Conrad Shawcross on his biggest project to date: a monumental metal structure

Conrad Shawcross at his east London studio
Conrad Shawcross at his east London studio Credit: Ben Quinton

From eccentric prodigy championed by Charles Saatchi to Establishment success story, the sculptor Conrad Shawcross has come a long way… Yet though he is about to unveil his biggest project  to date, he is still a rebel at heart

Earlier this year, the British sculptor Conrad Shawcross – the youngest member of the Royal Academy of Arts – stepped on to a stage at Central Saint Martins art school in King’s Cross, and began to talk.

His dark brown hair hadn’t been brushed for the occasion, and  he was wearing a scruffy jacket with a wide, curiously old-fashioned collar. If he had been standing in an atelier in Paris at the turn of the 20th century, he wouldn’t have looked out of place.

‘Um, hello,’ he said abruptly, seeming intense, gauche and charismatic, all at once. ‘Today, I’m going to talk about the most challenging commission I’ve done to date. But probably the most rewarding.’

An artist's rendering of Conrad Shawcross's new project, 'The Optic Cloak'

Shawcross, 39, was referring to the largest public project he has ever undertaken. A few weeks after delivering his talk, he showed me around the site of the commission, on the Greenwich Peninsula in south-east London. 

In order to get close, we had to wear hard  hats and steel-toed boots. This was because Shawcross’s latest work – which is called ‘The Optic Cloak’ and will be launched on Wednesday – isn’t a sculpture, but a piece of architecture: a monumental metal structure, 160ft high, designed to conceal the flues of a new £18 million energy centre that will heat 15,000 homes and businesses.

When Greenwich’s council considered the proposal for the plant, it was faced with a conundrum. Since the plant was going to sit beside an important, traffic-choked tributary to the Blackwall Tunnel, which runs beneath the River Thames, its flues had to be tall, lest they exacerbate air quality in an area already blighted by pollution.

At the same time, Shawcross explained, the council feared that towering flues would be an eyesore – so the developer proposed boxing them in with 570 tons of steel. This bulky, ugly plan was ditched after another property developer, Knight Dragon, took over the scheme to regenerate the peninsula.

At this point, two and a half years ago, Shawcross won a competition to find an artist to transform the appearance of the flues. His innovative bid proposed surrounding them with a 4mm-thick ‘skin’ of perforated aluminium, consisting of many triangular panels  tessellated at different angles.

The idea was that the skin’s pleated surface, created by the interlocking triangles, would appear to ripple in the peripheral vision of  passing motorists. Shawcross said he was inspired by the ‘dazzle camouflage’ used on ships during the First World War, as well as the eye-bending jagged shapes found in modernist paintings by the British artist David Bomberg.

A scale model of 'The Optic Cloak' Credit: Ben Quinton

On the grey, damp April morning when I  visited – when all I could see were the criss-crossing girders of the structure’s underlying ‘skeleton’ looming, like a forlorn hoarding, over the A102 – his vision was hard to imagine.

Yet now that the final panels are being secured, in time for the official inauguration of ‘The Optic Cloak’, it does look rather  special: an astonishing, dynamic new landmark, seemingly never standing still, on the  London skyline.

‘I hope it will be successful,’ says Shawcross, who is diffident and rarely smiles. ‘It is an  awesome responsibility – and a risk, for me.  It’s been a really difficult project, a very long process. There were lots of battles.

I like difficult commissions, because they make me feel creative and alive

‘I nearly wrote a couple of emails saying, “I’m sorry,  I can’t do it, because it’s too problematic.” But I thought, “I must try to solve this.”’ He pauses. ‘I like difficult commissions, because they make me feel creative and alive.’

This is the third time I have interviewed Shawcross. I first met him in 2005, when he was a dishevelled 20-something with the  aura of a wunderkind. He was still basking  in the success of his debut solo show at the Entwistle gallery in Mayfair, in 2003: famously, the collector Charles Saatchi paid £26,000 for Shawcross’s extraordinary wooden rope machine ‘The Nervous System’.

