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Art that ‘insists we are all one’

05 May 2017

Katy Hounsell-Robert views an exhibition at Portsmouth Cathedral

rafael klein

Underneath the arches: Osiris by Rafael Klein, in Portsmouth Cathedral

Underneath the arches: Osiris by Rafael Klein, in Portsmouth Cathedral

ON THE meadow grass in front of Portsmouth Cathedral are four subtly painted, definable but elusive figures shaped in narrow laser-cut steel, glittering in the sun and bend­ing towards one another in the wind. Titled Quartet, they are more than 280cm high and a considerable weight, but they seem fragile and, at times, almost to disappear.

Inside the cathedral reception area are three more large figures in laser-cut steel. Osiris is a huge out­line of a man containing a skeletal tree decorated with small figures running, dancing, bending, or flying on it, and giving the effect of birds perched all over the body. Shiva and Parvati, standing under a high arch, has a similar large outline with tree veins running through, but with two large “god-like” figures holding hands, and smaller figures like chil­dren dancing and floating within.

The mottled earth colours on the steel have been made to seem un­­even and natural by applying acid-etch primer, which bites into the steel and helps the alkyd resin en­­amel hold. The third shape, Family, retains its steel appearance, and all three relate to fertility, family, and nature. The ethereal quality makes them seem at home but unobtrusive.

“Sculpture seems right in the grand open spaces of a cathedral,” Rafael Klein, the sculptor, says. “This sacred refuge can remove us from practical cares and invite a consideration of matters spiritual, whatever our religious beliefs might be. . . Where better to place art which insists we are all one than a house of worship?”

For some time, Klein’s concern that people seemed to be growing more isolated from one another made him search for ways to express our natural and profound together­ness. He sculpted many pieces relating to trees in public parks and squares. He also made a special bare tree for St Christopher’s Hospice, for which people could donate money for a leaf in memory of their loved one. The tree “blossomed” and raised a million pounds.

His research has culminated in this exhibition, “Family Tree”, in­­spired by Leonardo da Vinci’s de­­scription in the 1490s of our “circu­latory system being like a tree of veins”. Like his sculptor friend Ana Maria Pacheco, he also draws inspiration from Greek myth­ology, particularly the Metamorph­oses of Ovid and Virgil’s Aeneid. Ovid describes Daphne metamorphosing gradually into a tree for protection against the advances of Apollo.

Klein observes: “Trees are social creatures. They re­­lease communic­at­ing scent, warning each other about pests, and even join their roots below the forest floor.” They have a close rela­tionship with hu­­man beings, shel­tering us and pro­viding wood for tools and homes.

Although passionate about trees, he has no desire to work in wood or even stone. Extracting the iron ore, copper, and tin out of the earth itself and transforming them by fire into steel and bronze is exciting and makes the pieces powerful and bold.

A few yards from the cathedral along the High Street is Jack House Gallery, where the exhibition cur­ated by the director, Rebecca Crow, continues in a more intimate space. Klein says: “One figure comprising many is the basis of all the sculp­tures in ‘Family Tree’,” and here is a great range of colourful prints, mostly soft browns, oranges, and greens, smaller steel sculptures and bronzes, all on the tree theme, often with the subject re­­peated in differ­ent media and on a smaller scale.

When you first look at his strik­ing Tree Man, 38cm high, painted in green and black alkyd resin enamel on mild steel, you see a tree. You look again and see a man contained in it. A similar larger piece, 89cm high, is Burnam Wood, in which the human shape is brown.

John Russell Taylor of The Times once wrote: “Klein has a rare spirit and believes in livening us up rather than dragging us down.” Several bronzes, around 17 cm high, are of groups of tree men performing a jig. The same idea is repeated in a formation of merging figures in laser-cut steel which shimmer in the sunlight and resemble filigree.

For his bronzes, he uses the an­­cient method of lost-wax casting, by making a wax model initially and covering it in clay and baking it. Under the heat, the melted wax is poured out and replaced with bronze. When the cooled clay is broken off, the sculpture is ready for patinating or painting.

A very touching patinated unique bronze is Motherhood. The figure shaped like a large log is sit­ting on the ground, with one knee bent up and the other stretched out. Perched on her knee, foot, shoulder, and breast are little figures like chil­dren.

His prints continue the theme of the relationship between the tree and human form. Kneeling (digital collograph monotype) shows a graceful female form with the tree branches and twigs delicately cover­ing and adapting to the shape of her body. Returning Home is a touching small group of tree-shaped figures in charcoal brown, muted orange, and deep green, arriving at an open doorway radiating out beams of warm, apricot-coloured light.

Daphne, who changed into a laurel tree, is repre­sented in grace­ful hand-coloured etching mono­types, where the outline of the tree shields her from Apollo. Orpheus, whose sad music created a grove of trees, is repre­sented with Eurydice, the lower inner parts of their bodies delic­­ately transformed into branches.


At Portsmouth Cathedral and Jack House Gallery (phone 023 9229 7053), 121 High Street, Portsmouth, until 19 May.



At Rochester Cathedral, in association with Francis Illes Gallery, from 1 to 25 August, and Wells Cathedral from 7 to 25 October.

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