Royal Air Force

Downton Revisited: The Highclere Castle Airman

Downton Revisited: The Highclere Castle Airman 150 150 Simon O'Rourke
The Visit

No, our blog title doesn’t refer to the movie released this weekend. We mean the real life setting for the series and movie: Highclere Castle. The castle is part of Lady and Lord Carnavon’s estate and is located in Hampshire, over 200 miles from the fictional setting. But for the fans of the series who enjoy a good tear-jerker, today’s blog about visiting the Highclere Castle Airman is just as good!

You may remember that last year Simon and Dan worked on a memorial for the Highclere Estate. For those who need a refresher, the project was a sculpture of a WWII airman and a series of benches that were unveiled at the Highclere Heroes weekend. They were made as a tribute to the airmen who lost their lives in the eight plane crashes that occurred there during WWII.  The benches even featured actual wreckage from one of the B17s that crashed on the estate. This weekend Simon and Liz had the privilege of visiting to see how the Highclere Castle airman is doing.

Keep reading to find out what that entails for Simon, but also a wonderful ‘plot twist’!

Simon and Liz O'Rourke at Highclere Castle, home of his airman sculpture

Simon and Liz at Highclere

Highclere Castle Airman with the house in the background

The beautiful setting for the airman and benches

The ‘Check Up’

Simon looks out for a few things when checking on a sculpture. One is obviously any damage that needs repairing. Thankfully there is no damage to either the airman or benches. That is, except for the inevitable bird deposits! He also reports that the Sculpture is weathering nicely. It’s already turned a lovely silvery grey colour, which was the intention.
When Simon re-visits a sculpture, he also looks at where the wood has opened up. When he is carving, he has to calculate where cracks will appear as it ages, and take this into account. Using wood in the right way can ensures it doesn’t split across the face or important parts of the sculpture as the wood dries. Again, thankfully all is well!

Highclere Castle Airman by Simon O'Rourke

The airman

Highclere Castle Airman by Simon O'Rourke

Reflecting on the project

The estate is a beautiful place to  enjoy the British countryside, and the Highclere Castle Airman is located in a particularly tranquil spot. As Simon and Liz were able to sit and enjoy both countryside and sculpture, they took some time to reflect on the project.

The O’Rourkes still feel extremely honoured to have been involved in this memorial. They hope that people will be able to enjoy the sculpture and benches in this setting for years to come. They’re also still extremely grateful to Lord and lady Carnarvon for commissioning Simon and Dan, and for their hospitality to them. As at the original unveiling,  it was very moving for them to be in a place so many sacrificed their lives for others, and to be part of a project that makes that history a visible and ‘living memory’ for others.

Simon, Liz and Dan weren’t the only ones moved by this lovely tribute commissioned by Lady Carnarvon. Several news outlets picked up on the sculpture, but also some of the stories behind it. The BBC article focused on the story of Len Nitti; a serviceman who miraculously survived a crash. The Daily Post focused on the project itself, as does the Daily Mail who also reflect on how the commission was an example of life and art imitating each other, and mirrored the final scenes of Downton Abbey.

B17 Benches, part of the Highclere Castle Aiurman memorial by Simon O'Rourke and Dan Barnes

The ‘B17 benches by Dan Barnes featuring shrapnel from crashed planes

The 'B17 benches by Dan Barnes featuring shrapnel from crashed planes. Part of the Highclere Castle Airman memorial

The ‘B17 benches by Dan Barnes featuring shrapnel from crashed planes

And then…..

And now for that beautiful plot twist!

Simon and Liz met with families of the airmen who lost their lives as part of the project – a very meaningful part of the Highclere Castle Airman story for them. So much so in fact, they are still in touch with one of the families today. There was one family that they didn’t get to meet at the time though. The family of William Dutton were the only family who were unable to make the unveiling weekend last year. 2nd Lt Dutton died on May 5th 1945 in the B17 Flying Fortress. In fact, it’s parts from his plane that are in the bench legs!
Life is full of surprises though. Completely unexpectedly,  Simon and Liz got to meet Nancy Dutton Sanders this weekend – William Dutton’s sister!

