The sculptor has developed a distinctive style that embraces the natural world along with his own sense of quirky fun. Andrew Clarke met up with him in a larger-than-life encounter 


Arriving at Paul Richardson’s sculpture workshop in north Suffolk is rather like following Alice into Wonderland.  

The directions I was given to get to Paul’s stainless steel kingdom add to my sense of discombobulation and could easily have been from Lewis Carroll’s masterwork: “Follow the road out of Leiston, turn left at the large stainless steel cowboy, follow the road down the steep slope and park by the Sioux warrior (complete with headdress and bow and arrow) emerging from the trees.” 

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Stepping out of the car the first thing I see is a rather large fish – either a goldfish or a carp – raised up off the ground, appearing to swim along the terrace outside the house. 

The pebbled front garden is filled with giant, steel sycamore leaves, and a couple of beautiful leaf-like spheres – both objects defined by beautifully realised skeletal structures. 

No-one appears to be about. A knock at the door goes unanswered, but there is the sound of grinding emerging from a workshop situated at the opposite end of the garden. I head towards the noise, passing a shiny, 10ft tall Mariachi guitar player with a giant sombrero half-masking a grinning skull face, and clusters of steel thistles and smaller leaf spheres. 

On top of the office doorway, an out-sized Monopoly battleship perches on a narrow sill. A relic of a previous commission, it sits aloft in an aerial dry dock, a reminder of past triumphs. Inside the office Catherine Richardson, Paul’s wife (an artist in her own right) sees me approach and opens the door. 

“Sorry I missed you arrive,” she apologises, “I was just trying to sort out the paperwork that will allow us to ship some of our sycamore leaves and a couple of leaf spheres to a villa in Ibiza.” 

It turns out that making the sculptures and crating them up is the least of their concerns these days. Post-Brexit and post-pandemic, the greatest hurdle to sculpture delivery is the admin– particularly in Europe. 

Seizing on my arrival as an excellent excuse to leave her shipping manifests for a little bit longer, we go into the workshop where Paul is building a giant-sized swan. The head, neck and body are complete – as we enter, he is attaching the beginnings of what will become outstretched wings to the body. 

“You’ve heard of a bear hug, this will be a swan hug,” he laughs. He wants people who see the finished sculpture to have the feeling that the giant bird is reading out to embrace them rather than fight them off. 

Paul is busily realising some new creations for two big showcase events which are looming on the horizon – the annual Art for Cure show which, this year is taking place at Helmingham Hall (April 29-May 1) and Chelsea Flower Show (May 22-27) . These have to be balanced with filling commissions and orders which arise out of previous events like these. 

“The pandemic changed the whole nature of the business. Prior to lockdown most of our work was for public open spaces commissioned by councils or by trusts and funds. Since the lockdown and the arrival of the cost-of-living crisis, money has been rather tight in the public sector, so now we are working on private commissions, and these arrive either through personal recommendations or from being at shows like Chelsea. 

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Happily, the order book is full, but this in itself provides Paul with an additional problem – finding the time to come up with new ideas and to experiment with new creations – which is why he is currently so happy playing around with his large undulating fish and huggable swan. 

“I have to confess that last year I felt a little bit flat. I lost some of my zest for my work because I felt I was just retreading old ground, turning out copies of things I had done before, just to work through the order book. 

“In creating these new figures, I have rediscovered my mojo, as they say. Things are fun again, and my resolution for this year is to make time to create new work – find time to experiment – have a play while keeping the orders ticking over.” 

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The last words have barely left Paul’s mouth when I can see in his eyes that he has had an idea. “Do you want to see my giant mushroom-bonsai tree?” How could I refuse? 

Once again we are in Paul Richardson’s own private Wonderland. We weave our way through a small patch of woodland – home of the native American warrior I saw earlier – and there in an adjacent field is a giant-sized bonsai, towering over me, its truck all twisted and contorted like the Japanese original, but this one would put a 10-year oak to shame. 