That work was the first of what he has called his ‘misguided machines’. Back then, people often compared his early contraptions to the ridiculously over-elaborate, rickety devices drawn by the cartoonist William Heath Robinson.

'The Nervous System' (2003)

But this irritated Shawcross, because he believed that he was fabricating refined objects characterised by fastidious engineering. He wanted his sculptures to look rational – to have, as he put it,  a machine’s ‘cloak of authority’ – but to behave in a peculiar fashion.

At the time, Shawcross was still living in  a converted textiles warehouse in Dalston, east London. He was also in a relationship with  the actress and director Sophie Hunter. (They split up in 2010, and Hunter is now married  to Benedict Cumberbatch – ‘A very old friend of mine as well,’ Shawcross says.)

He was ready to move, however, into a bigger space beside Clapton Pond in Hackney, a couple of miles away to the north-east.

'Timepiece' (2013), an installation at north London's Roundhouse

He drove me there in his battered black  Ford Capri, which he had picked up for £200 in 1999, when he was a student at The Ruskin School of Art in Oxford, and subsequently  customised by attaching a metal ‘superstructure’, bristling with fishing rods, to the roof.

The car, he explained, was a whimsical artwork in its own right – a prop in the ongoing fiction in which his alter ego, Bruce Springshaw, drove around Hackney on behalf of an organisation called the IBLS (‘Investigative Bureau into the Location of the Soul’), attempting ‘to catch the human soul by fishing upwards into the sky’.

We pulled up in front of the entrance to his new home. Built in 1899 as a stable for workhorses pulling trams, it was transformed into  a taxidermist’s factory during the 1930s.

Shawcross extended his studio to create a living space for his family above the workshop Credit: Ben Quinton

‘It was a big business, and the attic was filled to the brim with animal horns,’ Shawcross told me excitedly. ‘They used to flay tigers down here, and elephants. I hope it’s not haunted.’

Eight years later, in 2013, I visited Shawcross again in Clapton. The Ford Capri had gone – ‘I think it was stolen by a scrap-metal merchant and crushed,’ he told me – but the shabby, dilapidated textures of the building were still visible.

A crew of 15 assistants finessed the metal parts of ‘Timepiece’, an enormous, and spectacular, installation involving robotic arms and 1,000-watt light bulbs.

'The Dappled Light of the Sun' in the courtyard of the Royal Academy last year

It was eventually suspended from the ceiling of the Roundhouse in north London, transforming the venue into a gigantic, graceful sundial.

Shawcross seemed less head-in-the-clouds than in the past: his days catching souls as Bruce Springshaw appeared to be behind  him. Moreover, he no longer built everything himself. ‘I do have the skills,’ he told me, ‘but I’m out of practise. I have to be the overseer of these projects – like a film director.’

As he spoke, he wore the thoughtful, distracted expression of a foreman grappling with countless issues and concerns. What I didn’t realise then was that Shawcross was in the middle of the most demanding period of his life.

Shawcross with his wife, Carolina Mazzolari, last year Credit: Rex Features

Later that year he married Italian textile designer and filmmaker Carolina Mazzolari, the daughter of a perfumer from Milan. Upon becoming stepfather to Mazzolari’s two children, he felt he had to provide them with a proper home in London.

At the time, though, he couldn’t afford a town house on his street in Clapton. So he decided to extend his studio. He wanted his family to live comfortably on the premises, while the refitted workshop downstairs had to accommodate substantial new sculptures, up to 30ft tall.

On top of this, Mazzolari was soon expecting a third child: their son, Hartley Bruce Cy,  who is now two years old.

I’d made this promise to provide a house, and I was in trouble. But I was very stubborn about it, and I didn’t want to go to anyone for help

For a while, then, Shawcross was contending with everything life could chuck at him: marriage, children,  a mammoth building project – and, of course, the day-to-day graft of ensuring that his studio remained productive.

When he won the commission for ‘The Optic Cloak’, he was actually based in Italy, where Mazzolari was heavily pregnant, while his  studio in Clapton was ripped apart – something he didn’t reveal as he flew in for weekly meetings about the Greenwich project.

