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Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Exclusive Interview - Richard Hughes - World of Groggs

The Grogg Blog has had fantastic support from all involved at The World of Groggs since we starting blogging just under 2 months ago. I am simply a collector of Groggs, but as with many of my fellow collectors I am fascinated and drawn to the work of the Hughes Family over the years and wanted to share my passion with others through the medium of this blog.

In the short time we have been going we have managed to secure a few exclusives with some high profile individuals such as Alix Popham and Filo Tiatia. We have also received a number of great followers in the form of Sergio Parisse and Shane Williams. However, I can happily say given the focus of our blog there was one person for me any exclusive would mean the most and that of course is Mr Richard Hughes.

When I approached the shop about an exclusive of some kind I was very surprised to hear that Richard was keen to be involved in a question and answer session. I was expecting some work in progress photos or sneak peaks, I didn't for one minute think that Richard would have the time to go through a set of questions with me knowing exactly how busy and focused he is on crafting Groggs for all us keen collectors.

I am delighted with the resulting piece and hope you all enjoy the fantastic content below. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for some fantastic photographs never before seen by collectors!!

Once again a massive thank you for all of the help, support and work done by Richard and Carly in making this blog possible!

Now for the good stuff....

Obviously growing up in a household with your Father making what were to become Groggs it is natural that you would have had an awareness of the work he was doing and develop an interest. At what age would you say you became immersed in working with Clay?

From the time I could hold clay in my hand. My father would tell people “I showed him how to stick two pieces of clay together and he took it from there!”. I can remember either being up the mountain ( our own version of ‘Blue Remembered Hills’) or being in the shed at 26 Llantwit Road with Dad playing with clay. We didn’t think what my father did was different or unusual so it was natural we did the same.

You have been working as the lead sculpture now for a number of years having taking over from your Dad, we know from the history of the shop that this was always intended to be a family business but at what point did you decide that this was something which you wanted to do as a career and were there ever any doubts in your mind or desire to want to do something else?

It’s strange but I always wanted to make things and it just seemed like a fun way to make a living. My mother wanted me to go to Art College but my Dad thought as I had already been working professionally as a sculptor through my weekends and school holidays that I would be wasting my time in Further Education. I certainly have no regrets about beginning work full time at 17. I had vague notions of becoming the next David Attenborough but when you’re in an environment as exciting as the Grogg Shop it was an easy decision to make.

As a child you must have crafted a number of pieces (no doubt for fun) do you remember some of the early pieces you made and do you still have any of them?

As most kids do I tended to focus on animals as subjects. I had always been interested in wildlife but after my Dad took me to see King Kong I became obsessed with gorillas. I can’t have been very old but I can still remember Kong’s face filling the screen at the local cinema as if it was yesterday. I’m lucky enough to still have some of these early pieces in the museum.

Photographs Courtesy Of The World Of Groggs

Photographs Courtesy Of The World Of Groggs

Photographs Courtesy Of The World Of Groggs

What was the first Grogg that you made which went on sale the public? Why in particular did you pick this piece?

Back to gorillas - I went on a school trip to Bristol Zoo in 1971 and saw a baby gorilla called Daniel in his mother’s arms. As soon as I got home I made the piece which was photographed by the Pontypridd Observer. It was sold for about £2 - my first sale at 12 years old.

Photographs Courtesy Of The World Of Groggs

You must of felt a huge sense of pride when your Dad handed over the reigns to you, how did you feel when your first piece went on sale and what was the reaction to the piece like from both your family and collectors?

It didn’t quite happen like that. When I left school I had already been working with clay to earn pocket money for a long time. I took over making the faces straight away because I loved it. My father sometimes found it frustrating if he couldn’t get a likeness so he was happy for me to take over. It was all quite organic in that sense with no formal hand over as such.

Dad kept modelling, just not likenesses. As I remember it, the general rule in the early days was to enjoy it. If we had nothing scheduled we were encouraged to make what we liked, hence the film stars and musicians. The public hadn’t seen anything like it before but to us it seemed normal that people would buy what we made. It’s only now I’m older I can see how lucky we were to have an audience who appreciated what we were doing.

