Twelve busy days see me flying across northern Europe in my small Jodel, to complete two sculpting commissions and scope out new ones, while working around some weather challenges

Words and photos: Mark Coreth

There are times when fate decrees that everything is required in a few frantic days. In April 2015, I had twelve days of such testing times.

I am an animalier sculptor, and I cast my work in bronze. At that time, two large and important commissions were due – a dragon was to be unveiled in Bordeaux on 30 April, then a statue of the remarkable racehorse Frankel in Newmarket soon after.

On top of that, I needed to inspect and work on a number of sculptures in the process of being cast in a foundry at Horni Kalna, in the mountains north-east of Prague.

The first of those twelve days dawns crisp and clear. I walk the dogs and feed the horses before heading to the airstrip and flying the first leg to Calais in my little Jodel D1051, G-AYLC. My target is to get to the North-East of Poland by tomorrow night.

Even though I set off in perfect conditions, the great swirl of weather across Europe is bound to give me challenges in the days to come.

The coast of France is clearly visible, as is the endless flow of shipping up, down and across the Channel. Bruges slips past to my left and before long I make out the city of Antwerp on my right, where the great animalier sculptor Rembrandt Bugatti, the brother of car maker Etore Bugatti, spent so much of his time sculpting in its zoo.

The flatness of Belgium turns even flatter and more manicured as I fly into Holland. Brussels Information shakes me alert on the radio as they hand me over to Dutch ‘Mil’ with whom I will stay as I cross an hour or so of dykes, water, windmills and those staggering fields of tulips. I reach my target for the night, Paderborn.

The next day I have five and a half hours flying to do, from Paderborn, through Germany and into Poland, to Bialystok in the North-East.

The contrast between the old East and West is still very much in evidence but the welcome on arrival could not be warmer, and here I highlight two people in particular – my friends Nick Robinson from Compton Abbas and his wonderful other half, Aleksandra Drewek. They were my travelling companions and she my interpreter for the next few days!

After a relaxing night in Bialystok, we drive down towards the primeval forests of Bialowieza. The forest covers some 370,000 acres. Made up largely of oak, lime, spruce, elder and pine, it is a time capsule thousands of years old, the remnants of a forest that would have covered much of lowland Europe. It is also one of the few places where you can see the European bison in its natural habitat.

Herd of bison

The forest within the National Park is largely left for nature to manage, so trees fall, rot and are consumed back into the ecosystem, and wildlife is extensive.

Historically, European bison lived all over the lowlands of Europe, extending through the Massif Central to what is now the Russian Federation.

The herd in the Bialowieza Forest numbers approximately 1,300. The fascination for me in sculpting these ancient beasts was tickled when I visited the ancient cave paintings in the Dordogne where you find images of bison painted some 17,000 years ago.

The artists’ understanding of the animal and its anatomy, as well as their mastery of technique, left me in awe.

Finding bison in that forest is far from guaranteed but I come by a glade where my heart jumps 1,000 feet high with delight ? there is a herd of bison nineteen-strong! I feel my excitement running wild.

The backpack studio I’ve been carrying is quickly in action, stool out, Plasticine being moulded to the wacky form of a wild European bison.

I am sitting some distance from them. They know I am here but I am well outside their flight zone so they seem content to let me play. Through my trusty Zeiss binoculars I can get near enough to see every hair on their chins!

The next morning at sunrise I am walking through the glades. It is a chilly and frosty morning, the birds are in high spirits, the mist is rising and an outstanding light is cast onto the forest beyond. The forest is awakening and life is everywhere, including evidence of wild boar digging for breakfast. And maybe twenty metres into the primeval forest stands a pair of majestic bison, the true spirit of the Bialowieza.

How this flight to Poland has fired my boilers!

Casting the dragon

I drive back to the airstrip with my bison sculpture securely packed in its box. Flying myself multiplies the excitement and sense of adventure. The flight covers an ever-changing topography, and some wild and woolly landscape.

Setting course on a four and a half hour flight to Vrchlabi in the Czech Republic, I have time to let my mind wander to the next phase of this mission.

