The old man and the sea

On the eve of a major retrospective of his work at the Third Eye Centre, Miranda France has afternoon tea with George Wyllie, infamous ' scul?tor, philosopher and raconteur


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When I arrive at his house in Gourock, George Wyllie is banging away on an anvil like a sooty, benign Thor. What must once have been a humdrum cellar full of broken bikes and forgotten toys is now a workshop which spills into the garden. ‘Dada lives!’ is scrawled on a beam. The lawn is covered with spires Wyllie’s trade mark, they are long free-moving wooden or metal rods, weighted with a stone and supported by a tripod. ‘Please don’t think it’s always like this,’ says Daphne, Wyllie’s wife, ‘this is crisis time.’

Inside is a tea fit for an emperor. The table heaving with biscuits, scones and cakes threatens to disturb the balance of a sitting room bursting with art. It is a home under siege every space is marvellously and purposefully used. And Wyllie, with his piercing blue eyes, whispy hair and blacker than black fingers, sets it off with a mischevious air. ‘I suppose what I do is not so much fine art as Up Yours! art,’ he laughs. His conversation is littered with exclamation marks, but his logo is the question mark. When did he become a scul?tor?

‘Oh right at the beginning, because I wasn’t really sure ifwhat I was doing could be called sculpture. Fine art seemed to be about carving and bronze-casting and very traditional academic stuff and then I would wander in with a railway engine or something really daft. But it was obviously well received otherwise I’d never have got to this Jubilee situation.

Visitors to the Third Eye Centre will be reminded of some of Wyllie’s most striking projects, such as the straw locomotive a sad tribute to the lost Scottish art of locomotive-making, and the famous ‘Paper Boat’ in which Wyllie sailed into New York harbour, there to give a triumphant speech on the dangers of untempered capitalism. ‘There’s always a question mark at the centre of the things I do, and the paper boat started off as me saying, why, when we’ve built some of the best ships in the world, did we abandon that? Then, when we took it to London, I was asking why we abdicated our relationship with the sea, which is really what made Britain a great country. It’s a psychological thing, you know. People go to sea, they challenge nature, it enters their character and their character enters politics or business or whatever. I think it adds to the confidence of an island nation. Maybe that’s why Russia and the American Mid-West have so many problems.’

George Wyllie's The Straw Locomotive trom 1987

Ofcourse Wyllie used to be a sea-faring man himself, so there might be a romantic side to his theory certainly he is not political. ‘Apolitical, sure. But generally I’m for the planet and the human race. [don’t believe in the organisations which control money. It’s a kind of biblical thing, I render under to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s but that doesn’t mean I’m all for Caesar! The Bible’s got lots of good wee quotes like that.’

Wyllie’s retrospective is timely in that it marks the end of a period for him, possibly even the end of his sculpting. ‘I think I’ve got to the stock-taking age. It’s a mistake to think that, because you‘re making sculpture now you’ve always got to do that. I often thought I might start painting, but I find the direction is more towards writing.


Sometimes when I write I can be truly inspired.’

Proof ofthat inspiration hangs upstairs in the bathroom. in the shape ofa small drawing ofa tree and the words: ‘I think that I shall never see. A bathroom lovely as a tree.’

Recently Wyllie’s been reading Rimbaud. Montaigne and Voltaire. We swap reading lists and discover a shared ambition to dance tangos in Buenos Aires. Perhaps we could go in the paper boat?

George Wyllie: A Retrospective is at the Third Eye Centre. Glasgow, Sat 4—Sat25 May.

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