Zoë Carmichael and the femininity of sculpture

Zoë Carmichael and the femininity of sculpture

Anna Dowling-Clarke explores the work of British sculptor Zoë Carmichael, through the lens of Florence's femininity.

Mon 29 Jan 2024 2:12 PM

“It is the most feminine of cities…Other cities beside it are great swearing and shuffling rowdies. Florence has an immortal soul. You look into her grey eyes…so studious, so sensitive, so human.”
—Henry James

Despite its etymology, whereby the word Florence derives from the feminine Florentia, meaning “flowering” or “blossoming”, it seems odd to acknowledge Florence as a feminine city when the streets are lined abundantly with sculptural renderings of male figures. One need only venture to the busiest of squares, the piazza della Signoria, to observe passersby surrendering to Giambologna’s domineering bronze statue of Cosimo I de’ Medici on his horse, or to piazza San Lorenzo, where Bandinelli’s 16th-century statue of the Italian mercenary Giovanni delle Bande Nere stands guard over the basilica. Everywhere you walk seems to bear a reminder that throughout its history Florence has celebrated the greatness of its men. But what of its women?

Giambologna, Equestrian Portrait of Cosimo I, 1587-94, bronze, height 450 cm, Piazza della Signoria, Florence

Although there are outdoor public sculptures depicting women, such as the copy of Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes and Giambologna’s harrowing rendering of the Abduction of a Sabine Woman, they are either mythical or biblical, implying that no real women existed whose accomplishments were befitting of commemoration. While most civilisations offered women little opportunity to excel in anything outside the domestic roles ascribed to them from birth, there were those who did, despite these social limitations. Indeed, recent research has exposed countless examples of women painters, poets and writers whose work has largely been forgotten or purposely written out of history. Nevertheless, there is a branch of the visual arts that has proved more difficult for women to infiltrate: sculpture.

Sculpture has predominantly been a male discipline. Not only are the most visible sculptors throughout the history of art male, but it is a practice charged with stereotypically “masculine” qualities such as strength, permanence and monumentality. The esteemed British female sculptor Barbara Hepworth remarked, “People…still think of sculpture as a male occupation. There is this cliché, a sculptor is a muscular brute bashing at an inert lump of stone.” Although much has changed since Hepworth made this statement and women sculptors do not face the same professional limitations as before, it begs the question of whether traditional sculpture possesses any stereotypical “feminine” qualities. An interview conducted earlier this summer with British bronze sculptor Zoë Carmichael made a strong case that it does—and always has.

British by birth but Florentine trained, Carmichael is a gifted sculptor who produces works using the lost-wax casting process, a technique that replaces an original clay sculpture with a bronze duplicate through several complex steps. Although her artistic talents were spotted at an early age when she received a secondary school scholarship, she initially decided to pursue a career at a market data firm in the City of London. Nonetheless, creativity remained an important part of Carmichael’s life as she continued to paint watercolours as well as launching Bakewell in 2019, a UK-based baking initiative to promote mental wellbeing. It was not until 2022, after an impromptu trip to Florence, that Carmichael decided to leave her job to pursue a career in sculpture. By March, ochre-washed palazzos lining the Arno had replaced the smoky-grey skyscrapers of the Thames. Carmichael had decided to move to Florence temporarily to study at the renowned Studio Galleria Romanelli.

Zoë Carmichael with the clay model of her Piaffe sculpture in Studio Galleria Romanelli

Under the tutelage of Raffaello Romanelli, the sixth generation of sculptors, Carmichael devoted each working day to finessing the art of clay model sculpting, the first and most integral step to the lost wax technique as the final bronze duplicate rests entirely on the structure of this first design. One of the many lessons Carmichael took from her studies is the ability to stand back and observe the sculpture from different perspectives while modelling it; a fresh eye can solve most problems. So impressed was Romanelli by her work that he has placed her within the top 1 per cent of students he has taught in 15 years.

As a lifelong equestrian, Carmichael made horses her principal subject matter. Benefitting from her knowledge of their anatomy, she learnt to use her hands and sculpting tools to mould the form of the horse, taking care to render each detail of their physique accurately. During our interview, she explained the complexity of a horse’s tail, which falls differently depending on the gait. Comparing her Piaffe alongside Giambologna’s Equestrian Monument of Cosimo I, with both horses poised similarly, one can observe Carmichael’s keen knowhow. While the tail of the latter falls heavily without motion, her horse’s tail turns and flicks in a more natural response to the movement.

Zoë Carmichael, Piaffe, bronze, 32cm x 29cm x 8cm, edition of 12

The care that Carmichael brings to her work poses a clear juxtaposition to the cliches described in Hepworth’s quote. Far from the aggressive manipulation stereotypically associated with sculpture, Carmichael’s practice is more a labour of love, resting on a desire to nurture her idea rather than forcefully bring it into existence. Such terminology is usually considered more feminine as it evokes qualities and behavioural traits traditionally associated with the societal roles taken on by women, that of wife and mother. However, while Carmichael celebrates her femininity, it would be wrong to assume that her work derives solely from her gender, just as it would be wrong to seek masculinity in the work of the old masters because they were all men. Indeed, their working practice differs little from Carmichael’s, implying that they must have approached their work with the same patience with which she creates hers. Since femininity is not strictly synonymous with womanhood, would it be fair to argue that femininity has always been prevalent within sculpture?

With this thought, the notion shared by Henry James no longer seems so far-fetched. As the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence observed the revival of many art practices, including marble and bronze sculpture. The Renaissance is a period often defined by beauty and rebirth, terms often considered more feminine. Could it be that, despite the abundance of sculptures depicting men, one can observe the feminine that prevails beneath this masculine veneer? Such considerations do little to bring to light the many women who contributed to the development of Florence, a topic deserving of more focus. However, it does encourage the celebration of women today whose professional endeavours have rendered them susceptible to the inspirations of Florence and whose talent refuses to be extinguished by the social forces that once silenced their female ancestors. Zoë Carmichael is one such woman.

Kitty’s Horse in progress

After completing her studies at the Studio Galleria Romanelli, Carmichael returned to England to map out her career as a full-time artist. She first sought out a foundry, a critical quest that considered several factors before settling on Morris Singer Foundry, based in Lasham, a village south of Basingstoke. Recognised as one of the oldest fine art foundries in the world, it has worked with some of Britain’s leading bronze sculptors, including Alfred Drury, Sir Jacob Epstein and Nic Fiddian-Green, whose Still Water is the tallest free-standing bronze sculpture in London at 33 feet high. Since returning to England and launching her first sculpture exhibition Primi, Carmichael has enjoyed considerable success, receiving countless commissions and prizes for her work. In October, she won the British Sporting Arts Trust Best Sculpture at the 2023 Horse in Art exhibition with her piece Hunt Horse, while earlier this summer she was selected to exhibit at the Green and Stone Gallery Summer Exhibition with her work Koi Carp. She is currently working on a commission of the record-breaking racehorse Kitty’s Light, as well as an edition of 12 sculptures depicting a baby Rhino called Tyson from the Waterberg region in South Africa, 15 per cent of whose proceeds will go to the Waterberg rhino charity. Also in a limited edition of 12 is a larger version of her acclaimed Piaffe horse, which will measure about 48cm in length.

Although Carmichael works full-time in England, she visits Florence frequently to soak up the inspiration that first prompted her to sculpt. Surrounded by artwork conceived by some of the world’s most acclaimed artists, Carmichael establishes herself as a force within her own right.

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