Groggs have changed significantly over the years, moving from the early pieces crafted by John which were highly caricature based to the extremely detailed, superbly accurate pieces produced by yourself today. At what point was the decision made to move in this direction and how was it received within the family?

Actually what Dad started making was not intentionally meant to be caricature, it was just his style. I grew up working in the same style and then decided to push the boundaries a little. Dad wanted me to stick to the Groggy format but I was keen to push myself. Our collectors seemed to agree with me and both styles flourished side by side.

In my mind the way the Groggs look now is the way I would have preferred them to look back then. It was simply a matter of technique. Now, to a certain degree, we have the ability to make whatever we like. The old clay method was much more restrictive artistically, so it was never a ‘line in the sand’ moment, more like a ‘suck it and see’ approach.

Over the years you have produced so many fantastic Groggs, it must be difficult to choose but what would you say your favourite Grogg is or the one you are most proud of? (Maybe because of complexity or level of detail) 

It is hard to choose one because I am usually most interested in the piece I am working on right now, in this case the Action George North. I should be working on other things but I’m loving the pose! I usually say the 16” Eric Cantona is my particular favourite as it showed what could be done with the new material.

The Bryn Terfel Falstaff is also a piece which really shows what can be done in resin and wouldn’t be possible in clay. I do love to see old things I’ve forgotten I made.

The large Clint Eastwood is something I wish we had in the museum and I’m also glad no one could afford (or carry) the Pontypool Front Row I made in 1978. It’s one of the very few pieces to have never left the building!

Photograph Courtesy Of The World Of Groggs

Photograph Courtesy Of The World Of Groggs

Photograph Courtesy Of The World Of Groggs

Photograph Courtesy Of The World Of Groggs

A lot of the early Groggs were based on players with huge amounts of character in their appearances, things that made them stand out and instantly recognisable. A number of players have been Grogged several times over the years in various different guises, Is there a particular person which you love producing pieces on?

Over the years my particular favourite was JPR. Dad enjoyed making Mervyn Davies, Dai Morris and John Taylor but I loved JPR’s character. He had it all: rolled down socks, flowing hair, headband and best of all were the blood and scars.

The Pontypool Front Row was also a favourite subject of mine. Dad also loved front rows bit his era was the ‘71 Front Row. By the time the ‘Viet Gwent’ arrived on the scene I was luckily the one who got to make them. Given the choice, I would make a front row over any other position as I find them such a fascinating subject.

Photograph Courtesy Of The World Of Groggs

You have been very fortunate to meet so many legends of the worlds of rugby, football and stage and screen is there anyone with whom you have been completely star struck by when you met them? 

As a child, meeting JPR, Gerald and Gareth et al used to leave me speechless. They were like gods to us kids and that reverence has never worn off. The one person I was particularly pleased to meet was George Best. I was very nervous when he visited the shop but he was surprisingly quiet and a real gentleman.

Photograph Courtesy Of The World Of Groggs

You have produced Groggs for various people over the years, from what we see it appears some people are aware they are being Grogged and for others it may be a surprise. Do you ever have concerns over how the Groggs will be received by the individuals in question and have you ever had any negative responses to the Groggs?

It used to give me sleepless nights. Obviously when you spend all your life making figures of your idols the last thing you want to do is upset them. However, I know it’s impossible to please all of the people all of the time but I hope most players realise that when we make them we are paying them the highest compliment we can. All in all we have been very lucky and if anyone has been unhappy we don’t get to hear about it. Also, as I’ve got older it doesn’t worry me quite so much!

There are so many candidates out there for future Groggs so it must be extremely difficult to decide who to create next. Obviously events such as Wales winning Grand Slams or the Lions winning the recent tour of Australia help to push you in the direction of whom to Grogg but outside of this what is the general process that you follow when deciding who to immortalise in clay?

Over the years the decision who to make has become less and less a personal one. Today it is driven more by the public. One thing players know is that if we’ve grogged them it’s because they appeal to the public in a special way.

We would love to be able to make every player who gets a Welsh cap but it simply isn’t possible. Obviously if I see someone who I think would make a great figure it helps but it doesn’t always make commercial sense.