The real shock comes when I cast my eyes upwards into the day’s clear blue sky. Hovering over me are a half-dozen mushroom-like flowers that resemble a cross between a large breakfast mushroom, a sophisticated multi-bladed engine fan or a ballet tutu. 

In fact it could be described as a mushroom-bonsai drone. Paul’s eyes light up over my appreciative wonderment – it’s exactly the reaction he had been hoping for. 

“We could barely get it out of the workshop,” he says. “It was almost touching the ceiling when we were building it, but as soon as you place it in nature, the size seems to diminish because it takes its place in the landscape.” 

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Paul has made his name creating quirky sculptures which not only bring a smile to your face but also require you to take at least two or three looks to take in everything that is going on. He’s a man who loves detail. For example, during the initial build for his new swan, time was taken and opinion sought to make sure that he got the tilt of the head just right to bring the elegant bird to life. 

“It’s important that they have a life of their own – that they interact with the people who see them – they have to appear animated.” 

His pair of ballroom dancers still cheer up patients at Ipswich Hospital as they foxtrot across a quadrangle, and his fly-swat-waving General raises a smile for anyone waiting at the Major’s Corner bus stop in Ipswich, or those heading to the Regent. 

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In addition to his Day of the Dead Mariachi and his Roy Rogers-like steel cowboy, Paul has created such memorable figures as a full-sized winged Pegasus, an earnest looking butler, and a pair of golden geezers adorned with chunky jewellery, puffing on fat cigars. 

Paul’s love of animated characters comes from his background in design and his years studying painting at university. His individual style always embraced a satirical sense of humour. Even while he was a painter he found himself making sculptural elements which were incorporated into or onto the canvas. 

It wasn’t long before his paintings came with three dimensional moving parts as additional extras, and his move to the sculpture department had begun. 

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It was after college though, with a studio in the old Birds Custard Factory in Birmingham, that Paul really discovered metal. In the huge disused factory he found steel sheets, bought a welder and started to play. The rest, as they say, is history. 

Just before the arrival of the pandemic, Paul’s focus started to shift away from human characters and started to explore the natural world. 

He says that his interest in the physical depiction of nature’s natural cycle of death, decay and rebirth came about while wandering in the woods and taking a look at the leaf litter scattered over the woodland floor. 

As a result, the meticulously crafted decayed leaves, sycamore seed pods that I saw on my arrival started leaving his workshop, closely followed by his Filigree Fire Basket with its intricate, weaving pattern creating a network of delicate veins which can safely hold its flaming contents, while allowing complex shadows to lick around it, creating fascinating shapes. 

As we return to his workshop we take a short detour to have a close look at one of his giant leaves, and again I am dazzled by the detail he incorporates into his work. Standing alongside his drive a collection of leaves, thistles and leaf spheres form an impressive sculpture garden. 

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Positioned close to the house an out-sized steel replica of a half-desiccated leaf stands contorted by the process of decay. A network of threads and capillaries weave their way across the surface which is now only half there. The somewhat sturdier stalk, curled by the drying out process, now forms a stand to carry the weight of the sculpture. 

Catherine rejoins us and explains these pieces will soon form the basis of their Chelsea show garden, while the fish and swan will be heading to Helmingham Hall’s Art for Cure. 

As we sip our tea Paul explains that creating this seemingly fragile work has taken him back to his roots as a painter. “The challenge is always how to breathe life into the empty spaces. The design is as much about the large empty areas as it is about the areas filled with metal. 

“I used to teach drawing years ago in the Midlands and I always set my students a task which did their heads in. I used to say ‘Okay, today we are going to draw the empty spaces’ because I knew that what wasn’t there was just as important as the things that were. 

“With any work of art, it’s more about what you leave out rather than what you put in.” 

As I take my leave I ask what are his plans for the year ahead. He smiles and says: “I’d like time to think and I’ll keep looking at the world around me. I want to discover more interesting shapes and ideas.  

“I also want to work more closely with Catherine not in the office but on artistic ideas. We learn from one another, looking at line and drawing. It’s creating a still life in 3D and then adding something a little extra – that’s where the magic lies.”