The world renowned sculptor Beth Cullen-Kerridge talks to Mark Kebble about life with Tom, love of Marlow, and why her mantra is to just keep going
If you are feeling a little down in the dumps, or the long, dark January days are giving you a dose of seasonal affective disorder (the appropriately monikered SAD), then spend some time in the company of Beth Cullen-Kerridge. She’s a wonderfully enthusiastic person to chat to and, from the journalist’s point of view, refreshingly frank. No forced soundbites here to shape this feature.
And yet shaping things is what Cullen-Kerridge has done for most of her life. Today she is a globally-renowned sculptor, and she says creativity has always been in her right from childhood growing up in Stoke-on-Trent. “My dad is a painter and ceramicist, and my mum was a hairdresser, so we always had this funky, bohemian lifestyle,” she says, her northern twang still very much in evidence. “There was always something going on and it was always creative. So it was always going to happen, but I fought it for a while. I thought I wanted to earn some money, so went into advertising, but I just kept edging back to fine art. I did a Foundation course at Staffordshire Polytechnic, as it was known then, and they do a bit of everything – and I just kept leaning towards sculpture.”
Cullen-Kerridge honed her talents at Liverpool’s John Moores University, before attending the Royal College of Art, which I say must have been key to her development. “No, Liverpool was best for me,” she counters, the first showing of the aforementioned frankness. “And that was because it doesn’t have a house style, it was very free and we really talked about sculpture art and why we were there, it was brilliant. At the Royal College of Art, everybody thought they were amazing and actually they weren’t, so I was a bit surprised. It was a gift in a way as there were some lovely tutors and I learnt bronze casting there, met some great people and I loved London. It was amazing, but not how I thought it would be amazing.”
London, though, was important for her development, particularly the eight years she spent working with Sir Anthony Caro. “I loved Tony,” she gushes, “he was a gent and absolutely hilarious. I remember when he took all the team to Venice, we did a big show there called The Last Judgement. We had been working on it for about three years and he took us all to Venice for a week, where we rented flats – it was like we lived there. It was just an amazing time to be with him and he was a very giving person as far as talking about things, pushing the boundaries of the intellect of it all. I learnt a lot from Tony, such as 50% of your job as an artist is talking to people and telling stories.”
It was in London, also, that she met her future husband, celebrated chef Tom Kerridge. “Tom and I have been married 21 years, so we have probably been together for about 24,” Cullen-Kerridge says. “Sometimes it feels like yesterday, and sometimes it feels like a very long time! We fit, it works. If there was too much pushing and pulling, it would feel like a long chore, but it doesn’t. It’s fun.”
It was in 2005 when the two decamped to Marlow and opened The Hand and Flowers, which became Cullen-Kerridge’s life. Sculpting was far from her thoughts. “When I was doing 90 hours at The Hand and Flowers with Tom, there were times when I could never see myself going back to it,” she says. “It was in the heart, but I could never find the time. But if there’s one thing I have learnt is to keep going. I had a little room at the back [of The Hand and Flowers] where I could do just a bit [of sculpting], and it was about having the tenacity to stick with it.”
Cullen-Kerridge recounts how numerous accountants came and went, whilst not helping them at all with their running of The Hand and Flowers – but those disasters proved inspirational for her sculpture. “Steve was a part of my Empty Suit series,” she says about one of her most popular works. “I was always disappointed how people weren’t as good as they thought they were at their jobs, so life inspired the sculpture and I just kept ticking away. I think that’s my biggest lesson, just shut up and keep going.”
As the restaurant flourished, so too did Cullen-Kerridge’s sculpting. She took her Suits collection to several exhibitions, as well as travelling to the Carrara region in Italy in 2010 to study marble carving. What she learnt led to perhaps the crowning moment of her career to date, the Dhow Sail, which stands proudly outside Dubai Opera. The 16-foot marble sculpture mimics the boat-like shape of the Opera House itself, combining the smooth curved lines and soaring contours of a traditional Emirati Dhow Sail.
“It was an amazing amount of fun,” she says on the project, which is quite the statement given the work that had to go into it – just look at photos on her website to see her on scaffolding carving away. “I was always bronze casting and welding, but I had never done something where you take it away, a reductive sculpture. The tools are the same, but it was hard to learn it – physically hard, but I don’t mind that. Working with the Italians was just awesome, they are used to doing it. I had never exported anything that big, so I learnt a lot from its sheer size. To see that go up was emotional.”
Talking about how she spends her days, I feel rather guilty when I realise I am eating into her sculpting time. Life works around their son Acey, born in 2015, taking to and picking him up from school, but Cullen-Kerridge spends afternoons in her studio underneath their house working on different private commissions. She’s also building up to staging a new show in 2022 too. “I have got a set together I am happy with, so I am in full momentum now and I am halfway through,” she says. “You always want to have your next one halfway through though before you show, because people say ‘that’s great, what are you doing next?’,” she laughs.
You get the feeling that life is good. Cullen-Kerridge waxes lyrical about Marlow, name-checking Marlow Common and Higginson Park as favourite haunts for the family, as well as another family foodie venture. “We have just opened The Butcher’s Tap & Grill, where you can cook your own steak and Acey is a big fan of steak, so we often slink off there. That has just slotted together, but I always order too much. We are very lucky to be here.” Which is just how I feel for spending some time in Beth Cullen-Kerridge’s company.
See more of Beth Cullen-Kerridge’s work at bethcullensculpture.co.uk