"ASKING HOW MANY PLASTER CASTS I've made in my life is like asking how many peas one's podded in the pea factory," says Peter Hone, an artist, classical art collector and antiques dealer. "Stand still long enough and you'll be cast!"
Referred to by English interiors buffs as the "Hone museum," Hone's small but decorated-to-the-gills flat in London's Ladbroke Square—which he has occupied for half a century, recently in the company of Basil, his Jack Russell terrier—brims with hundreds of cast-plaster reproductions and the antiquities from his celebrated collection that inspired them. In his living room, Hellenic marble busts and original masks of Keats and Voltaire mingle with casts of keystones from historical building façades. Flower-shaped architectural roundels molded from purple and pink resin—another medium in which Hone likes to work—hang from the windows, catching the late-afternoon sun like stained glass.
A true tweed-clad, dog-hair-covered English eccentric, 74-year-old Hone has resurrected something of a lost art with his work. Making plaster-cast reproductions of important sculptures began in the 16th century and first became popular in the early 19th century, when few people could afford to travel to see the original works. Museums throughout Europe and America commissioned plaster and electrotype copies of monuments and sculptures so facsimiles could be exhibited and enjoyed more widely. But the practice fell out of favor in the early 20th century, when plaster reproductions came to be seen as inferior substitutes to original artworks, and many were put into storage or even destroyed.
Photos: Uncommon Masterpieces
Hone, however, believes plaster casting is a satisfying art form, not to mention a somewhat irreverent way to enjoy history. "I always liked plaster casts better than the originals," he explains. Gazing at Hone's many lily-white creations—a bust of the Roman goddess Diana; a pair of sphinx figurines modeled on the late 18th-century originals; an 18.5-inch-high cast of a panel from a Roman sarcophagus Hone used to keep on his dining room table—you begin to see his point. While authentic sculpture in one's home can feel, as Hone likes to put it, "a bit in your face and up your nose," his playful casts feel infinitely less serious when placed atop a mantle or mounted on a wall. "They're not expensive and well... they're there!" he says. "It's marvelous."
Born of modest means in Liverpool, Hone dropped out of school when he was 14. Among other professions, he's been a chef aboard the British Rail ("I wanted to be eating the bloody stuff, not cooking it!") and a custodian at several small museums in London ("The uniforms were absolutely beautiful"). In the '60s and '70s, he owned a successful antiques business in North London specializing in four-poster beds. "I sold beds to i the top people: The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the aristocracy," he says. In the late '80s he ran a garden and architectural antiques store with the philanthropist and collector Lord Jacob Rothschild, for whom he is also an art consultant. It was in this last incarnation that Hone "Honed in" (as he loves to say) on plaster casting, buying up copious amounts of an outdoor weatherproof material called Coade stone for use in the shop. He now offers many of his casts in this same water-resistant medium, though he's since taken to calling it "Hone stone."
Until recently, his two-story flat had also served as his studio. "I was so overloaded with molds I couldn't get into bed, you see," he says. Hone's friend Anthony Reeve—managing director of the popular London architectural salvage and supply company LASSCO—came to the rescue last spring, offering him a work and show space at Three Pigeons, LASSCO's branch in rural Oxfordshire. There, in a courtyard where rescued gems like old bell-tower wheels and bright-green prison doors are for sale, Hone displays his work in a tiny brick cottage that used to be a telephone repeater station. Acting as a kind of live catalog, the hut, which has been dubbed The Hone Exchange, contains a wide range of his casts, which he can reproduce in about three weeks if they are not already in stock. The shack also contains examples of his newest obsession: glowing plaster sconces and sculptural appliqués made from imprints of giant leaves Hone finds in friends' gardens. Pieces from the Exchange are available to order on the LASSCO Web site. This latest surge of exposure is sure to make Hone's revitalized relics accessible not only to a privileged few but, as plaster casts were originally meant, to everyone.
"MY AUNTIE GREW THIS TEA," says Hitomi Hosono while sipping a steaming green brew in her cluttered one-room ceramics studio in London. The discussion has drifted from the 34-year-old artist's intricate, flora-inspired sculptures to the rice farm in Japan's Gifu Prefecture where she grew up. "We had watermelons, cucumbers and pumpkins," she says, making shapes in the air with her Band-Aid–covered hands. "They were really deformed, not like what you see here in the markets, but everything tasted much richer."
The farm is also where Hosono developed her photographic memory for plants of all kinds. She creates her startlingly lifelike sculptures from detailed mental pictures of greenery from her childhood; tree leaves she observes from the window of her studio; and the flowers she finds on walks in London's Kew Gardens or in Hampstead Heath. The botanical photographs of Karl Blossfeldt also inspire her, as does the wisteria that climbs its way over many of the whitewashed houses in London. In fact, she retains so many images from so many different periods of her life that Hosono often can't remember where she saw the originals. "I'll send my mother a sketch and ask her if she knows what the flower is and she'll say, 'We have it in our garden, don't you remember?' "
Hosono's porcelain towers, bowls and boxes resemble miniature bushes of fantastical foliage, covered from top to bottom in cream, black-hued porcelain flower buds or wind-blown leaves, which she hand-carves before attaching to a vessel she's thrown on a potter's wheel. Indeed, Hosono registers details—the way a leaf curls with the breeze, the finespun pattern of a petal—with such focused intensity that the larger picture sometimes falls away. If you ask her who buys her sculptures—they sell for around $2,500 to $11,000 each—she'll tell you to speak to Adrian Sassoon, the well-known art dealer who sells her work exclusively. In turn, his office will inform you that Peter Marino Architect purchased a piece, that Jonathan Reed has taken an interest in her work and that the Victoria & Albert Museum has one of Hosono's pieces on display in its Japanese gallery.
