top of page

Interview : William Pye 2011

Water Sculptor

Pippa Jane Wielgos

I first interviewed Pye at the British Pavilion at the Expo '92 world trade fair in Seville (1992), where he had designed the 70 metre moving Wall of Water and Portico.

The Expo was a showcase for the countries of the world to show their achievements. The British Pavilion was surely an achievement in itself. I was struck by the sheer eloquence of his water sculpture – at 25m high, 70m long and 40m wide, twice the size of an Olympic swimming pool, based on the theme: The Age of Discovery. Representing more than 100 countries, this embodied a celebration of individualism and the best of UK business.

Pye devised an imaginative and witty interpolation of the brief, which was central to the presentation of the Department of Trade and Industry’s core objectives abroad. The theme of water was the idea of international architects Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners, who wanted to acknowledge how so much of the United Kingdom’s wealth and character was owed to the water which surrounds the nation.

Parallel to this was the theme about how British engineering and service industries were addressing access to water, seen as one of the most pressing issue on the planet. Pye’s adaptable was designed to be dismantled at the end of Expo. It incorporated cutting-edge research from Seville University aimed at addressing global warming and cooling of inland cities. His futuristic work was highly acclaimed, with one review declaring: “The United Kingdom pavilion, with its wall of water as the grandest, sleekest Expo aquatecture of all”.

Nineteen years on from Expo, and one year before 2012 with a track record spanning more than 50 years, Pye continues to command attention as one of Britain’s most impressive and important water sculptors. With more works in London than any other modern British sculptor, he is renowned as one of the most prolific, distinguished and innovative artists in his field.

In 1993, William Pye was accorded arguably the most prestigious honour of his career when was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).

Ruth Reed, the President of RIBA said: “His work utilises engineering and architectural construction to produce dynamic often water-based sculpture that relate well to architecture and that have enhanced the public realm both in the UK and abroad.” Others might have used this personal landmark to wind down a remarkable career then thirty years old. But William Pye states he prefers the “slow burn” of a life in art.

Pye's current work includes:-

- Vannpaviljong (translated as Norwegian for “water pavilion”), at Drammen in Norway, part of a 100 million krone redevelopment of the city’s commercial sector. Pye’s work, which comprises of an intricate curtain of water costing 10 million krone, is due to be unveiled in May 2011. Press opening date: 18 June 2011.

- "Cedra", one of the large ‘coanda’ series, (based on the principals of hydrostatic fluid dynamics), for Woolbeding House, The National Trust, a Grade I listed building in Midhurst, West Sussex. Opening: September 2011.

- "Cambridge Starbursts", (below left), for The Sainsbury Laboratory at the University of Cambridge Botanic Gardens, a new facility for plant science and research, April 2011. The Sainsbury Laboratory, designed by Stanton Williams, won the RIBA Stirling Prize in October 2012, , features a an architectural promenade which "celebrates botanical research through interaction, communication and a connection with nature."

- The Maggie’s Cancer, in Cheltenham, June 2011.

Other unique works include:-

- Châteaux de la Trapperie, in Luxembourg, Belgium, and Acton Hall a Grade II listed private residence in Northumberland.

- Companhia Paulista de Força e Luz (CPFL) at Campinas north of São Paulo.

- Three pieces for The Bank of Muscat, the leading financial services provider in Oman.

William Pye’s childhood years were spent at Cutmill Cottage in Hogs Back, Surrey. The landscape was dominated by chalk hills and a stream ran through his garden to the River Wey. His father, David Randall Pye, was an academic, Provost of University College London and President of the Institution of the Mechanical Engineers. His mother was highly musical, a singer who played the clarinet and bassoon. The premature death of his father allowed the artistic leanings of his Aunt Ethel to exert a key early influence in young William’s life – she was a gifted sculptor who exhibited alongside Henry Moore.

From schooling at Froebel Institute (Berkhamstead, Hertfordshire) and Dragon School (Oxford), where he learnt to play the flute, Pye moved to Charterhouse School. Notable mentors included his music teacher George Draper, the young Ian Fleming, and the young Howard Hodgkin, whom Pye writes was always highly critical of all his work.

Pye’s national service was with the Army, which posted him to Hadrian’s Camp of 11 Hussars. This enabled him to play the flute for which he was naturally gifted. He also played in the 13 and 18 Hussars in Germany and entertained in the officer’s mess playing jazz.

