Hamish Mackie's new Arctic Tern

by Roxtons

Hamish Mackie’s latest sculpture captures the essence of the Arctic Tern, one of the world’s most fascinating seabirds. Its sleek and perfectly aerodynamic form reveals the bird’s incredible ease of flight and stamina (it flies some 80,000km a year), revealed to perfection in Mackie’s intensely dynamic piece. This sculpture is cast in silver as a limited edition of six, its sheen mimicking the tern’s clean white and grey plumage. The Arctic turn will also be cast into Bronze as an edition of 12, signed dated and numbered. 

It is quite clear from this and other works that Mackie sculpts around a core of intense observation. His aim is to not only capture the form of an animal but also its essence ‘in the moment’. The sculptor’s creative process always begins with a journey: he seeks out his subject in their natural habitat. Mackie explains, “There is always a trip on the horizon – I have to get out there.” Intrepid in his exploration and meticulous in his documentation, he immerses himself completely in the act of seeing. Focused on the articulation of animal or bird in that moment, Mackie tracks and absorbs their primary characteristics, until he lives and breathes the subject. This bond gives him an intimacy that translates into total fluency, creating spontaneous and fluid movements that capture their presence. You can see (and feel) the dynamic lift of air flowing over the bird’s wings, arching in flight, heart beating against the wind. 

When Mackie was invited on a fishing trip to the Varzuga River in the Kola Peninsula, Russia, organized by Roxton Field Sports, he was presented the perfect opportunity to document wild salmon and observe this extraordinary seabird in its natural habitat. Flying into Murmansk, he then took a helicopter over the tundra to a camp by the Varzuga. Staying in wooden huts, the team waited for the river to drop by several meters, giving Mackie the chance to seek out the Arctic Tern. ‘I had asked Charlie White who co-ordinates the fishing trips to keep his eyes out for any Arctic Terns. One of his guides, Sergei found one frozen in the tundra and brought it to me. It was an extraordinary find, and made me see just how in tune the Russians from the Kola Peninsula are with nature. I then went to the White Sea and photographed the Arctic Tern on the coast against all these beautiful wooden fishing villages.’

One of the essential research tools Mackie brought with him was a Leica V-Lux 4 with a x 24 optical zoom. ‘‘It takes 60 frames a second, which means I then have a document to digest exactly how the Arctic Tern moves – the aerodynamics and speed of the bird. One of the great advantages of being a sculptor today is that I am not restricted to drawing animals in the zoo like Bugatti and Bayre [19th century animal sculptors, progenitors of animal observation]. I can seek them out in their natural habitat, watch them move in their element.” 

Mackie’s research is specific to the environment of the animal and its type. With large mammals, like the elephant and cheetah (in association with Africat and the Tusk Trust), it is the individual character of each animal he is aiming to reveal. With birds Mackie is looking at the aerodynamics, the specifics of their form that make their style of flight possible. For example, Arctic Terns have high-aspect ratio wings – ie long, slender and elegant, enabling them to soar and glide with minimal effort. This means they spend almost all of their lives on the wing, their sleek forked tails helping them steer and make full use of prevailing winds. Air is truly their medium. 

In a sense Mackie brings the seabird back to his studio via technology. This research phase is an impressive body of work in itself:  there is a sculptural quality to the images, angles examined with a 3D eye. The photographs are exquisite and searching. Mackie then interprets with his hands, working directly in clay as he builds up studies of form and proportion. Gaining an intuitive sense of the animal’s essence, Mackie completes the piece with his own sensory interpretation. The surface character he gives each sculpture, dynamic and alive, is underpinned by an accuracy of scale and proportionality. 

Now his sculpture has come out of the studio, via a casting in silver at the Lockbund Foundry run by Simon Allison, and forms the centerpiece of Leica’s stand at the International Bird Fair surrounded by all the research accumulated in the process and the technology that made it possible. 

Mackie’s exquisite works celebrate the animal kingdom and all its variety while also capturing the essence of a moment. Mackie creates with a deep, abiding respect for his subject, his compelling sculptures acknowledging our instinctive but complicated relationship with nature.


Hamish Mackie

Hamish Mackie has been sculpting as a career since 1996, quickly establishing himself as one of our top British wildlife sculptors. Most recently he has won a major public art commission for six bronze horses for the Berkeley Homes Goodman’s Field development in the city of London. This project involves six different breeds of horses, including the graceful Arab and Irish Cob which will be scaled up to life and a quarter size, enhancing their dynamic and powerful aesthetic. A yearlong project Mackie has collaborated with Lockbund to create a new foundry big enough for the job that will require use over a kilometer of steel for the armatures, six tonnes of clay, one tonne of silicon rubber and four tonnes of bronze.