On the kitchen table of Nick Crean’s rented house in Hampshire are two huge bags full of chocolates: Gin Truffles with a hint of Earl Grey, Red Velvets that taste of raspberries, and others containing Marc de Champagne. They are all in the distinctive turquoise, pink and gold boxes that have become the signature of Prestat, the company Crean co-bought 16 years ago for £70,000 and turned into a business that now has an annual turnover of £6m.
Hovering over them is the co-owner of the Sladmore gallery, Gerry Farrell, who has helped Crean build a collection of animal bronzes. “Collecting sculpture involves gut feeling, wit and humour,” says Farrell, snapping a dark-chocolate disc in two.
The two men met in London as teenagers, but re-established contact seven years ago when Farrell donated a sculpture to an auction that The October Club, of which Crean is vice-chair, held in aid of Child Bereavement UK. Since then, Crean has bought six pieces from him; four of them are in his living room, which is rich with aesthetic delicacies.
Embroidered scatter cushions lie strewn over the sofa and chairs, including some made by Crean’s friend Liza Campbell; kilims on the floor blend seamlessly with chairs upholstered in Anatolian tapestries. The walls are studded with paintings by contemporary (mostly female) artists, including Daniela Gullotta, Sarah Raphael and the hip American artist Summer Wheat. On the mantelpiece is a bronze of flamingos (£6,250) by the Italian artist Nicola Lazzari, while elsewhere are small bronze studies of a polar bear by Mark Coreth and some cartwheeling figurines by Sophie Dickens. The effect is like an Edwardian parlour or oriental boudoir, mixed with contemporary flourishes from galleries in New York and London.
“People always tell me I have no wall space, but I have never bought according to how much room there is,” says Crean. Soon he will be moving into a 17th-century manor house in Wiltshire, in which he hopes to accommodate more animal art. He has his eye on a fish (about £17,500) by Edouard Martinet, made from part of a trumpet and the fenders of an old moped. “I am also keen to set some sculpture in the garden there. Outdoor sculpture can look so different according to the time of year or time of day. When there is light playing on it, it is never inert.”
The first thing Crean bought from Farrell was a small, bronze, winged horse by Sophie Dickens – “my most exciting personal discovery,” says Farrell. Crean paid £4,500 for the horse in 2007 and Farrell estimates that it is now worth more than £7,000. “It is my most treasured piece,” says Crean. “It has such energy and movement, I’m convinced it flies around the room when I’m not here. My wife Sarah has a habit of always looking at the price tag when I find a sculpture I want to buy, so since she is very keen on horses, I thought this one would keep everyone happy.
“Sculpture can be very calming and the tactile element is important to me, too. I often find myself patting the pig while I am on the phone.” He points to a matte white bronze of a sow (£8,650) on the windowsill, by leading wildlife sculptor Nick Bibby.
Such is the success of the Sladmore gallery, which Farrell runs with Edward Horswell, son of the founder, that “I have five to 10 artists a day coming to see me”. Farrell represents around 16 sculptors in total, including Edouard Martinet who makes birds, insects, fish and frogs out of old car and bicycle parts and whose last exhibition, in November 2013, with works costing between £10,000 and £35,000, sold out in one day.
“I don’t like to think of what I sell as animal sculpture, even though a lot of it is animal based,” says Farrell. “I’m not a traditional animalier. Take that sculpture by Nic Fiddian Green, for instance.” He gesticulates towards a bronze head of a horse sipping water. “The feeling it engenders is one of tenderness, whether you like horses or not.” Crean agrees: “Yes, they weigh a ton but balance so tenderly – amazing.” Crean bought the sculpture for £17,500 two years ago and it is now worth an estimated £20,500.
“One of the advantages of bronze sculptures is they are low maintenance and actually improve by being handled,” explains Farrell. “The oil from people’s hands makes for a good patina. We also sell what we call Sladmore Wax, which takes the dust off.” Crean looks surprised: “I just use a feather duster.”
Farrell thinks the increasing popularity of bronzes is due, in part, to the new range of patinas they can now feature. “Although the process of bronze casting is thousands of years old, they are no longer the polished, dark brown statues of the past,” he says.
Foundries such as Pangolin in Gloucestershire, which casts work for Damien Hirst, Marc Quinn and a host of A-list artists, have evolved patinas of all hues: white, green, red, turquoise. “They make the sculptures look more like art,” says Farrell. “They have a much greater freedom of expression.”
Works such as the horse head by Fiddian Green that’s at Marble Arch have also fostered a new vogue for grand-scale, or what Farrell calls “landscape” sculpture – a trend reflected in the sculpture parks that have emerged alongside major international art fairs such as Frieze.
From an investment point of view, Crean’s bronzes have fared well. “Sculpture has increased pretty substantially,” says Farrell, whose gallery has a turnover 10 times what it was 20 years ago. Individual sculptures or those in limited editions of three or four, he stresses, are more likely to hold their value, which is why Martinet, who only makes one-offs, is so popular. But more broadly speaking, animals have universal appeal and, although the British constitute 60 per cent of Sladmore’s customers, other nationalities, such as the Japanese who “adore horses” or buyers from India who favour tigers and peacocks, ensure the market has a wide base and remains buoyant.
“There is something reassuring about the weight and solidity of an animal bronze,” says Farrell. “It is solid, stable, secure and timeless.”