I have always had an interest in figurative sculpture and anything made using the skill of the human hand. My working life for the past 38 years has involved, to a large degree, very small scale sculpture but I do like to stand and study the large pieces which can be found sited in villages, towns and cities in the relatively few countries I have been fortunate to visit. There is an obvious solidity and reassuring permanence about many of the works, transcending the generations, whether they be in stone, marble, bronze or other material. What a piece commemorates or symbolises and how they may or may not be approved of, is another matter entirely but it is the scale of work, the process, the real skills, and the mental and physical effort involved which I find fascinating - along with the thought of the number of people who must have been involved in such endeavours to create the works adorning buildings and spaces over the centuries.
On a visit to the Galleria dell’ Academia in Florence, to see Michelangelo’s statue of David, I seem to remember, in a room to one side, many other statues by various artists, several of which were unfinished and appeared to have - unless I had been in the heat for too long - distinctly disproportionate limbs. It was proof to me that not every piece of work went to plan and it demonstrated the learning. The time involved just to get to the stage of starting again was thought provoking and, knowing the ‘pain’ that sometimes comes with the realisation that a piece of work can be, to put it mildly, ‘not quite right’, slightly comforting.
I have always had a desire to create a piece which could be cast in bronze. What it might be, I have no idea - but maybe one day I’ll have the opportunity. I remember the year I left school and, having completed my exams, had a good deal of free time to devote to creating ‘things’ in the art room. I spent a good number of afternoons and lunch periods lovingly sculpting, in clay (carefully supported to keep the weight off the slender legs) a model of Red Rum, the Grand National winning racehorse at that time, with his first jockey, Brian Fletcher sitting atop. After a few weeks of being ‘lost’ in the work, I was devastated to be told that it had ‘fallen’ off a shelf in a storage room when it was almost ready for the kiln. An early lesson in acceptance of an artistic disaster and the need to ‘keep going’.
Moving on many years: What I particularly enjoy about Art, is discovering the stories behind the artist and whatever has been
created. In fact this goes for more than just art.
It was with some surprise and great interest therefore, some years ago, that I discovered that my daughters’ Grandfather’s Grandfather (are you following this ?) was a well known sculptor in the City of Bruges, Belgium. His name was Octave Rotsaert (1885-1964). It is all the more interesting to me because of my direct contact with their Grandfather, Luc Rotsaert, who has personal memories of spending time, as a young boy, with Octave and witnessing him at work in his studio.
Luc remembers Octave having a beautiful vegetable garden, where he spent time, shod in wooden clogs which he also wore in his studio - the studio being one of three places. The first was where paintings were piled high and which had an attractive chimney, the second had a glass dome under which he carried out his modelling or painting. The third area had a raised roof and glass skylight which was modified in order to accommodate the huge equestrian statue of King Albert (referred to below).
On occasion, Luc and one of his brothers, would paint and sculpt with their Grandfather, who suggested they may one day become his worthy successors. Luc remembers the cleaning of paint brushes with ‘Savon de Marseille’ and how clay models were covered with wet cloths each evening after work. Octave did not have a car and cycled on his painting trips around Bruges. On occasion, he would cycle into the City or to the coastal town of Blankenberge with the two grandsons - a beer there for Octave and a lemonade for the boys. Charming memories !
Image c. PJA Smith
Statue of King Albert I Koning-Albertpark, Bruges.
Octave was a prolific artist, gaining many high profile commissions, although he refused to organise exhibitions, preferring to see people in his workplace, where he wore his clogs. His mother tongue was Dutch, however he spoke excellent French - as many of his famous clients were French - and as Luc remembers, using a ‘rolled’ “r”, not like the burred ‘r’ in Paris. (His wife was a ‘Parisienne’).
A good number of his works can be found when walking around Bruges, both outside and inside buildings. Perhaps the most prominent work is the statue of King Albert I, seated on his horse, high on a plinth, in Koning-Albertpark, almost opposite the entrance to the railway station. King Albert I reigned through some traumatic and controversial times. The King died alone in a mountaineering accident in Eastern Belgium in 1934. The statue, which had gone through four stages of adjustment to satisfy all concerned, was unveiled in a ceremony attended by the late King Baudouin on 30th May 1954, whereupon Octave received medals of honour for his work.
On one of our visits to Bruges, we decided to search out another of Octave’s works - which cannot really be missed once located - the magnificent, life-size pair of bronze buffalo at one end of the Canada Bridge, created to celebrate the liberation of Bruges in WWII when the bridge was crossed on 12th September 1944 by the 12th Manitoba Dragoons; the buffalo being their logo.
In the grounds of St. John’s Hospital, the place where Octave Rotsaert died (now a museum), is a rather unusual and powerful piece of his work - the Pax (Peace) statue created in 1924. It depicts two monks, each resting their forehead on the other’s shoulder, greeting each other with the ‘Kiss of Peace’. Along one of the streets near the centre, can be found the bust of Maurits Sabbe (1873-1938), a Flemish Writer.
During a stay in a Blankenberge hotel, a few years ago, we were enjoying breakfast when a large, framed charcoal drawing on the wall, caught my eye. I crossed the room to see who the artist was and was astonished to see it was by Octave.
Image c. PJA Smith
One of a pair of buffalo on the Canada Bridge, Bruges.
Image c. PJA Smith
Bust of Luc as a boy.
Image c. PJA Smith
Bust of Marthe De Bernoville, Octave's Wife
Apparently, Octave, known to his grandchildren as ‘Bonpapa’, never complained about anything even when in the sanatorium with lung problems, towards the end of his life.
Sadly, although a number of photographs of his working life survive, many perished in a house fire, years ago.
I have known many people who have either visited the attractive City of Bruges or plan to go there. Maybe locating the works, if sculpture is of interest, would be a fun trail to do ?
The site below, created by another descendant, gives a lot more information and examples of Octave’s work. There is a ‘basic’ translation facility if required.
My thanks to Luc Rotsaert for his cooperation for these musings.