About four years ago I was approached by Prince Robert of Luxembourg to create for him a massive dragon for his vineyard outside St Emilion in Bordeaux.

My inspiration was taken from a concoction of imagination, experiences, and wildlife encounters, all whacked into a cauldron and made to bubble. I had heard about a foundry near the town of Vrchlabi in the mountains northeast of Prague, so it was here that I decided to cast the dragon.

I cruise on towards the South-West with Krakow in the distance to my left. I last flew through this airspace a couple of years ago as I was heading down to the Crimea. The Czech Republic is a country surrounded by tall mountains. I look down on some spectacular ski slopes, which can give the Alps a run for their money.

Over the past eighteen months I have flown to Vrchlabi a good few times in my Jodel to inspect the dragon at its various stages of casting.

This time, I shall be seeing it complete and ready to be loaded onto a trailer for its long journey to Bordeaux. The cast was far from easy as, within the body and through the wings, the foundry had to make an exceptionally strong frame from stainless steel.

Each wing weighs about 400 kilos and his body nearer 1,200 kilos, but between us we produced a dragon that seems full of life as it settles onto its plinth.

Later on, I am munching a meal of the ubiquitous dumplings and rabbit stew, washed down by a delicious cold beer.

Ghastly weather

The flat’s wifi however reveals a small problem ahead. My route to Bordeaux takes me south-west to Bremgarten on the Swiss/French/German border, but Runway HD on my iPad shows the most ghastly weather pushing its way up through France.

It is due to sit solidly barring my way from tomorrow evening through until Tuesday, the day the dragon is to be put on its plinth.

They do say you must never mix light aviation with important business matters! So what to do? I lay my charts on the floor and try to plot the progress of this weather front. I decide to do a right flanking attack on the weather. This involves an early departure and a flight to Hilversum, a lovely grass airfield near Amsterdam.

The next morning, however, with the dragon loaded, my hope for an early escape is thwarted by fog glued firmly to the mountains. There is little to do in these circumstances other than sit it out and hope the sun will burn it away enough for me to escape,

And indeed it does, in a manner of speaking!

Meanwhile, the dragon can trundle quietly by road, and with luck I will see it again in a couple of days’ time in Bordeaux.

I set off to Hilversum passing Dresden, the Möhne Dam and the huge Ruhr industrial area around Düsseldorf and Essen. The next day finds me once again over the tulip fields in strikingly clear skies, but half of France is under vile weather so I decide to stick to the coast and fly down past Le Havre and along the Normandy beaches and then to St Junien.

Tomorrow I have a mere forty minutes to fly on to Bordeaux, where I shall be staying at Château Haut-Brion with Prince Robert of Luxembourg.

Should you be lucky enough to stay as a guest at Haut-Brion, you will encounter not only utterly delicious eating, but some of Bordeaux’s very best wines, from Château Laville Haut-Brion 1974 to Le Dragon de Quintus 2011.

The sense of relief at seeing the foundry crews with their cargo of dragon appear at Château Quintus has put a smile on my face. The dragon is lifted high over the trees and lowered into place on its plinth.

The faces of the four-man foundry crew are giving me an ever-changing array of concentration, frowns, concern, smiles, delight, relief and finally hilarious guffaws of laughter and satisfaction.

The guardian of Château Quintus is in place. What a lovely thing it is when an ambitious project comes together in a glorious conclusion!

Quintus has been unveiled and speeches made, to great delight. I feel sure he will become a prominent feature, hopefully a draw for local people and tourists alike.

He stands on the Pilgrim Route to Santiago de Compostela so, with any luck, he will bring a smile to the face of the weary wanderer.

Next mission

With the Quintus mission accomplished, it should now be time to draw stumps and go horizontal for a day or two ? but think again.

The dash is now on to get back to the airstrip and head north for the next sculptural mission ? the unveiling of another a life-size sculpture of one of the greatest ever race horses, Frankel.

The first copy is due to be unveiled on 2 May at the stud in Newmarket. The dilemma now is that the weather’s nose is plainly out of joint after I succeeded in right flanking it a day or two back, and has decided to try again to thwart me!