‘We were about to have the baby in Italy,’ he recalls. ‘It was intense.’ A week after Hartley was born, Shawcross moved his family to London, into a rented ‘shoebox flat without a proper kitchen’ next door to the studio, while work on it continued. ‘I was here every day, immersed in a building site.’

The USS West Mahomet, 1918 - an example of the 'dazzle camouflage' used on ships during the First World War Credit: Courtesy US Naval Historical and Heritage Command

Today, he is relaxed (‘I’ve come out the other side,’ he says), but the past couple of years have been stressful. ‘I was very naive about how long it would take and how much it would  cost,’ he says.

‘This time last year, my back  was against the wall financially. I’d run out of money on a project, had to remortgage, and spent it not on the building but on “The Dappled Light of the Sun”.’

He is referring to an installation of five  steel ‘clouds’, constructed from thousands of branching tetrahedrons, which occupied the Royal Academy’s courtyard last summer.

 Shawcross's sketch of sub-panels for The Optic Cloak Credit: courtesy of Conrad Shawcross and Victoria Miro

‘It was like: I’ve got to gamble,’ he continues. ‘I’d made this promise to provide a house, and  I was in trouble. But I was very stubborn about it, and I didn’t want to go to anyone for help.  I had to do it myself. And I’m very pleased to say that it paid off.’

Not half. Outside, above the threshold, a  cornerstone is emblazoned with the acronym ‘CSS’ (‘Conrad Shawcross Studio’). Inside, the floor is a parquet of steel triangles, like offcuts from his imagination.

A hefty staircase of old oak railway sleepers leads up to the living  area, which is decorated with pictures by  Paula Rego and Prunella Clough, as well as maquettes by Shawcross resembling rare pieces of coral.

Conrad Shawcross and the making of The Optic Cloak Conrad Shawcross and the making of The Optic Cloak
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Video credit: Pentagram Courtesy: Greenwich Peninsula

A trapeze hangs from the rafters in the sitting room. ‘I had a hiatus for a couple of years,’ says Shawcross, who used to keep fit by training as a trapeze artist – and even performed occasionally as the ‘Lead Butterfly’.

‘But I’ve started again recently, and I haven’t lost it.’ He pauses. ‘Actually, I’m training Hartley.’

Everything feels beautifully appointed, but also far removed from the elegant squalor of his digs in Dalston. With his 40th birthday fast approaching, perhaps that’s not surprising: after all, Shawcross now employs four members of staff full-time, and has undertaken commissions for The National Gallery, the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Opera House.

The prodigy has hit maturity. Still, with so much success, hasn’t he left  the bohemian ‘Bruce’ behind?

Shawcross  bristles. ‘“Establishment” is a difficult word for an artist,’ he says, ‘because it feels like you are  toeing some sort of line. I hope that my work isn’t partisan to anything, and that I am still fuelled by enthusiasm and excitement.’ He smiles. ‘I can still go to bars and behave badly and get away with it.’

If he is associated with the Establishment, though, that is in part a by-product of his  background. After all, he named Hartley in honour of his grandfather, who was the lead British prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials.

I’ve started trapeze again recently, and I haven’t lost it. Actually, I’m training Hartley

His parents, meanwhile, are the writer William Shawcross, author of the official biography of the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and the mythographer and cultural historian Marina Warner.

They divorced three years after Shawcross was born. He grew up in Kentish Town, north London, where he was introduced to art by his step-father, the painter Johnny Dewe Mathews, whom Warner married in 1981.

‘He taught me to draw,’ Shawcross recalls. ‘When I went into his studio, I loved the smell of it, the atmosphere. It had a big influence on me.’

In a newspaper article in 2005, Warner described her son as both ‘glamorous’ and ‘serious’. How does he see himself? ‘I think  I’m pretty scruffy and dishevelled,’ he says.  He points to a picture of Bruce Springshaw standing in front of a pyramid in the desert  like a heroic explorer, propped up beside a  desk in his new office.

‘I haven’t hung it yet,  but he’s going to be in pride of place on that wall,’ Shawcross continues, with a steely smile. ‘Bruce isn’t hiding. I haven’t lost my sense of self.’

The Optic Cloak launches on Wednesday