His facility for sculpture took root at Wimbledon School of Art (1958 – 61), where he produced small works in clay based on classical, medieval and pre-Columbian sculptures. In 1961 he began four years at the Royal College of Art, where he was taught by Bernard Meadows, a former assistant to Henry Moore. He modelled in clay, learning the importance of Phidias, Michelangelo, Rodin and Moore and the discipline they brought to depiction of the human form. This would stand Pye in good stead in later years, when he was commissioned to produce likenesses of Sir Jeremy Morse, Chairman of Lloyds Bank; the writer; John Spurling and, in a commission for the National Portrait Gallery, the former Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd.

At the RCA, William Pye was a contemporary of a new generation of artists, including Bernard Meadows, Kenneth Armitage, Lynn Chadwick, Reg Butler, Elizabeth Frink, F. E. McWilliam, Robert Adams, Bryan Kneale and William Turnbull. Seminar tutorials were given by the art critic David Sylvester, and art history lectures given by Peter de Francia.

However Pye resisted the trends set – or followed – by his renowned contemporaries, typified by conceptual art ephemeralism, temporary installation art and non-aligned art. They encouraged a backlash against Henry Moore and the use of traditional materials such as bronze, which they saw as grandiose or heraldic. Among this group, Bill Woodrow produced works from detritus of cast-off domestic appliances as part of the new modern art doctrine. 

Pye saw them as a coterie which embodied what anarchist poet and art critic Herbert Read called “geometry of fear”. When Bernard Meadows, the newly-appointed Head of Sculpture, instigated the building of a foundry at the RCA, Pye took advantage to develop his own ideas. He refined a unique process of metal casting, setting his face against the anti-Moore trend of late 1960s London. His individualism was obvious from the outset, an outsider with insider intelligence, free from the ebb and flow of fashion. Pye produced a unique canon of work that transgressed classical and contemporary boundaries, going on to establish his stature as a major modern British artist.

Early works produced at the RCA included Charioteer (1964), shown at Pye’s retrospective at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 1978 – a piece he would later consider among his first mature works. Deity Enshrined I (1965) and Deity Enshrined II, (1965) drew favourable public and critical reaction as well as the attention of art collectors. Pye also taught for two days a week at Norwich School of Art during his final year at the RCA.

Graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1965, Pye started production from a studio in North London. Early pieces in stone and metal were largely abstract with simple forms. He presented a range of works in highly polished steel to experimental configurations.

Success came with two shows at the Redfern Gallery in London (1966, 1969). Reviews were enthusiastic; Michael Shepherd in the Sunday Telegraph (May 1969) described Pye’s work as “effortless in its being”, as “art that conceals art”. “Slick and shining, glamorous and desirable, his sculptures are full of aesthetic paradox – cool yet sensuous, demanding and assertive, yet aloof, possessing intellectual clarity yet elusive in form: expressing a surrealist unease in the disturbingly organic wormings contrasted with the certain strengths of their straights and upright… In this field the polarity of paradoxes, Pye produces a wide range of effects from harmonious and formal to psychologically uncomfortable”.

Pye now drew international attention, exhibiting in the United States of America. The Bertha Schaefer Gallery of Modern Art in New York City showed his work, including Freefall, Traverse and Narcissus (1969). He also exhibited at the Storm King Sculpture Park in New York State in 1969. Other works included Quillion (1970), of which two versions exist - one in Chicago, the other later made at Greenland Dock, London; later purchased by the client Leo Guthman of Windy City who exhibited it on the balcony of his 21 floor apartment on Lakeshore Drive , after it was discovered that it could not fit through the door of his apartment.

Pye removed himself from the gallery system in order to develop his practice and take on larger commissions. He supplemented his income with a return to teaching, spending ten years at the Central School and Goldsmith’s College in London and in Winchester. He later became a visiting professor at California State University, Northridge (SCUN). Pye recalls in his book that CSUN was rumoured to have paid his compatriot David Hockney £25 a day when the going rate was £15! However, the move served him well, allowing him to realise his potential as an artist.

 Pye built on the work he exhibited at the Redfern Gallery to refine a technical knowledge that served his artistic vision. He explored kinestheticism, incorporating reflective surfaces and exploring the interplay of movement and light. His work Zemran (1972) was made from scrap metal tubing he spotted in the BOC Cryogenic Plant in Edmonton, North London. This became a landmark on the South Bank while a retrospective of Pye’s work was being exhibited at the Hayward Gallery. The placing of Pye’s sculpture amid Denys Lazdun’s new Brutalist architecture was documented in art critic Robert Hughes’ seminal book, The Shock of the New: Art and the Century of Change.

The retrospective at the Hayward was seen as a major development of modern British sculpture during an era when individualism and experimentation had become central to forging careers in the arts. His landmark works exemplified the success of individualistic British sculptors, with Americanism providing a template for more fashion-conscious sculptors and painters. Pye also featured as part of a British Sculpture exhibition in 1972 at the Royal Academy of Arts.

