet?

RD: It could be, I, I think it was someone like that. Yes, there is quite a lot of truth in that. If you have something to fall back on, you will. Yeah. 

LB : And I think, also in a sense, part of the British mentality, can almost be, we mentioned earlier, the Beatles, you kind of just go for it, embrace the alternative options, in a sense, against some of the mainstream .. 

RD: Well being sensible, isn’t necessarily the best route to creativity. It’s not necessarily the route to success either . . . . 

Our conversation continues for a little longer, chatting about our experiences of travelling in the USA and even the art scene in Los Angeles, from where Richard has just returned. Richard’s father was based in Norfolk, Virginia USA during the Cuban missile crisis and the Kennedy Assassination and Richard explained how he would listen to updates of these unfolding events on the transistor radio whilst he was boarding at Plymouth College. 

We also spoke a little about Richard’s sculpture ‘Moor’, which will be the focus of a future article.

LB : Well that’s great, thank you so much for your time Richard. 

RD: Nice meeting you! 

Richard Deacon’s website: www.richarddeacon.net

With Thanks to Justyna Niewiara for all your assistance in providing the images used in this article and film and to Phillip Buchan, Arts University Plymouth, for the images of Richard receiving his Honorary Fellowship. You can watch Richard’s acceptance speech here: https://vimeo.com/893501545?share=copy

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