Combining her passion for sculpture with her love of dogs, artist Susie Hartley now takes commissions of people’s pets, creating much-loved pieces that transcend time
It’s a sad fact of life that dogs simply do not live long enough. Perhaps that is why we feel the need to capture their likeness for posterity – be it in the form of thousands of photos in our camera roll to more artistic methods of commemoration. Today, there are all types of portraits available – from oils and watercolours, to embroidered or felt creations. But have you ever considered a bronze or ceramic sculpture of your best friend?
I was blown away when I saw the work of Susie Hartley – and that was without even knowing the canine muses that inspired her. I had to find out more…
Susie studied at Canterbury College of Art for three years in the 1980s. The college had a foundry where she first learnt how to do her own bronzes. There followed three years in London, where Susie made busts of “quite a few whips and others in government”, and then a job at Glyndebourne making stage props, where she met her now husband. Family life followed, and she fell into teaching, and now she is returning to her roots – sculpture.
Susie’s figurative pieces for interior and exterior spaces continues from her studio in Lewes, East Sussex, but commissions are becoming more popular, and while a few horse’s heads have been created, dogs are by far the most commonly asked for animal.
And as a dog lover, it’s easy to see why. What perfect way of commemorating an important member of the family than with a sculpture that can continue to bask by the fireplace long after the muse has sadly departed?
Nelson, the Norfolk Terrier, above (with his characteristic way of sitting with his left leg extended), is a ceramic with a brown oxide patina.
Oscar the Manchester Terrier, below, is a bronze.
Manchester Terrier Oscar’s owner, John Chester, explains why he chose a sculpture and the process from an owner’s perspective. “Oscar was unfortunately diagnosed with terminal cancer, and in July 2020 we decided it would be a wonderful memory of him to commission a bronze sculpture.
“I met Susie and her husband, Gary. They spent about an hour taking pictures of Oscar (it helped he really liked them!), taking measurements and making sure she had all the images and dimensions she needed. Sadly, the following Tuesday, we had to have Oscar put to sleep, so the timing was very fortuitous under the circumstances.”
For Susie, capturing not just the dog’s physical appearance but also the character is important. As well as working from a series of photos and, if possible, measurements, she chats with the client about their dog’s personality. A maquette is then created before work begins on the full-size clay version.
“I visited Susie to look at the clay before it went to the foundry, just to see him ‘in the flesh’,” John says. “Susie was kind enough to ask the foundry for a video of the pouring of the cast and then, a few weeks later, the sculpture was finally ready for collection.
“My wife and I both absolutely love what Susie has created. Oscar now sits proudly in our study.”
Seeing her fabulous creations, it’s no surprise that Susie is a dog lover – and, indeed, she has sculptured her own special best friend, Ted, as a surprise Christmas present for her husband.
“Ted is a Parson Russell-Fox Terrier,” she says. “He’s a rescue dog, about four years old. We’d just lost our Border Terrier and were bereft and then heard about Ted in rescue through a friend. He’s a great character.”
The creative process was the same as for other commissions – but furtive!
“I needed to take lots of photos of his head from all angles in order to secretly model his head in clay. It was hollowed and then fired in the kiln and painted in a bronzed effect after the firing.”
Ted’s head is mounted on steel and marble and has pride of place in her sitting room.
Of course, it’s not just terriers that Susie creates – she’s produced all types of dog from Hector, a big, fluffy German Shepherd-retriever to curly coated Labradoodles and even a couple of cats.
And what of the future? Dogs will no doubt continue to feature, but Susie has another ambition.
“I’d love to do a substantial public art piece,” she says. “I do love doing larger pieces – the huge props at Glyndebourne, for example. Something adventurous – art abroad, perhaps, in a different environment.”
Get your commissions in soon, then, before Susie leaves the country!
Prices for a ceramic piece start at £450
“This black Labrador has been modelled in clay from a wide range of photos from all angles. I sent regular updates of the different making stages to the client who also came to my studio to see the sculpture in progress. When the sculpture was finished it was hollowed out and allowed to dry completely before the kiln processes. A patina (colour) was discussed and the relevant glaze applied before the final firing in the kiln.”
“The modelling process is the same for bronzes, but, on completion of the clay, the sculpture is taken to a foundry where it is cast into bronze – a process that usually takes six to eight weeks. Here is Maisie, a very loved family pet.”
All photos: Susie Hartley