Pye’s experimentation led to the production of suspended and freestanding anamorphic works incorporating tripods and high-tensile steel cables. These highlighted their physical relationship to the environment and occupation of space, real and illusory. Xeeque and Albion (1973) exudes power and self confidence and Aeolos (1974), seen at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, enhanced his standing. His projects throughout the 1970s were in step with contemporary concepts, yet very much his own creation. A case in point is Breaker (1979), a curtain of stainless steel tubes suspended from the ceiling of Winchester Cathedral. His ingenious design enabled this piece to be later dismantled and re-erected at a shopping mall in Cincinatti, Ohio.

Inspired from early childhood by observations from fluvial landscape forms and geometric patterns of nature, Pye was long interested in water’s aesthetic form. In the 1980s he developed his understanding of physics to exploit water’s properties, producing trellises, vortices, optical effects and precisely-directed jets. Pye describes his latest experiments into what he calls the “vocabulary of water” in his new book William Pye: His Work and His Words (Brown & Brown, 2010). He produced no fewer than 284 sculptures featuring water in the years 1984 and according to the art critic, William Packer, Art Critic of the “Financial Times”, he has “more of his work to be seen in public in London than that of any other modern British sculptor”.

William Pye’s work bridges tradition and modern engineering and has helped to lead the way in bringing experimentation, creativity and imagination to public art in the United Kingdom. He embraces the vernacular, the historic and the modern, while his artistry, knowledge and stature have earned him commissions resulting in works gracing cathedrals, embassies, historic houses, royal gardens, public spaces and airports. He comments in his book that his intention is to make works to last for generations, functioning on the epic and vernacular level, often on a heightened subliminal level of art, intellect, spirituality as well as the purely aesthetic.

Pye’s icons include Slipstream and Jetstream (1987) at Gatwick Airport’s North Terminal. Commissions for the millennium included the conversion of Cardiff Oval Basin, where he incorporated a 24 metre high water tower – another landmark to his credit. Examples of work in more traditional British settings include reputedly the first permanent font for Salisbury Cathedral in 150 years, consecrated in 2008 by the Rt Rev Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. Pye produced eight water sculptures for the Serpent Garden in Alnwick Castle, Northumberland (2005). Wilton House, the Stately Home of the Earl of Pembroke, is home to Pye’s Scala Aquae Pembrochiana (2000). He also designed the sculpture Downpour (1994) for the British Embassy in Oman.

Pye’s exploration of vocabulary of water forms and manipulative engineering capacity of water was from an early interest from a child; however mature understanding of its physical laws was only achieved in an empiric understanding of laws of hydro-statics- the Toricilli principle, as seen in water trellis series, fluid dynamics, the coanda principle, the way that water clings to surfaces, only developed during the 80’s when he created a unique portfolio series based on his “vocabulary of water – during x created no less than 284 works based on permutations of the principle in 25 years between 1984 – 2010.

In 1993, William Pye was accorded one of the most prestigious honours of his career when he was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Ruth Reed, the President of RIBA said: “His work utilises engineering and architectural construction to produce dynamic often water-based sculpture that relate well to architecture and that have enhanced the public realm both in the UK and abroad.” 

Working largely outside the commercial gallery system, Pye gains many of his commissions through open competition. His work evolves from sketches, isometric and CAD drawings, studio prototypes and reference to a notebook in which he keeps a log of ideas. Pye is at the leading edge of research into hydrostatics and fluid dynamics.

He is often brought in to brainstorm at top practices, having close links with organisations such as architect consultants Nicholas Grimshaw and Nicholas Hare, engineering and design company Arup and fabricator Benson Sedgewick. Pye has a rare ability to interpret and realise a brief in partnership with top architects and contractors, bringing skills and exceptional judgement not always attributable to younger artists.

His brief on the day of my visit was to devise a unique water sprinkling system for a curtain of water for his new work to be launched in Drammen in city centre in Norway which is part of the city’s two-hundredth anniversary and part of a 100 NOK city redevelopment plan..

Perhaps a return to Pye’s work at the British Pavilion at the Seville Expo best exemplifies his virtues. Chris Nash, a partner at Grimshaw Architects, worked with Pye on the project.

"Seville in the summer is just about the hottest city in Europe. We wanted our pavilion to demonstrate that a building for six months could replicate the climate modifying character of traditional local heavy masonry buildings using lightweight prefabricated (in Britain) components. The only local materials used were concrete and water.

While steel containers filled with water provided thermal mass to shield the building from the afternoon sun, we proposed a wall of water on the eastern public face, to demonstrate the use of cooling water and provide a dynamic sculptural signature to the building.