With a BA in ceramics from the Kanazawa College of Art in Japan, a yearlong stint in Copenhagen studying ceramic design at The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts and an MA from the Royal College of Art in London, Hosono's training represents a unique blend of artistic traditions. But the biggest influence on her work, arguably, came after school, when she interned and then briefly worked in the design department at venerable English porcelain manufacturer Wedgwood. There, she experimented with a technique called sprigging, whereby thin ceramic reliefs, or 'sprigs,' are applied to the surface of teacups and traditional china as decoration. Hosono learned the technique and then applied her own brand of Miracle-Gro to it, blanketing her personal artworks with riots of flora-shaped sprigs. "They only use a few sprigs," she says of Wedgwood. "That frustrated me. I wanted to do more, to transfer a plant's infinite and complex beauty. I wanted to cover everything—overwhelmingly so."
“"I wanted to do more, to transfer a plant's infinite and complex beauty. I wanted to cover everything— overwhelmingly so."”
Hosono's larger pieces can take five months just to dry. That's not counting the month it takes to create the model of the perfect chrysanthemum bud or piece of foliage she'll use to adorn her sculptures—or the three weeks it requires to individually apply them. Hosono starts by carving 3-D models of her pencil sketches in clay or plasticine, which she then casts in dentists' plaster. This acts as the mold into which she'll pour porcelain again and again, until she has enough vegetation to cover the entire surface of the sculpture. Before each leaf or bud is placed, it has to be fine-tuned using dentists' tools that Hosono has customized with primitive-looking handles made from masking tape. This process takes another three weeks of working around the clock with few breaks. "Otherwise, with the replication, the detail can fall away. This is the core of my work, really," she says. "Each one has to be perfect."
Bouke de Vries
"WITH CERAMICS, THERE'S NO ROOM for imperfection," says Bouke de Vries, who creates beautifully broken sculptures constructed with everything from the remnants of cracked teacups to smashed Limoges figurines. "If there's the tiniest chip in a vase, its value is reduced so dramatically, but to me, it's still beautiful." This love of damaged goods is what turned this gifted restorer of ceramics into an artist with an appetite for destruction. Since he started his restoration practice in 1994—working with private collectors, dealers and clients like the National Trust in England—the Dutch-born, London-based de Vries has been more interested in picking china apart than putting it back together.
His first piece of art, made in 2008, was constructed from a shattered bisque figurine of a little Dutch boy, which he accidentally dropped while moving house. The work, consisting of floating shards held together by a delicate spine of clear Lucite, is "meant to look like it's in the process of breaking," he says. Titled Portrait of the Artist 1, at the exploding figure's center is a red glass heart. "It was an experiment, really. I had always wanted to do something art-wise, but I'd never found the right angle. Then I made a few more pieces, friends really loved them, and now, here we are!"
Since dropping that first figurine, de Vries hasn't broken any of the china he uses for his sculptures. Instead, he finds already chipped or cracked porcelain in Portobello market or salvages damaged-beyond- repair pieces given to him by his restoration clients. "The porcelain pretty much chooses me," says de Vries. In Old-Fashioned English Rose, fragments from various 18th- and 19th-century porcelain pieces are arranged atop a reinforced dried rose stem to resemble petals. No No No shows a chipped Samson porcelain figure of the Muse of Music under a glass dome, which de Vries painted and retouched in 2009 to resemble Amy Winehouse—miniature vodka bottles, vinyl records and syringe included. Dead Nature 6 is an 18th-century Worcester porcelain bowl shown in mid-collision and filled with dried fruit—a nod to 17th- and 18th-century Dutch still life paintings. This last item caught the eye of former art dealer Kay Saatchi, who not only purchased the sculpture herself but included de Vries in a group show of emerging artists at Selfridges only one year after he'd made his first piece. "I think there's a change going on where it's okay to make beautiful things again, where the actual skill of the worker is important," says de Vries. "I love conceptual art, but there was a time when it was all about ideas—which is not to say there isn't a backstory to my pieces."
“"I think there's a change going on where it's okay to make beautiful things again, where the actual skill of the worker is important."”
Indeed, the 52-year-old readily incorporates his life experiences into his work, including his time in the fashion world. Before studying ceramic conservation and restoration at the West Dean College in West Sussex, he did a postgraduate course in fashion design at London's Central Saint Martins school. After obtaining his degree in 1982, he worked for the likes of John Galliano, Zandra Rhodes and milliner Stephen Jones, with whom he recently collaborated on a mask made from tiny porcelain animals for the World Wildlife Fund charity.
Last year, de Vries was featured in three exhibitions, including a one-man show entitled "War and Pieces" at the Holburne Museum in Bath. Positioned on an antique table among centuries-old oils and bronze sculptures, de Vries's installation featured a three-foot sculpture comprised of broken 18th-, 19th- and early 20th-century Chinese, German, Dutch and English china. "I even found a little porcelain kitchen sink. So it's everything and the kitchen sink!" says de Vries, laughing.
Now, a different kind of centerpiece sits in his studio: a burnt wooden idol of the Virgin Mary. In the middle of her body is an embedded Lucite circle filled with dried orchids. These came from an arrangement that Madonna sent as a thank you to de Vries after he restored a Grayson Perry vase for her. "I call it Like a Prayer," he says mischievously. Also in his studio is Memory Urn, for which he re-created the exact shape of a damaged vase with a local glassblower. De Vries then filled the vessel with the shattered remnants of the original. "It's quite a romantic idea, really. The things I use are already broken and regarded as worthless. Some of them become more important than when they were perfect," says de Vries. "I'm trying to give them a new life." His work, it seems, is beginning to repay the favor.