The measure of time

David Harber is an award winning artist and sculptor and one of the foremost sundial makers in the world. With clients from royalty to celebrities, Harber is a much sought after artist. European CEO made time to visit him at his Oxfordshire workshop to find out what he has lined up for the future

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You’ve been creating sundials and outdoor sculpture for almost 20 years, but you could just as easily be working as a professional mountaineer or running a travelling theatre. How did you arrive at where you are today?
I left school with nothing more than a surreal photograph album and a quirky self-confidence. Faced with the realities of work, I elected to follow my instincts and dreamily worked as a potter. In hindsight this gave me an understanding of style, form and functionality but at the time all I remember was freezing cold clay, blood hot kilns and the princely wage of 50p an hour. I supplemented my income by teaching rock climbing, a hobby I love. This led to some BBC mountaineering expeditions to Patagonia. I saw this as a glamorous career path but in truth I found the mountains cold, slippery and terrifyingly high. Time for a rethink and the purchase of a 160 tonne barge, which I planned to convert to a mobile art centre and theatre. A rather crazy purchase, especially as I had not progressed beyond a rowing boat, but I figured easier than slippery Patagonian mountains.

I sailed to France and had a great time (think Johnny Depp in ‘Chocolat’) culminating in being awarded a prize for enterprise by Francois Mitterand. Ten years later, back in England, the dream was over. I was broke and due to be evicted from my rented cottage. Then, two events occurred that changed my life. An antique dealer friend showed me a beautiful armillary sphere sundial destined for an antiques fair in London. I was captivated and decided to build one. I spent my last remaining funds on materials and was standing in my garden admiring my creation when – out of the blue – Jeremy Irons, the actor, walked past and asked if he could buy it. My first client. His purchase enabled me to pay my rent and gave me the confidence to produce more sundials and develop wider art work and sculpture.

Sundials and the passage of time has long captivated people – why is this do you think?
Sundials are graceful, romantic and hugely engaging. The earliest sundials are recorded in Egyptian and Babylonian astronomy and are mentioned in the bible. The Roman Empire built on this knowledge to create complex and highly accurate dials, the peak for the technology being in 1500 just before the watch was invented.  Simple or complex, the basic premise remains the same – the sun casts a shadow and tells the time, this simple, knowledge giving, beauty is the attraction. Using this same basic premise we can create beautiful works that capture the passage of the sun across the sky and accurately tell the time. Through modern technology such as GPS it’s possible to create very accurate sundials – and can create them so they illuminate certain text or certain symbols or pictures at a particular time or date that are special to that person for example specific wedding or birthday.

Last year you created an armillary sphere sundial designed by 16th century mathematical genius Sir John Blagrave, discovering in the process that he was a direct ancestor. Why is the work so important and where can it be seen today?
Blagrave is one of the all-time great sundial and scientific instrument makers. He was a direct contemporary of William Shakespeare and has long been acknowledged as one of the finest ever exponents of mathematical instrument design. The only problem preventing a wider appreciation of his work has been the fact that no physical examples of his designs exist today. The Mathematical Jewel – a complex armillary sphere sundial – is recognised by experts as a scientific masterpiece and to create this work was a real privilege. To discover during the process of making Blagrave’s most ambitious design that he was family and was born just 10 miles from my original workshop, was astonishing. We unveiled the design at the Science Museum in London, and it is now on show at St John’s College, Oxford.

From George Michael and Judy Dench, and The Queen Mother to world class institutions such as Oxford, Cambridge Universities and HSBC bank. What’s been your most unusual commission to date?

Every commission is different and presents its own challenge, from the interior of luxury yachts, penthouse flats to quintessential English Gardens, there is a joy in creating a piece specific to the client and the site. Occasionally I am given complete carte blanche and encouraged to produce something from deep within; the sense of responsibility in these commissions is both daunting and liberating. However, we have had some glorious, unique sculptural pieces as a result. One commission that I particularly enjoyed was creating my first ever drinking fountain for Hyde Park. It was commissioned by the Royal Parks Foundation and donated by Michael Freeman, who is a Trustee of the Royal Parks Foundation and joint founder of Argent Group, the developer of King’s Cross Central. The brief was to develop a visually striking piece yet robust and practical to maintain – very different to run-of-the-mill public drinking fountains.

With so many varied clients – where do you draw your inspiration from?

I’ve always been fascinated by the interplay of light, landscape, illusion and the perennial passage of time. My workshop in Oxfordshire looks over the countryside and a giant Iron Age Hill Fort. This massive structure has an elemental feel and I often stand and wonder at its creation. Through the year I watch the land and structure changing, the role of the seasons, the colours and textures they bring.  Lately I have been exploring the juxtaposition of different materials and textures, which has been reflected in designs such as a new Fire Table – a flat surface of rough, oxidised copper set centrally with a bowl of polished stainless steel which fills with flame – and The Mantle, a sphere made of blue-green verdigris pieces lined with burnished gold which catches and reflects both sunlight and candlelight.

It’s notoriously difficult to be a commercially-successful artist – what’s your secret?
Giving my clients joy in the work I create for them is my main focus. I couldn’t function without my wife and my team of excellent craftsmen and engineers at my workshop. When people buy a David Harber they buy my vision and creative process. I’ve honed my practical skills over the years but I am very aware that the creative approach I have for the process has only survived because of the incredibly important role played by my wife, Sophie. Her background in marketing and business studies has been essential in converting a passion into a viable business. The small team of highly skilled and dedicated engineers working from our Oxfordshire studios ensure designs are worked up on time and on budget.

You have quite a corporate following, having created pieces for HSBC, Heathrow and Hyatt hotels. What’s the appeal of creating art for businesses and how are the challenges different to working with private individuals?

Corporate buildings and public spaces have their own challenges, and require us to think about the different ways people will interact with the work. The joy of producing these large public pieces is the scale at which one can work and in many ways the kudos of such commissions. I also love the way that art can enliven an industrial space. My favourite creations are those that fuse the natural world with industrial spaces – elemental works that connect people inside a space or building with the outside and industrial materials outside that make you consider the space and environment you’re within. The challenge can be in the walls of bureaucracy and red tape, you just need to be very patient, persistant and sometimes persusive. Luckily I have a great administrative team as well. The intimacy of a private commission still holds a kind of magic, allowing both the client and myself to work directly towards their chosen piece.

Time waits for no man… You’ve always had lots of different projects on the go – when you’re not at work in Oxfordshire where are you happiest?
Early on in my sculptor/sundial career I took the step of learning to fly for the wholly hedonistic reason of wanting to observe from the air the play of shadows on and from structures, trees and hills. This is both inspirational and beguiling and a constant source of pleasure. When not in the air or producing sculptures in our workshop, I am to be found exploring south-east Siciliy with all its glorious treasures from our restored farm house and lemon grove. Here we get back to the essence of ancient times (sunrise, lunch/wine, sunset) – “it was ever thus”.

David Harber currently has a solo show at Eaton Square Gardens, Belgravia, London, until September 23 and will be at Decorex from September 25–28. Details at