Frances Segelman: Celebrity, Sculpture & Common Sense
These days art is all NTF controversy and 3D exhibitions. Virtual reality galleries and mind- controlled installation; A. I. assisted curators, neo-hybrid movements, sound generative sculpture. I’ve been given to understand that this is all extremely exciting. The future is here and it’s dying to plug me in.
But I’m a classic girl, and I like to imbibe my art in the physical realm. A stroll around a gallery is always good, but occasionally something truly special materialises. And to make the ultra-modern amongst us feel connected, I could even use trendy museum-speak and describe it as ‘interactive’ and ‘multi-sensory’. That’s if I was trying to be terribly clever. But what it boils down to is this: I like a nice sense of occasion.
Such an evening of art and music was to be had last year, hosted at the restored Garrison Chapel. Attendees were treated to the mellifluous notes of the Catrin Finch Ensemble playing as they perused an eclectic exhibition of watercolours by 72 artists documenting the flora of Highgrove Gardens… hung beside bronze busts of the Royal Family.
And still, this was only a warm-up. The main event was artist Frances Segelman’s live sculpting of internationally prominent conductor, Sir Simon Rattle CBE, followed by a Q&A. And fun as the event was, it was also for the benefit of an important cause. Proceeds went to Help Musicians, a charity that has been supporting musicians for over 100 years and which has been a vital lifeline for the many whose careers were abruptly halted by the pandemic.
Frances Segelman, also known as Lady Petchey, is a self-taught sculptor known for carving celebrity subjects in-front of a crowd in just 2-hours. Her star-studded rollcall of sitters includes Dame Joanna Lumley, Boris Johnson, the Countess of Wessex, Lord Julian Fellowes, Dame Joan Collins (‘she was the hardest, because she was fidgety and because of all that hair’), and the Queen (‘my favourite ever’).
The live sculptings are always planned for the benefit of a charity, with the finished artwork donated to the organisation. They make for original fundraisers, and appeal to art-lovers and novelty-seekers alike. ‘I was teaching at a community art centre’, Frances explains how she discovered her USP, ‘and someone suggested I sculpt the vicar in front of an audience for an event. I never thought I could do it, but I did. Then I just kept going.’
‘I would invite a local celebrity to sit, and slowly it got bigger and bigger, through word of mouth. People turned out for a bit of a show. Eventually, the charities themselves started approaching me and organising big names to sit.’ By now, her reputation is such that she’s done private sessions with multiple members of the Royal Family.
‘I’ve been to plenty of lectures with sculptors who’ve said a piece might take them twenty sittings. I’ve broken that by doing mine in 2-hours.’ Frances’ busts have a recognisable aesthetic – larger-than-life, textured, built up in visible layers – but they are also recognisable likenesses. To maintain her own style while rendering a portrait is a show of singular skill.
One wonders how Frances doesn’t bottle it, but to her, working before an audience is ‘amazing’. ‘It always has to be in a crowd because there’s some sort of magic that happens. I switch off – it’s crazy that you can switch off with hundreds of people there – but I do.’
Despite her intimacy with the established status quo, it’s hard to describe Frances as a traditional Lady, ‘I’m an artist through and through’, she says. But then, she’s not a traditional artist either. She was never formally trained, for one. And while her heroes, Michelangelo and Bernini, were born in Renaissance Italy, Frances is from Leeds… less frequently the setting of artistic prodigy.
Then there’s the full-tilt glamour of her. Contrary to the image of a grubby sculptor shod in a ragged apron with clay smears on their face, Frances, in her 70s is a platinum blonde knockout. ‘I’ve always looked at artist’s lives and seen how they’ve either starved to death or god knows what. I just wanted to have a balanced life’.
I like what Frances advocates for. As a former teacher, she is articulate in explaining her philosophy. ‘I had so many people who weren’t very good at sculpture, but they learnt to be good. People don’t think to try,’ she continues. ‘I always say if people just bought a bag of clay off the internet, and moulded it, and let it set, and varnished it, and painted it, they would get so much pleasure, so much benefit, especially now with all these problems in the world.’
Sure, Frances’ is a luxurious existence; she’s wife to a millionaire philanthropist, well-connected, and maintains a studio in Wapping with striking riverside views. But don’t let these appendages obscure you from her common-sense advice that could improve the littlest of lives. She knows, as we all do, that ‘getting people off social media is a nightmare’, yet she’s unwavering in her endorsement of making things with your own hands.
Artistic behaviours have been shown to have a huge impact on mental health, and Frances’ ‘magic’ when she’s sculpting is just a state of flow, of being completely focused. ‘Flow’ lowers anxiety, boosts mood, and slows your heart rate. Repetitive creative motions, even doodling or knitting, lead to positive payback: the brain responds with the happy chemical dopamine. It’s simple really – increasing your level of joy and satisfaction is often a case of just giving things a go. ‘Put the date on whatever it is you make’, advises Frances, ‘you’ll look back and feel good every time.’ And goodness me, isn’t she someone who’s guidance is worth absorbing? I know that I, at any rate, am grateful to hear from someone with a story this successful.