Studio visit: Dylan Lewis

Ahead of a special sale of his work at Christie’s, one of the world’s leading contemporary sculptors shows us around his studio and the incredible sculpture park he has created in the shadow of the Stellenbosch mountains in South Africa

‘My starting point is always nature,’ explains Dylan Lewis, the Johannesburg-born sculptor whose studio is cradled by the Stellenbosch mountains. Lewis bought around seven hectares of land with views that stretch almost to the sea and over the past 10 years has remodelled the landscape by damming streams, creating hillocks and using Japanese techniques to pattern the planting.

At first glance the garden looks completely natural, but there are stepping stones in a stream and, nearby, a sort of open-ended auditorium. In the distance, against the blue and green mountains, there are huge, striking bronzes. In this beautiful garden, Lewis has also built a stone house that looks like something from Umbria. It is here that he works on the plans and drawings that precede every work.

Dylan Lewis working on a clay prototype. Artwork © Pardus Fine Art CC. Photo © Kent Andreasen

Dylan Lewis working on a clay prototype. Artwork © Pardus Fine Art CC. Photo © Kent Andreasen

On trips as a boy to the Kruger Park with his father, Robin, also a sculptor, he became fascinated with wild animals; and he has acquired something of his father’s meticulous study of the natural world. 

‘All my sculpture in one way or the other has been inspired by the natural wild places of Southern Africa, from my early bird forms to my current shamanic human figures,’ Lewis says. ‘Humans have largely tamed the wilderness, we’ve fenced out the wild lands, cut down the forests and exterminated the lions and tigers.

Dylan Lewis (b. 1964), Surveying Leopard. 25½ x 65 x 30 in (64.8 x 165 x 76.2 cm). Estimate £20,000-30,000. Offered in Dylan Lewis Shapeshifting on 10 September at Christie’s London © Pardus Fine Art CC

Dylan Lewis (b. 1964), Surveying Leopard. 25½ x 65 x 30 in (64.8 x 165 x 76.2 cm). Estimate: £20,000-30,000. Offered in Dylan Lewis: Shapeshifting on 10 September at Christie’s London © Pardus Fine Art CC

‘I believe we have so rapidly disconnected ourselves from the wild natural places in which we evolved over millennia that we are struggling to make sense of that separation. We’re disturbed, we’re in transition. My sculpture is an attempt to find the image in the emotion exploring wild untamed aspects of the human psyche.’

Below the main part of the house is the studio. It is huge: many of Lewis’s sculptures are designed for placement in the landscape, and are therefore very large. Infinite care is taken to place these works in a perfect aspect, and always with glorious mountains or sheets of bright water as a backdrop. For his castings, Lewis favours the lost-wax technique, which is very accurate but also very laborious.

Dylan Lewis (b. 1964), Male Trans-Figure VII. 79 x 25 x 34¼ in (200.7 x 63.5 x 87 cm), excluding base. Estimate £15,000-25,000. Offered in Dylan Lewis Shapeshifting on 10 September at Christie’s London © Pardus Fine Art CC

Dylan Lewis (b. 1964), Male Trans-Figure VII. 79 x 25 x 34¼ in (200.7 x 63.5 x 87 cm), excluding base. Estimate: £15,000-25,000. Offered in Dylan Lewis: Shapeshifting on 10 September at Christie’s London © Pardus Fine Art CC

Lewis’s work, which has been acquired by collectors and royalty, and features in many public collections, has become more abstract as he has grown older, though he thinks it remains recognisably his. Naturalism has been put aside; his vision has become more mystical. Some of the sculptures have no obvious heads or legs, some have masks, some have wings: the aim is to emphasise the interdependence of different species.

On 10 September, Christie’s will present Dylan Lewis: Shapeshifting, a sale comprising 60 of the artist’s outstanding animal and figurative bronze sculptures. Lewis has decided to release works from his personal collection to facilitate further expansion of the sculpture garden.

Dylan Lewis (b. 1964), Sitting Oriental Cat II. 14¼ x 20 x 4¾ in (36.3 x 50.8 x 12 cm). Estimate £2,500-4,000. Offered in Dylan Lewis Shapeshifting on 10 September at Christie’s London © Pardus Fine Art CC

Dylan Lewis (b. 1964), Sitting Oriental Cat II. 14¼ x 20 x 4¾ in (36.3 x 50.8 x 12 cm). Estimate: £2,500-4,000. Offered in Dylan Lewis: Shapeshifting on 10 September at Christie’s London © Pardus Fine Art CC

Created over the past two decades, these sculptures are the last remaining commercially available examples of each edition. The top lots of the sale are Running Cheetah Pair II  (estimate: £60,000-100,000) and Leopard Lying on Rocks  (estimate: £60,000-100,000). Estimates range from £2,000 to £100,000.

Dylan Lewis (b. 1964), Cheetah head. 19¼ x 10 x 13¼ in (50.2 x 25.4 x 33.7 cm). Estimate £6,000-10,000. Offered in Dylan Lewis Shapeshifting on 10 September at Christie’s London © Pardus Fine Art CC

Dylan Lewis (b. 1964), Cheetah head. 19¼ x 10 x 13¼ in (50.2 x 25.4 x 33.7 cm). Estimate: £6,000-10,000. Offered in Dylan Lewis: Shapeshifting on 10 September at Christie’s London © Pardus Fine Art CC

Dylan Lewis, Sitting Cheetah Pair, Edition AP3. 49 x 48 x 29 in (124.5 x 122 x 73.7 cm). Estimate £40,000-60,000. Offered in Dylan Lewis Shapeshifting on 10 September at Christie’s London © Pardus Fine Art CC. Photo © Kent Andreasen

Dylan Lewis, Sitting Cheetah Pair, Edition AP3. 49 x 48 x 29 in (124.5 x 122 x 73.7 cm). Estimate: £40,000-60,000. Offered in Dylan Lewis: Shapeshifting on 10 September at Christie’s London © Pardus Fine Art CC. Photo © Kent Andreasen

To Lewis, the cat has been both a muse and a métier, with different species reflecting different aspects of his work. ‘For me, the big cats are symbolic of wilderness,’ he says, ‘but they also hold that place within the human imagination. I’ve spent a lot of time in wilderness space tracking them, watching them, sketching them, trying to capture what it felt like to be in their presence, what it is like to be in their environments.’

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The Dylan Lewis Sculpture Garden is open to visitors, by appointment only, from Tuesday to Saturday, 9am-5pm