We all have an input in the final decision before I go ahead and start a new piece. From that point it can take months or in some cases years to finally bring a new Grogg into the collection. It is a situation which is continually changing and can be frustrating to us and collectors alike, especially when I make rash promises!

Is there anyone that you haven’t Grogged yet who you would love to? Maybe a childhood hero or someone who you admire now? 

I feel I haven’t done justice to David Bowie, a huge influence on me as a teenager, but I have actually made him at least four times.

I do joke that a 60 foot statue of Neil Jenkins should be situated on Pontypridd Common overlooking the town but I don’t think I’d have the time to do it!

Meanwhile, I have plenty of projects in front of me, including our 50th Anniversary plans, which is exciting to think about.

One idea I would love to revisit is Great Artists. I once made a Vincent Van Gogh for my father’s birthday which has never been seen on display and I did start a figure of my hero, Auguste Rodin, but it ended up like most of my ‘great ideas’ in the unfinished section of the museum. Who knows when I retire I might find the time to make a Picasso or a Leonardo Da Vinci. I think they would look great in Grogg form.

Photograph Courtesy Of The World Of Groggs

Photograph Courtesy Of The World Of Groggs

Photograph Courtesy Of The World Of Groggs
Photograph Courtesy Of The World Of Groggs

Photographs Courtesy Of The World Of Groggs

Photographs Courtesy Of World Of Groggs

Once you have decided who to Grogg what’s the creative process that you follow from having the idea right the way through to the finished piece? 

Firstly I start with research. I always refer to photographs even if I have made someone twenty times. You always see something new and that’s why the Groggs have changed so much over the years. I don’t usually draw first unless it’s a piece made from imagination like the mascots or the Lion’s Roar. 

Once a pose is decided upon I will check with our mould makers that it is physically possible to mould although this doesn’t always stop me from making a difficult piece to produce! 
Then the fun bit starts. I love starting new figures whether they are of someone I’ve made before or a new character. It will take about 2-3 days to get a likeness and then the hard graft begins. I can sit still for about 20 minutes before I need to wander off and refresh my eyes. That’s why the master figure takes up to 8 weeks to complete before it is moulded. Obviously more complicated pieces, like the 16” Muhammad Ali or the Bryn Terfel Falstaff took over 6 months each to complete so it’s a sliding scale. Even the minis take a long time as they have as much detail as a 9” Grogg and my eyes aren’t getting any younger.

During this time I will constantly refer to photographs and very rarely make it up as my father would. His approach was much more laid back than mine. Creases are a particular bugbear and I can get lost in them for hours. When I am finally happy the master is fired in the kiln at close to 1000 degrees. This is always a nerve racking time as any air trapped in the figure could cause an explosion which could destroy the piece. To ensure this doesn’t happen I will drill the master with holes and keep my fingers crossed I haven’t missed an air pocket. 
Everything being being well I will give the master a final smoothing over and the rest is the mould maker’s problem! This used to be my issue once as I made my own moulds for the clay figures, but it was extremely fiddly and time-consuming so I’m glad it’s no longer my job. This frees me up to spend more time making new things which keeps me and our collectors happy. After the figure is moulded the master copy is destroyed because of the process. I have managed to keep two original masters (which are on display in the museum), but they rarely survive in one piece.

Each piece is then cast in resin, the whiteware piece is fettled by hand removing any seams and finally the hand-painting can begin. This process uses washes of skin tone and is finished with brushes sometimes only a few hairs wide. The painting is so often the making of a piece and really brings them to life. Seeing the first piece painted is one of my favourite parts of the process and I’m glad to say I can safely put my trust in our small band of very talented painters. That is really only the short version of our process and is far less convoluted than the old clay method. If I ever get time I maybe I will write it all down!

Photograph Courtesy Of The World Of Groggs
Photograph Courtesy Of The World Of Groggs

Photograph Courtesy Of The World Of Groggs

With the fantastic reception that the World of Groggs has received from those who have been Grogged and of Course the Collectors, you have been given a number of pieces of memorabilia such as shirts and boots from the players and also have had some pieces donated to your museum. If you had to pick one piece from the museum and one piece of memorabilia as your favourites what would you go for? 

