South African wildlife sculptor Bruce Little has created his largest work for the 50th anniversary of Longleat Safari Park in the UK.
A magnificent bronze monumental lion sculpture standing almost five metres high in the English countryside of western Wiltshire has resulted in extraordinary international focus on unassuming Grahamstown-based wildlife artist Bruce Little.
The passionate conservationist and self-taught sculptor produced the eight metres long, 4.3 metres high African lion to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Longleat Safari and Adventure Park in England.
Meeting the patron: Bruce Little, left, with the Viscount of Weymouth, Ceawlin Thynn, chairman of Longleat Enterprises
After a 10 000 kilometre sea and road trip from Cape Town to Wiltshire, the three-ton bronze gargantuan now loftily surveys the breathtakingly beautiful 436-year-old stately Longleat House, home to the fabulously wealthy and somewhat eccentric seventh Marquess of Bath, Alexander Thynn.
On his way over by road and by sea, photos of the colossal striding lion began to trend on social media. By the time it arrived at Longleat, the intense public relations programme put in motion by the United Kingdom’s most popular safari and adventure park was hardly necessary.
The magnificent lion had the world’s attention firmly focused on it days before the official unveiling.
Little has sculpted several larger than life-size pieces, but this one – which he calls Dawn Patrol – is by far his biggest sculpture.
Home at last: Bruce Little’s 3-ton statue arrives at Longleat Safari and Adventure Park for installation
It was certainly not something he could have imagined when, as a tiny child, his inspirational artist grandmother Constance Little first thrust a ball of plasticine into his hands and told him to “make something” with it. Little was hooked. The entirely self-taught artist says he was a practical farm boy who could turn his hand to anything.
“So when it came to expressing myself artistically, becoming a sculptor was a natural fit.”
While Little has exhibited internationally and his bronzes are collected across the world, his exposure hasn’t translated into great renown.
When the idea of the enormous lion was floated between him, Ceawlin Thynn – the Viscount of Weymouth and chairman of Longleat Enterprises – and a mutual friend, Little quickly recognised it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“As an artist, you never know when the next pay cheque is coming. One just hopes that something like this not only ignites awareness of the plight of lions, but that it grows my brand and gets to the stage where I am recognised for honouring animals in bronze.”
Conservation and wildlife are his other great passions and it is his ability to capture the movement, attitude and spirit of the animals that has earned him his reputation. Having spent much of his life as a conservationist and a professional game ranger, he has an intimate knowledge of his many subjects.
The lion population has over the last 21 years dropped by over 41%
“I sculpt to honour the animal for what it is, not for what it was. The lion population has over the last 21 years dropped by over 41%. If this sculpture can act as a catalyst to develop awareness, it would be fantastic,” Little points out.
The eight metre long, 4.3 metre high African lion (Dawn Patrol) to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Longleat Safari and Adventure Park in England in production
Much goes into the creation of a piece like Dawn Patrol. The casting of it was facilitated by the Strand branch of Sculpture Casting Services, in the Western Cape, reportedly the largest, highly specialised fine art foundry in Africa.
But before it gets there, Little starts by crafting a small version, perfecting finer detail on pose and proportion. This was dramatically scaled up to an intermediate 2.4 metre version. Then, with the aid of the foundry, an armature or frame is built. A team of people then work on it. Some 500 kilograms of a wax-based clay is applied to slowly create the detail and character of the piece. A mould is then made from this.
The current model now in place at Longleat is not the one that will stand there for centuries. It is a fibreglass, bronze-infused one produced over six months of intense work just for the celebrations. The final model will be identical but will be cast entirely in bronze.
“This takes longer, weighs even more and costs millions of rands. The transport alone for the current model cost over R300 000.00. But the result is worth it. Dawn Patrol captures the essence of a young male lion in his prime, patrolling his territory with intent,” says Little.
Ceawlin Thynn says the sculpture exceeded all expectations.
“When we first considered the concept we could not have envisaged such a fantastic sculpture that is so in keeping with Longleat’s heritage.”
He said the final bronze piece would become a permanent resident on the estate, alongside the real lions of Longleat.
Little said he was thrilled with the way people had received the lion, both in transit and at its final destination.
Longleat’s 50th anniversary celebrations will also include the launch of a lion-shaped hot air balloon and a concert by Sir Elton John.
“It has been an honour and a privilege to do a lion sculpture of this scale with Longleat as its home. The bronze sculpture will be on this earth for thousands of years. Let us all help ensure that lions will exist as long.”