Interview with Peter Stanbury

This three-part interview with Errol was conducted by Mr Peter Stanbury, OAM, PhD.

Errol’s early life is discussed, as well as his influences and his life as a sculptor. It was conducted on 14th May 1998 in Errol’s Sydney home. The interview was recorded on micro-cassette tape, and was originally intended to be followed up by a final fourth part.

Thank you very much to Mr Stanbury for his kind permission to reproduce the interview here.

Interview Part 1, Duration: 28 minutes

  • The various media Errol has worked in and his current preference for metal.
  • Early life and education. Errol worked in wood, even as a small child. An early memory is making a railway engine out of metal and wood. Also attracted by the forms of fish and birds.
  • Gained a place at the University of Sydney, where he studied engineering.
  • Errol discusses his early fascination with mathematical shapes and curves.
  • Gradated and became Assistant Engineer at a manufacturing company.
  • Life and work in London. Went to England in 1950, worked as an engineer, stayed for five years.
  • Exciting times as London prepared for the Festival of Britain on the South Bank in 1951.
  • Encountered a lot of sculpture there, eg. Henry Moore, Barabara Hepworth, Lynn Chadwick. Sculpture gardens in Battersea Park and Holland Park.
  • Early sculptures. As a newlywed, lived in a two-room flat in Notting Hill Gate, Kensington, where he made small sculptures out of wax, clay and plaster. Including portrait work of his pregnant wife, and later, his newborn son, works which Errol would never part with.
  • Where Errol worked, they had a workshop where they made copper and aluminium components – Errol was permitted to use the metal scraps and the tools.
  • One small copper work (originally called “Triangle & Circle”, but now “Quartette”) was entered into the 1953 exhibition ‘Artists From the Commonwealth’ and was received well.
  • Joined sculpture course at Regent Street Polytechnic, studied wood carving.
  • An early work, a ribbon of welded aluminium fashioned into a sculpture, inspired by Errol’s love of mathematical shapes, was sold in London. Its design inspired many later sculptures, known as the “Southern Cross” series.
  • Returned to Australia in 1955, worked as an engineer.
  • Modelmaking. Bought a block of land in Turramurra and made a model of the house he had designed for it. As no one else was doing that at the time, that model led to a three-decade career in architectural scale modelmaking. Quickly gained clients and trained others to make models as well.
  • Made models of most of Sydney’s buildings in the 1960s. Also models of Canberra’s buildings for the National Capital Development Commission (eg. the National Library of Australia). Relief maps. Trains for South African Railways, Clyde Engineering and Commonwealth Engineering. Tug boats. Planes.
  • In between models, Errol was still sculpting at this time, and he still has those small works. Working in plastics and driftwood.
  • Developed a technique for relief maps whereby only two sheets of plywood/plastic were required, with alternate contours being cut out of each sheet.
  • Inspired by the contours of the relief maps, Errol started to develop sculptures using this technique, which were cast in bronze [and in aluminium; and which also later inspired his laser-cut stainless steel works].
  • Built a factory in Whiting Street, Artarmon, where most of the models were made by his firm, Errol B. Davis and Associates.

Interview Part 2, Duration: 28 minutes

  • Model of Ancient Rome for the Australian National University (1976).
  • Model of Macquarie University’s campus.
  • Contour maps eg. south-western Tasmania for the Hydro-Electric Commission.
  • Model of Sydney CBD (1960s).
  • Sculptures inspired by curves in nature, eg. by fruit, fish, birds.
  • Worked in metal, wood, stone in the 1960s and 1970s.
  • How building a business is like making a sculpture; in fact, how all creativity is like a piece of sculpture.
  • Bronze contour sculptures (late 1970s – early 1980s).
  • Stainless steel sculptures with ‘exploded’ contours (1980s).
  • CNC laser cutting technique for stainless steel sculptures.
  • TIG welding technique.
  • “Kakadu” and “Jabiru” series of stainless steel works.
  • Late 1970s – beaten copper and silver jewellery.
  • 1970s – Art Protis wool tapestries.
  • 1980s – the use of new types of epoxy resins, “lyrical, flowing work” (abstract forms influenced by leaves and the female form).
  • Colours of metal – copper alloys, stainless steel, nickel, bronze.
  • Small-medium sized bronze shell-form sculptures.
  • “Nona” sculpture – so called because it can stand on a table in nine different positions.
  • “Dream Dancer” – female torso / dancing leaf-like form.
  • Mid-late 1990s – miniature human forms made from plastic resin, constructed on a metal armature (these were later cast in bronze editions around 1999-2000 in time for the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games).
  • Back in the 1970s, worked on similar miniature figurines, but using solder rather than plastic.