Our collection of memorabilia, which started with socks, has now reached over 150 match-worn shirts encompassing the world of Rugby Union and some football as well.

We are proud to own shirts from many rugby-playing nations and many legends of the game, such as Sid Going, Graham Mourie, Francois Pienaar, Andy Irvine, Richard Hill, David Campese, Robert Paperamboude, not to mention the Welsh ones.

In more recent years we have been presented with shirts from the stars of the modern era : Adam Jones, Jon Fox Davies, Ryan Jones, Leigh Halfpenny, Sergio Parisse, David Pocock and our own Captain Fantastic, Sam Warburton as well has his old school mate Gareth Bale.

However, my personal favourite would be a Neil Jenkins shirt from the 1997 Lions Tour of South Africa. I couldn’t believe it when Neil presented us with his match-worn shirt, torn collar and all, from a famous tour which Neil did so much to make a victorious one. It is very hard to make a choice but as everyone knows, Neil is a particular favourite of mine and a Ponty boy to boot!

Photograph Courtesy Of The World Of Groggs

During your time being associated with the Groggshop what would you say your fondest memory or proudest moment is? 

What makes me proudest is continuing to run a small family business and maintaining our standards of craftsmanship, as well as keeping Groggs designed, created and made in Wales.

Over the last 50 years there have been many opportunities to make the business larger and to increase our output, but in the end we decided that mass production was not for us and I’m proud of that and our product. Less is more in our eyes.

Another memorable moment was when my father and I were made honorary ex-players of Pontypridd RFC, a great honour for us both. I just hope they never need my services! There have been many fond memories, mostly rugby related. Great matches, Grand Slams and cup finals. These were the days that kept us inspired and motivated, and they still do.

The shop has done a huge amount of work over the years and created a number of pieces specifically to raise money for various charities. These pieces have recorded extraordinary amounts of money with keen collectors hoping to own some of these unique pieces whilst of course contributing to such great causes. Does it surprise you the amounts of money that some of these pieces achieve?

Sometimes these special figures go for less than they are worth in our opinion but that’s not what it is about. As a small family business we have to be selective with our charities but as long as we can contribute we are happy to get involved. Over the years we have realised it is probably better if our collectors have access to the exclusive figures reserved for charities rather than auction them at functions but we still do both.

Photograph Courtesy Of The World Of Groggs

Following on from the above question there is of course a huge collector fan base of yours and your Dad’s work and as a result a very active second hand market for Groggs with pieces sometimes reaching well over 3 times their original retail value. What are your thoughts on this market and the prices achieved and how do you feel this is impacting on you as a family business? 

It is fascinating to think that when I create something it has a life beyond the shop. When we put a price on a figure we try and value it as fairly as we can so to see the values increasing once they are sold is strange but satisfying. It is pleasing to know your work continues to be appreciated as time goes on.

What are your hopes for the future of the shop? With some of the recent additions to the family have you any thoughts about handing over the creative reigns at all?

With two new additions to the Grogg family, if they showed any artistic leanings I would actively encourage them to join our creative team. As for the future of the shop, we just all want to carry on Grogging for as long as we can - no plans for early retirement!

The shop is entering its 50th year in 2015. Do you think your Dad ever imagined in those early days working in a shed that you would have all achieved the worldwide acclaim and success which you have seen today?

Short answer is yes! Dad was a real optimist and saw Groggs conquering the world. I’m the complete opposite but I don’t think either of us could have foreseen the Internet and the impact that could have on a small business like ours. To think I can start a figure and someone in Japan or New Zealand can watch as it takes shape is amazing.

Finally, having spoken to you recently about the blog and getting your views and approval on what we are doing, you admitted to me that sometimes you are so engaged with what your work that you don’t have the opportunity to really see what is happening out their with those who are collecting and hear the plaudits or feedback from those who love what you do. If you could say anything to those who support what you do, including your amazing family what would it be?

I’d like to quite simply thank you all. In my opinion, an artist can receive no greater compliment than someone buying their work. Our collectors are our priority and we rarely make a decision before considering them. In the same vein it is great to see directly what is happening with our work and to know it is appreciated so much is it’s own reward. Keep on Grogg Blogging!

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