My aim is to fly as rapidly as my wee Jodel will carry me, via Troyes to the south-east of Paris. But the weather wins. My hopes for a run to Calais or Le Touquet are dashed and my worries over the chances of getting to Newmarket grow, but at least there is a hotel and a glass of something ahead – albeit sadly not from Château Haut-Brion.

Wifi to the rescue again and phew, my guardian angel seems wired up and firmly on my side as the plinth for the first Frankel unveiling is not quite ready and so the unveiling is postponed!

But what about Frankel? I might just as well talk about the commission as I sure as hell cannot fly… hmm, I could be here for a bit. Une verre de vin blanc s’il vous plait!

Being an animalier sculptor as opposed to, more specifically, an equine sculptor, I had a challenge ahead with Frankel.

My forte is in catching movement and life in a slightly impressionistic manner. The commission for Frankel was for a life-size horse standing foursquare as if being displayed at the stud.

To create the horse at full stretch would, in many respects, have been considerably easier for my style and I would have been able to use artistic licence in bucketloads.

However, the static horse brings on different challenges. One way or another, I needed to ensure the sculpture of Frankel was alive in the look in his eye, the holding of his head and in the tension within his body.

I needed yet again to take inspiration from Bugatti, whose zoo animals were so static and yet so alive. The trick was to find a point in the distance that caught the horse’s attention within the confines of a stallion standing correctly.

Visiting Frankel

As flying today is off the cards, I am settling down to a large and delicious glass of Leffe beer. Staring forlornly out of the window, I feel relieved the unveiling has been postponed.

I cast my mind back to those early days of visiting Frankel at Banstead Manor Stud in Newmarket. I shall never forget my first impressions of such an extraordinary horse.

His racing days were over but he was embarking on his new career as a stallion. Here was an animal that had achieved so much in such a short space of time and who held the hopes of the racing world on tenterhooks in anticipation of his success as a stallion.

I took measurements and profiles as well as getting photographs from every angle. One visit to Frankel was not enough. If anything, that first visit threw up a raft of questions, further measurements needed and, most importantly, more familiarity with the horse. I therefore visited the stud on several occasions in the months to come.

Sculpting a life-size horse is far from a doddle. I had to create a portrait, catching his character and the twinkle in his eye. On seeing the finished clay, the Juddmonte inspection team, to my immense relief, gave me the A grade I was hoping for, and the authority to whistle for the foundry.

A sculpture this size is too difficult to transport without the risk of severe damage, so the foundry came to my studio to create the moulds.

Soon Frankel turned pink as rubber was applied and finally he was lost into a shell of fibreglass. The moulds completed and removed saw the end of one important phase of creating this bronze statue.

It was now up to the foundry to complete the alchemy. When I flew up there, which is conveniently close to Blackbushe, the first sight of the bronze filled me with delight and relief as I felt sure the team at Juddmonte and his owner Prince Khalid Abdulla would approve.

Lighter horizon

Later, weather check and bed. I fear flying tomorrow looks a little dubious. I think the rain will have moved on, but the fly in the ointment may be fog, and by lunchtime tomorrow another weather front will be dumping more rain on Troyes. Unless I can escape beforehand I shall be getting to know Troyes rather too well.

The following day, fog dominates but then that little glimmer of hope, a lighter horizon, appears as it thins and the cloudbase lifts.

At 11 o’clock, life-jacket donned for the Channel crossing and my seatbelt tightened, I fire up and sneak out before the rain, flying between the numerous wind turbines and over the forest, heading towards Calais.

It is 2 May, the day the unveiling of Frankel was due to take place at Newmarket, and for my own satisfaction alone I can tell myself I would have made it on time. At least I can now fly without added pressure! I can now get back to those home fires, after twelve wonderful days of adventure for the Coreth Flying Sculpture Service.

The Frankel sculpture was eventually unveiled by the Queen at Royal Ascot on Tuesday, 16 June. I held my breath as she pulled the veil. She was delighted. I could breathe again as the Tower of London was not for me that night!

So after all those adventures, where to next? Bears in Romania!


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