Meet The Sculptor Behind Bamburgh Castle's Christmas Display
Charlotte Lloyd Webber's magical new Christmas installation at Bamburgh Castle takes inspiration from Northumbrian myths and legends
Following the popular Twelve Days of Christmas installation last year, theatrical designer Charlotte Lloyd Webber hopes to wow visitors once again with a magical world where fairies live, selkies and mermaids bathe, and legendary characters connected to the castle are reimagined.
Mandy Bryson is a Berwick-born sculptor who specialises in mixed media 3D art, combining sculpture, textiles, painting, and ‘faux taxidermy’, and for this year’s display she’s been working hard to create selkies and a Fairy Queen. She says she was drawn to sculpture because ‘it felt like a proper day’s work’. ‘I did a lot of stone carving and, working directly from the models, it was quite traditional,’ she says. ‘I went on to have children and it was quite difficult to continue my work because I was very much a mother but I did continue doing the odd stone carving commission here and there, and I also worked on a bronze which was in the Royal Scottish Academy. All the while I’d take part time jobs and when I managed to save up enough money I’d do further studies including portrait painting, photography and mosaics.’
One of Mandy’s part time jobs was at a florist in Berwick. ‘I had a friend who worked for an events company and they normally worked on outdoor lighting trails at places like Kew Gardens and Blenheim Palace, but that year they were asked to work on the inside of Blenheim Palace and I was brought in to help on the floristry side of things,’ Mandy recalls. ‘Work was being put out to people to make the props and when we were on site I would look at them and think I could make these if I knew what they were made from. There was a really good prop maker who shared some of that information with me. Previously I’d been working with traditional stone and bronze, but this was materials like styrofoam and epoxy clays. With this knowledge they were happy to let me loose on creations.’
Mandy has already worked on displays such as Alice in the Palace, The Nutcracker and Cinderella at Blenheim Palace. ‘It got to a point where I decided that I’d quite like to do this full time, so in 2022 I went self employed,’ she says. ‘I had met Charlotte Lloyd Webber at Castle Howard when I’d been to one of her shows and I introduced myself. We kept in touch and when I went self employed I was given some work to make three Cinderellas, two Prince Charmings, an Ice Queen and a Fairy Godmother – it was very people-based which was quite challenging actually because I had mostly worked on animals. A lot of what I’ve developed myself has been with a faux taxidermy technique. Instead of real fur I thread up cotton and layer it to make it look like it’s growing naturally as opposed to fake fur being stuck on.’
Mandy works from a small shed in her garden and under a gazebo, sometimes having to move indoors, and at one time housing a two-metre tall rat in the sitting room. ‘An animal head can take between one and a half to four weeks to complete depending on how complicated it is.’
Mandy was approached by world-class set designers Adrian Lillie and Charlotte Lloyd-Webber for this year’s display at Bamburgh Castle. ‘I’m making a Fairy Queen and silkies (or selkies depending on which area you’re from) which are a bit like a mermaid but are part seal, part human,’ Mandy explains. ‘They are going to be displayed in a lovely, glistening three-tiered fountain. Half of the sculpture is female, and will be leaning out of the fountain. She has part of a seal’s head which represents her transforming, so I’ve used that faux taxidermy technique on the head and her back. She also has a tail which defies gravity thanks to the metal inside. I have a very patient, long-suffering husband who is an engineer and he got the metalwork sorted for that so it doesn’t fall over. There’s a separate seal’s head and a separate human head which will pop up out of the water. The sculpture is probably the most challenging thing I have ever made. I think it’s because it had to look mischievous, it’s got a little twinkle in the eye, and it had to look a little bit otherworldly – but not to the point where it’s going to scare younger visitors! Hopefully I’ve managed to do that.’
The team working on the display remain hard at work. ‘The florists are amazing and some of these things are pre-made so they’ll already have part-made the floristry for the mantelpieces,’ Mandy says. ‘Hopefully I’ll get to work on site and help with finishing some of these pieces, and Charlotte is often heavily involved in the set dressing – she’s really brilliant at waving her magic wand with that. She could throw things in the air and they’d seem to land in a perfect way. I know this year there’ll be a huge Laidly Worm. Sculptures like that have to be hung from a height. Charlotte and Adrian are really good with their designs because they make it really Christmassy. There is a tendency sometimes at these events to really go over the top but they always design with the venue in mind and all of the colours there. It’s about getting that fine line and I think they do that really well.’
As a proud Northumbrian Mandy is excited to have her work on display at Bamburgh Castle. ‘It’s one of the biggest and most important venues in Northumberland,’ she says. ‘The fact that it’s just so close to home, local people understand that it is such an iconic building and to have something connected to me in there is an honour really. It couldn’t be in a better setting, if it doesn’t look good there, it’s not going to look good anywhere,’ she laughs. ‘I hope visitors will be delighted by what they see but also maybe go and find out more about folklore, and I suppose that keeps local traditions alive, when the stories continue to be told.’
Along with the Myths and Legends installation, tickets are on sale for personalised Meet Father Christmas experiences in the Castle’s grotto. Other events at Bamburgh Castle’s Christmas Kingdom include Christmas wreath making, carol singing, festive treats and mulled wine in the castle’s café and Christmas shopping.
Yorkshire puds on Christmas dinner – yes or no?
Your favourite Christmas character?
The Snowman. I once went to the Fenwick window to see The Snowman and when it melted I was in tears! I was laughing at myself whilst crying but I think I was pregnant at the time, so that’s a perfect excuse!
The strangest Christmas presents you’ve received?
I’ve had some obscure ones. I’ve had a second-hand CD of Robson and Jerome, some car headlights and a second-hand book on donkeys – all courtesy of my very understanding husband. He always asks for a list of what I would like and I put that together and then he wants to be original, so he doesn’t get me anything on that list!
Tell us about a Christmas tradition you have.
When the boys were young my husband would always knock the fire guard over and leave ash footprints leading to the presents under the tree, but not now thankfully, there was always such a mess to have to clear up! Another tradition, although I’m not sure if it is one exactly, is we always hang the same baubles on the tree, ones that the boys made when they were young and favourite ones picked out and collected over the years – the end result is a bit of a chaotic mess but each one has a memory.
Hopes and plans for the future?
I hope to be asked again next year by CLW Event Design to make some more sculptures for Bamburgh Castle, it means so much to me to have my work displayed in such a stunning and iconic building set against the most stunning of Northumbrian settings where I played as a child. I also hope to bring out some limited edition bronzes influenced by the nature and stories of Northumberland. My long-term goal is to keep making and collecting my mixed media sculptures with the aim of one day opening a small visitor attraction in north Northumberland. It would be a place to be enjoyed by old and young, where seasonal events can take place and folk tales, idioms, rhymes and stories can be remembered and passed on.