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Willow talk: why every home needs a touch of wicker 

Exit, pursued by wicker bear: the men's restrooms at the Mayfair members' club, Annabel's 
Exit, pursued by wicker bear: the men's restrooms at the Mayfair members' club, Annabel's  Credit: Annabel's

If you go to the men’s bathroom at Mayfair members’ club Annabel’s, you’re sure for a big surprise. Instead of a teddy bear’s picnic, you’ll find a sharp-clawed, 7ft brown bear clasping a huge, oval mirror.

Woven entirely by hand, over a painstaking three-week period – and costing thousands (!) of pounds – the bear is an example of the UK’s most fashionable new art form: willow sculpture.

In the past five years, willowcraft has exploded, with the National Trust, Chelsea Flower Show, fashion pop-ups and even the producers of Game of Thrones commissioning one-off works with five-figure prices. Willow-sculpting workshops, which are seen both as trendily eco and mindfully meditative, are selling out.

And if you can’t find a spot for a giant woven woodland animal in your home or garden – more fool you if you can’t… – there are myriad  new ways to add a little wicker to your existing decor. 

The bear for Annabel’s nightclub was made by willow sculptor Woody Fox (nice to see nominative determinism at work…) at his Devon studio, where he has been working for five years. “I signed onto a local basket-weaving course and found myself among 20 equally bored housewives,” he says.

In recent years, willowcraft creatures have become a must-have for the home and garden Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley

“But I found that willow is an amazing material to work with. And it comes in so many natural colours: a dark chocolate steamed willow you can use for deer or reindeer antlers, or a white willow for a fox’s chest. You can add eyes, and create such movement in a pose.”

Once considered ornaments you’d pick up at a garden centre, Fox says willow sculptures is now seen as an art form that pays great attention to detail: “A lot of people want to save up in order to buy one, because they’re seen now as a beautiful piece of art for the wall, in the same way a painting is.”

Indoor sculptures, which are the most detailed, aren’t cheap, with a deer or bull head ranging between £250 and £800, and taking up to two weeks to weave. Bigger animals, such as a 7ft marlin fox created last year, come with price-tags of around £600, and he once made a £3,000 Clydesdale horse, which was so huge, he had to take the door off its hinges to get it out of his studio. 

Two years ago, visitors to Kew Gardens’ Artful Autumn outdoor sculpture exhibition may have posed for selfies by Fox’s “treelings”, a series of wicker figures in tai chi poses. “The exhibition’s organisers burst out laughing when they first saw my designs,” Woody Fox says, “then they realised they was perfect.”

A few years before that, in 2013, he experienced a “rush on badgers” after he made four for a nursery’s Chelsea Flower Show garden; he had to make another 30 for people who’d seen the show and wanted to take one home.

Former British fashion designer Joe Casely-Hayford asked Fox for three “creatures” for a Dover Street Market pop-up in Tokyo that were “completely off-the-wall”. “He wanted ‘Pagan mythology meets Ignazio Jacometti, so I wove spindly bodies with giant animal heads that had spikes and antlers everywhere.” Fox didn’t realise he was working for an OBE until he googled the designer’s name and realised Casely-Hayford “used to go for dinner with Princess Di”.

Serena de la Hey, a willow sculptor most famous for her Willow Man, a 12-metre-high sculpture striding over fields next to the M5 in Somerset, is often credited with championing the material in the 1990s. But it’s only recently that a willow sculpture has become a must-have.

Willow sculptor Woody Fox  Credit:  Heathcliff O'Malley

Perhaps one reason for its increasingly cool is that, as a medium, wicker is completely sustainable. “I think people like the idea of faux taxidermy and see willow sculptures as more environmentally sound than animal trophy heads,” says Bob Johnston, 49, who’s based in Bangor in Northern Ireland and considered another of the UK’s top willow sculptors.

“I sent two willow Highland cowheads to Switzerland this week, and I’ve had commissions from Canada and America, too. For the last five months, I’ve been working on three dragons and a 3ft throne interwoven with 200 swords for the Belfast premiere of the final series of Game of Thrones. The film industry love it.”

He also sees the pull of willow workshops, and agrees baskets are the best place to start if you’re interested in learning how to weave. Willow can be difficult because each withy (the strong but flexible stem) naturally wants to straighten, and some species can be quite tough, so you need to learn how to curve it.

Willow sculptor Serena de la Hey, who created the 12m Willow Man sculpture that stands in fields next to the M5 in Somerset Credit: IAN JONES/Ian Jones Retained

But it’s an incredibly meditative art that’s used by occupational therapists because it’s great for hand-eye coordination and memory; you’re using both hands to create something functional, which is very satisfying, and it’s a beautiful material with a stunning smell.”

Unsurprisingly, such workshops are selling out. Sara Holmes, 55, and her daughter Hanna, 36, run Willow Twisters, which offer day-long classes in Surrey (£145, willowtwisters.com). “Fifteen years ago, when I started, there were just a handful of sculptors, and a few wanting to learn each month. But now we’re fully booked, and have launched an online course for that who can’t get into the workshops.

“I think people are looking to get back to nature and so anything natural; sustainable and rustic appeals hugely. Weaving, sewing and binding is so relaxing. I call it the willow zone.”

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