Bill Pye was appointed by the client (the Dept. of Trade and Industry) on the strength of his work in water sculpture to realise the water wall. It was a formidable technical challenge to construct a beautiful moving sheet of water falling 16m, 72m long.

Bill Pye realised the project beautifully. It was his own dedicated hands-on approach, working through models, full-size mock-ups and prototypes in his studio that enabled the job to be the success it was. Amongst the 110 national pavilions at expo the UK pavilion won prizes for its demonstration of sustainable approaches to cooling and was much admired, photographed and remembered to this day for the fantastic water wall".

Working at the cutting edge in research, design and development, he rises to the challenge in today’s difficult economic climate to produce eye-catching works to tight deadlines. Works in progress in the UK include water sculptures for Sainsbury Laboratory at the University of Cambridge Botanic Gardens, a new facility for plant science; Woolbeding House, a Grade I listed building in West Sussex; and Maggie’s Cancer Centre in Cheltenham.

Current international projects include Vannpaviljong at Drammen town square in Norway, part of a 100 million krone redevelopment from the city’s commercial sector. Pye’s work, an intricate curtain of water costing 10 million krone, unveiled in May 2011. He is also is in negotiation for projects in Brazil and Oman.

Pye re-emerged in the gallery world in November 2010 with two retrospectives at Osborne Samuel and Pangolin galleries in London, coinciding with a major exhibition, Agua na Oca,in Sao Paulo, Brazil (until June 2011).

These showcase a remarkable portfolio of thirty years of a selection of 21 small scale works and 10 large water sculpture works some of the smaller scale pieces previously unseen by the London art world, but which provide fresh insights into the development of Pye’s body of work. The exhibitions also serve to introduce newcomers to key areas of William Pye’s oeuvre: high technology (Double Dome); symmetry of form (Little Equinox); relationship between vertical and horizontal (Plumb); study of vortex (Swishdish); weirs within a pool (Coraslot and Vesqua); and geometry of landscape (Maypole, Little Cwym and Little Cader Idris).

Other celebrated works include Archimedes (1997), based on the lifting of water by Archimedes Screw, developed by the pre-eminent Greek mathematician and inventor. Pye’s Highgrove (1993) for the Prince of Wales’ Gloucestershire residence illustrates another favourite strand in Pye’s “vocabulary of water” – transparency. The structure in the lily pond allows water to flow to create a sheet that appears like glass or ice.

These act as a reminder of Pye’s qualities as a sculptor of distinction and remarkable staying power, a commanding figure in modern British sculpture, an eloquent advocate of British sculptural art. He is a speaker on a par with Lynn Chadwick and contemporaries currently being reappraised by the gallery world.

Pye could be seen as from the old school of sculptors, a modest and unassuming gentleman committed to durability in modern art. This possibly reflects the “slow burn” he characterises in his own career. A staunch advocate for high standards in traditional craftsmanship, Pye nonetheless has a keen eye on contemporary British art. He describes himself as not “academic”, but is admired in the world of art and by the public, politicians and Royalty.  

At 72 years of age, Pye is very much his own man yet places great stock in how his work is perceived by the viewer. He sees modern art very much on the same terms as his friend Bryan Robertson, who likened conceptual art to a spiritual “anorexia nervosa”. His philosophy is very much a “visceral response to the visual ... which is more easily recognised in representational than purely abstract experience”, preferring a "slow burn" approach for his career in art.

William Pye is possibly an artist whose work will be remembered as emblematic of past, present and future. A modern, contemporary British artist. As Nicholas Grimshaw of Grimshaw Architects said: "It was great to work with Bill Pye on the Seville Pavilion for Expo '92. The whole project was based on energy saving and sustainability and Bill helped us turn the famous "water wall" - which played a huge role in cooling the building - into a work of art."

Above: William Pye in his studio, 31 January 2011.

Interview with the artist, 31 January 2011.

Other published work on William Pye by Pippa Jane Wielgos : "The Art Review", William Pye, Expo World Fair, Seville, 1992.

Broadcast of an interview with the President of Expo (Seville) with Pippa Jane Wielgos by the BBC World Service News & Current Affairs Radio "Expo World Fair Begins", 1992. Producer : Saleem Patka.

"Arts Review"

Festivals Issue

William Pye at Expo in Seville, June 1992.

Interviewer : Pippa Jane Wielgos

Article photographs : courtesy William Pye


Arts Research - Journalism - Interviews - Photography - Arts Project Management & Gallery Support

T: + 44 (0) 207 487 3486. M: + 44 (0) 7957 319 056. E: / /

- By appointment only -

Central London/Regent's Park, London.

bottom of page