Interview Part 3, Duration: 23 minutes

  • 1940s, wartime, teenage years.
  • Errol shows Peter his box containing models of war ships and tanks. The ships were carved from wood, complete with guns, cranes, rigging, portholes and crew. There were no kits in those days so Errol made these by referring to published plans in library books like Janes Fighting Ships. Errol made hundreds of them in his teenage years. They included the HMAS Canberra, the HMAS Australia, the HMAS Melbourne, the HMS Ark Royal and the HMS Furious (British aircraft carriers), and the HMS Hood (British battlecruiser).
  • de Havilland Express four-engined biplane – rigging and cables were made from split bamboo, as thin as very fine fuse-wire, carefully attached with Tarzan’s Grip.
  • Handley Page Halifax, British four-engined bomber, camouflaged.
  • A series of army guns, a tank, a couple of searchlights – thumbnail sized, with personnel about 1cm high, carved from wood.
  • Note: the silver Catalina flying boat is a model purchased by Errol, they were very common sight & sound in Rose Bay at the time
  • Errol’s father made him very fine knives from ground & sharpened hacksaw blades, set into wooden handles.
  • Errol’s father did an apprenticeship in boot & shoe making and worked as a manufacturer’s agent. He used public transport as he didn’t own a car. He was in both wars.
  • Another box contains more planes and warships.
  • As there was no radar until the very end of WWII, the Volunteer Air Observers Corps was formed, with members trained to recognise enemy aircraft. It was organised by Sydney Consolidated Press, and Errol was asked to join and make scale models. Artist Lloyd Rees was also involved. They were given the material to make models of every aircraft. One of the VAOC outposts was the penthouse of the Astor Flats in Macquarie Street, Sydney, where they were hung from the ceiling. People were taught there how to recognise enemy aircraft. Towards the end of the war, plastic and metal models became available. The models were 172nd scale (6 feet to the inch) so a fighter plane model was about 6 inches long and a bomber was about a foot.
  • Errol shows Peter a tiny four-engined aircraft (about 3cm long) that he’d originally mounted on a small piece of carved perspex that he also shows him separately. Subsequently, that tiny mount became a sculpture in itself, sans the aircraft.
  • Errol describes another mount, made of wood, which was slightly bigger (and which he still has). He took it to England and was inspired to make a larger wooden version, about 150-200mm, which he had cast in aluminium by Fitzroy Iron Foundry, and incorporated some cut perspex. Peter comments that its shape is reminiscent of the 1950s ‘Festival of Britain type of shape’.
  • Errol’s very first pure sculpture was carved out of wood, finished and painted to look like aluminium. Like a sculpted mushroom shape, it was small enough that two or three of such would fit into one’s hand. It was made before he went to England and Errol still has it, though it wasn’t to hand to show Peter at the time. It remains unnamed. Later on he developed it into a larger scale. If made in a much larger scale in coloured plastic, it could even have been used as a children’s slippery dip.
  • Errol used to carve animals, birds and fish out of acrylic toothbrush handles. The originals don’t exist anymore, but some of the animals were later cast in silver using the lost wax (or in this case, ‘lost toothbrush handle’) process, and are on a chain belonging to his wife. [Note: Errol’s brother later recalled how Errol would also carve flowers out of toothbrush handles to give to his girlfriends when he was a teenager.]
  • Errol went to England on the SS Strathnaver in 1950. Peter recalls that he came to Australia on the same ship in 1952.
  • Errol returned to Australia on the SS Orcades in 1951 after his father died in April, a four-week trip.
  • To return to England in 1952, Errol got a job as 3rd cook on the Orontes, a six-week trip.
  • Peter recalls how Notting Hill Gate became known in those days as “Kangaroo Valley” as there were so many Australians there.
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