SOPHIE RYDER’s fascination as a child with Picasso’s sympathetic portrayals of the Minotaur later inspired her to sculpt a kindly minotaur of her own, using the mask of a bull’s head on the model of a naked male body; and the fact that her dog regularly caught hares familiarised her with the hare’s head that she uses on a female body.
Both played a serious part in mythology: the Minotaur the tragic outcome of King Minos’s disobedience to Poseidon, while the hare was sacred in the Celtic religion, and later became a Christian symbol of purity and innocence. Both appear repeatedly in her present exhibition, “Relationships”, at Salisbury Cathedral.
In the Cathedral Close, the largest hare of the exhibition kneels on the grass with her head bowed down into her folded arms, and, through the steel armature covered with galvanised wire pancakes “sewn” together, one can see a small hare inside her. Ryder’s unique working method with wire gives a more ethereal feeling to the work than her other favoured material, bronze.
Near the west door, on a slightly smaller scale, are the torsos of another lady hare and minotaur, mounted on separate plinths and facing one another on equal and affectionate terms. More lady hares can be found in maidenly groups standing in different positions in the cathedral nave, or in a forest of poles in the cloister garth, and perhaps where they relate to one another more closely, holding hands dancing on the grass in the Close.
To balance the human-animal presence, there is also an open, welcoming, galvanised-wire human hand inspired by Psalm 139: “If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even then your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” The same theme of an open hand is repeated as a wired picture on the wall of the morning chapel. Ryder also excels in making the hare’s bare feet very articulate.
Initially, there was a monumental wire sculpture of two hands clasping one another, The Kiss, even larger than the huge lady hare, but Storm Katie blew the top off, and it was removed.
The exhibition reflects great empathy between all creatures. Dogs devotedly follow lady hares, and cuddle up with the family, and horses are treated with respect. In the transept near the high altar is the only piece of white statuary marble, a six-foot-high statue, the Ryder version of Mother and Child, represented by a lady hare lovingly holding a large baby dog.
Ryder’s feelings towards her experiences guide her work. Once, she witnessed in France a shed where rabbits about to be slaughtered were shut in, and later, in Mexico, she visited the ruin of an ancient temple dedicated to 200 rabbits. To commemorate these events, she made a huge crowd of rabbits in different positions with fibreglass and iron-filings, with the title Temple to the Two Hundred Rabbits, and positioned them together in the cloister. Unaware of this story, the children throng round the rabbits as they do round the lady hares. Where the latter are concerned, they do not seem to notice the human body, and call them all “rabbits”.
In connection with the cathedral exhibition, the museum near by has reconstructed Ryder’s studio, and Sarum College is showing several sculptures, including Kneeling Lovers, on the front lawn, as well as drawings and prints. The Young Gallery is showing wire drawings and small 3D works.
The curator, Jacqueline Cresswell, who spent nearly three years shaping “Relationships” with Ryder, says that she is delighted that both adults and children are enjoying sharing this fresh and happy exhibition.
The exhibits remain in the cathedral interior until 3 July; the exterior and cloisters until 4 July; Salisbury Museum until 9 July; and Sarum College until 3 July. The Young Gallery exhibition runs until 18 June.