Time, like Spitfires and angels, flies. I first met Gerry Judah in the baroque gloaming of St James’s, Piccadilly ten years ago. Beyond the pin-drop quiet red brick and Portland stone-trimmed walls of the seventeenth century Wren church, time flew furiously fast on the hurrying wings of effin’ and blindin’ black cabs, gargling Routemasters, sod-you motorcycle messengers, self-righteous cyclists and pavement-bound office workers trying their best to beat Sir Roger Bannister’s sub-four minute mile. This urban chaos, although as raucous as a rookery, could be taken, I suppose, as a symbol of our right to freedom, something denied to countless millions of people living in the dark shadows of unpleasant political regimes worldwide. Inside the church, Judah showed me a glowing model of a human rights sculpture he hoped to build for Amnesty International; two, in fact, one in London, the other in Sheffield. One was to have been made of wood, the other in steel. Both would have measured 23 metres high and 22 metres wide. Rising on either side of an angled pole, great wings were to have been laced with hundreds of electric candles stretched out as if to embrace those walking below. The model was impressive. Although verging on the wild side, it was, nevertheless, a quieting design, asking us to light a collective candle to all of those who lack the basic freedoms we all but take for granted. Just as we light candles alone in the aisles of darkened churches for our own private causes, so we might light candles on a citymatic scale for a global cause. Ten years on, such sculptures would be even more relevant, as is the shamanistic talent of Gerry Judah himself.
Best known for the exuberant sculptural displays of racing cars commissioned by Lord March and put on display each year in front of Goodwood House for the annual Festival of Speed, Judah is, under his magician’s mask, and at the bottom of a deep well of funny jokes, a reflective fellow, a humanist with a genuine love of human foibles, but with an equally wary eye on the easy ways in which humanity allows itself to slip from folly to spite, and brute inhumanity. The model he made of a train unloading Jews and other Nazi undesirables at Auschwitz for the Imperial War Museum’s Holocaust Exhibition in 2000 is one of the very finest things this jack-of-all-creative-trades has made. It looks almost innocent, with the entire scene, accurate to a disturbing fault, coated in white paint. Hundreds of tiny, individually modelled people are seen going off to their deaths, either in the gas chambers or through forced labour, as if, in Judah’s words, “they are queuing for a bus or a football match.” That memorable phrase forged by the German-American political scientist, Hannah Arendt – “the banality of evil” – jackboots its way to mind. Tilt human beings one way and they can behave like devils; tilt them another, and they are can be close to angels. Crowd-pulling events can be agents of evil, as Nazi party rallies were, or expressions of unfettered delight like the Festival of Speed and the Goodwood Revival. Judah straddles the concerns of these two worlds in his work; yet even when he is working in human shadowlands, he brings light and beauty to the fore, as he did with the Humans Rights sculpture model in St James’s Piccadilly eight years ago, as he does every year at Goodwood. And as he does, too, in all his extraordinary projects from stage sets to bridges.
I think of Gerry Judah as a magician. His north London workshop, a crowded cabinet of curiosities, a wizard’s lair, is full of props and devices that a man of magic might use in some smoke-and-mirrors show. Equally, Gerry’s lap-top computer is filled with images that pop up on screen in ways that make you gasp and stretch your eyes. This showman has indeed worked for stage and screen, for rock bands, operas and motors shows. His is a theatrical design talent, yet one with depth as well as dazzle. His background explains much. It is as dramatic as his Goodwood sculptures. His family came, somewhere down the line, from Baghdad via Burma to settle for a while in India. He was born in Calcutta and grew up in West Bengal before his father decided to move to London when Gerry was sixteen. The colours and sheer eventfulness of Bengal life seared themselves into the back of his eyes. He remembers West Bengal as a glorious confusion of temples, synagogues and mosques, of hanging candelabras, painted faces, bright spinning tops, gods with many arms, worshippers throwing coloured dyes at one another on spectacular holy days. He talks fondly of ink-black skies laden with stars, of ornate buildings laced with flickering lanterns and fairy lights. He remembers Hindu-Muslim riots that left corpses floating in flooded streets, of his Uncle Baby’s bright red Jeep adorned with white-walled tyres. He can still sniff the exaggerated smell of local flower markets. London, damp and grey – deep under snow, in fact – came as a profound shock to the sixteen year old school leaver.
With no connections, and very much out of context, Gerry hoboed his way through jobs in kitchens, hospitals, in fisheries and on roadworks, before taking a double-first in Fine Art at Goldsmiths College and a post-graduate degree in Sculpture at the Slade. Side-stepping into the world of production design for, among others, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Opera and the National Theatre, Gerry flicked into the design and construction of film sets, stage sets and promo videos for rock bands, TV commercials, the Human Rights sculpture project, and then, in 1997, a first commission from Lord March for a celebration of Ferraris at Goodwood. The Goodwood displays really took wing in 2000 with a display of racing Jaguars, starting with a C-Type, hanging at improbable angles from a cat’s cradle of tautly suspended wires. Mirrors on the ground allowed visitors to gawp into the cockpits of these scalding Coventry cats without cricking their necks; a gentle addition to an otherwise roller-coaster display.
A year later, Gerry placed a lone Mercedes-Benz 300SL at the summit of a swooping 25-metre high sculpture, as if the car was some mechanical high-diver on its precipitous trajectory down from vertiginous board to pool below. It would wrong to say it, so I will, but this truly memorable design suggested a scene from one of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympiad films – Festival of the People, Festival of Beauty – made for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The magnificent Mercedes looks set to conquer all comers. Today, Goodwood; tomorrow, the world. Was this intentional, or subliminal? Who knows? One of the great things about the Goodwood sculptures is their sheer uninhibited quality. Apolitical, they are nevertheless designed to challenge as well as delight visitors to the summer events, just as the cars and drivers here do, too. They are not meant to be anodyne. And with Gerry Judah at the model-making bench, they never could be. The 2001 Mercedes sculpture was all but explosive. Donner und blitzen, in fact. As Gerry recalls, “nearing the completion, I received a call at seven-thirty in the morning from a fabricator. He reported a mother of all storms heading for Sussex and enquired if we’d fitted a lightning rod to the structure. I didn’t know, but started thinking about a Mercedes Gullwing full of inert gas being struck and everything, including the house, going up. An hour later, a van with a lightning rod was speeding to Goodwood with the storm chasing behind.” The 2004 sculpture celebrates, on the face of things, a more serene occasion: 100 years of Roll-Royce. Henry Royce’s V12 R engine takes pride of place under the streamlined bonnets of a record breaking car, boat and aircraft hoisted high into the Sussex sky. The R engine morphed into the wartime Merlin which powered the Spitfires and Hurricanes that kept the Nazi invasion of Britain at bay and which, joyously, still thunder and roll over Goodwood today in displays that are one of the highpoints of the summer festivals. Flying at angels’ height, these metal and fabric winged guardians, powered by mechanical sorcery, and helped keep us safe in 1940. Gerry Judah’s own designs have some of the same dark, angelic quality, soaring up on wings in celebration of human festivity, and folly. The Goodwood sculptures show what this latter day Merlin can do, reaching for the sky and aiming, perhaps further, for the improbable and mythical. As long as he keeps at it at Goodwood, it would be a good thing to see Gerry Judah’s wings spread wider to keep us all thinking and gasping, just as racing drivers and the crowds following them do as a D-Type, 250F Maserati or 7-litre Ford Galaxy aims for the squealing apex of Woodcote Corner.