Simon O'Rourke meets sister of deceased Highclere Castle Airman

Meeting with Nancy Dutton Sanders

It added a poignancy and beauty to the visit. As always, meeting the ‘real life people’ behind the stories, makes all of us feel afresh a thankfulness for those who fought in wars for our freedom. For Simon and Liz, meeting families and seeing how much it means to them to have their loved ones honoured, is also a privilege and a joy, and adds real purpose to a project. How much more fun when it is totally unexpected!

This really ‘made’ the visit. We only hope that people viewing Highclere on the Big Screen this weekend get as much of a happy ending!

A Throne Fit for a King Officer

A Throne Fit for a King Officer 150 150 Simon O'Rourke

Sometimes you don’t need an excuse like an anniversary to install a piece of art.
Do you ever see something you admire and think ‘I’d like one of those’? That’s kind of what happened with this week’s featured sculpture: The RAF dragon throne.

Close up of the RAF Valley Dragon by Simon O'Rourke

The Story Behind the RAF Dragon Throne

The story of this sculpture actually began back in February, not long after Simon revealed The Dragon of Bethesda . Squadron Leader Leah Richmond at RAF Valley, Anglesey (North Wales) saw the dragon Simon had carved as a private commission. She had a space on the RAF base that needed ‘something’, so she contacted Simon about getting their very own dragon! Or at least, that’s the quick summary! Simon created this rather dignified looking beast in the Spring, and it was unveiled this week during the annual base reception and sunset parade.

RAF Valley Dragon Throne by Simon O'Rourke in progress

Early work on the dragon throne

The Dragon Throne’s New Home

RAF Valley provides fast-jet training as well as training for aircrew working with search and rescue. The base became known throughout the UK when Prince William was stationed there 2010-2013. The North Waelsh population knew of it a long time before that however. Many a holiday-goer in Snowdonia is treated to the sight (and sound!!!) of a low flying Hawk!

The dragon was a meaningful choice for this base, as not only is the dragon on the national flag of Wales, but it is also on the RAF Valley emblem. This side by side shows how Simon has taken the very simplistic image from the badge, and re-imagined how that would translate into a real animal. The dragon’s expression and more rugged texturing (rather than smooth, even scales) really enhance the sense of a rugged,  aged guardian.

Comparison of RAF Valley Dragon with Simon O'Rourke's Sculpture

Comparison of the dragons

The Making of the Throne

Making the dragon took six days of work, from the initial hollowing out of the oak that is the main frame for the thone, to completing the fine detail. The shape of the wings which provide the back and sides of the throne, remain faithful to the dragon on the badge, and the overall scale provides a fittingly regal overall impression. Truly a throne fit for an officer!

As the oak ages, it will take on a much darker colour and warmer tones. In time, those tones will contrast beautifully with the seat which is made from Cedar of Lebanon. The cedar will also darken in time, but take on grey hues – coincidentally reminiscent of the RAF uniforms!

As always, Simon used his faithful Stihl chainsaws to create the throne. For those who are interested in this side of what Simon does, check out the MS 500i and the MSA 200 which were both used for this sculpture. Both have been great additions to his collection of tools. The MS500i is great for its power, lightweight design and how easy it is to operate when there is heavy duty ‘chopping’, hollowing and shaping to do! The MSA 200 gives Simon the usual Stihl functionality as well as all the benefits of using a battery operated saw – and is quiet enough to use on site in residential or public areas.

Completed Dragon Throne by Simon O'Rourke

The finished throne!

Unveiling the RAF Dragon Throne

The unveiling of the throne happened at the annual base reception this week. It made quite the impact, and was admired by the staff, local dignitaries and other attendees. It also created some entertaining Twitter conversation that you can read here!

Simon O'Rourke with RAF Valley Station Commander Chris Jones and the completed dragon throne

Simon O’Rourke with RAF Valley Station Commander Chris Jones and the completed dragon throne

 

Liz O'Rourke with Sqn Ldr Leah Richmond who envisioned and initiated the throne

Liz O’Rourke with Sqn Ldr Leah Richmond who envisioned and initiated the throne

This sculpture began life when somebody saw and admired another of Simon’s pieces. Which carvings have you seen and thought ‘I want one of those’? Drop us a comment below!
Even better, why not email [email protected] and have a chat about how you could have your own?