William Pye in his studio in south London © Leo Goddard

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William Pye shapes water. That might sound odd, but water is so common we don’t often notice the weirdness of the stuff that both freshens our faces and carves out canyons. Its molecular structure can be tetrahedral as ice but constantly breaks and reforms when fluid. The Mpemba effect is much more complex, showing that hot water can freeze faster than cold, though tests have varied unpredictably, which is especially wondrous. To physicists, water is the strangest liquid. And in strangeness lies a peculiar beauty.

For centuries, mankind has sought to harness and organise water’s gurgling randomness, most spectacularly through fountains. As major works of art and craft, fountains punctuate cities from Rome to Copenhagen and Las Vegas.

In his studio in Wandsworth Common, south London, Britain’s most celebrated fountain-maker produces nothing much like these. His work is about the force and physics of water, expressed through moulding fine materials on which it clings, or perhaps splashes, pours and drips.

“I inherited an affinity for working with my hands,” he says. Pye’s Surgical Handicraft was a manual written by his great uncle Walter, an ambidextrous surgeon at St Mary’s, Paddington. His aunt Sybil Pye was a noted bookbinder, while his father David Pye was an engineer. David took a 10-year-old William to see another aunt, Ethel, a sculptor. “She was really inspirational,” he recalls. At the time, Pye had taken up the flute, and though a decent dabbler he was not on a career path.

It didn’t occur to him that sculpture could offer him a living either. In 1958 he went to Wimbledon School of Art to be taught “drawing, modelling, stone carving and architectural drafting” under sculptor Freda Skinner. These were the confident years of the UK’s postwar recovery and an era of state generosity. The local authority paid for tuition fees, allowing him to move on to the Royal College of Art. For four years he could concentrate on how materials can reveal form and space, unconcerned by the commercial value of his work. “The idea that you could survive off your work wasn’t something to contemplate,” he says.

‘Cedra’ sculpture at Woolbeding House, West Sussex © Leo Goddard

The usual prospect was teaching until retirement. His father gave an inaugural lecture to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. When William read the lecture, titled “The Art of the Engineer”, he was struck by how the form of aeroplane turbines engaged with something as commonplace as air, and how through this utility came beauty. Making his work as beautiful as possible with abstract forms like turbine blades was perfectly in vogue when Henry Moore was the dominant force in sculpture. At the same time, industrial materials such as Pye’s beloved stainless steel were gaining currency alongside traditional bronze.

When he graduated from the RCA, the degree show was attended by college heads of department in search of new teachers, but also by gallery owners. Three galleries were smitten by Pye’s work. Every 18 months he had a show at Mayfair’s Redfern Gallery; it would take care of private views and publicity and he just got on with drawing, carving and smoothing when he wasn’t teaching to cover his living expenses.

His taste for acrobatics came from watching a fountain at Houghton Hall in Norfolk. “It was a jet of water from a wall, landing in a frog’s mouth. Very precise, and I thought it must be hydrostatically held by some invisible device, or under a very constant pressure.” So he began to investigate the properties of water and experimented with a “water trellis” of interlaced jets that has been a recurrent theme in his work.

Model of the ‘Vannpaviljong’ sculpture in Drammen, Norway © Leo Goddard

Any sculptor needs commissions, and they came from an unexpected source. At a London exhibition, Richard Carew Pole, the ancestral occupant of the National Trust-owned Antony House in Cornwall, asked Pye to create a garden sculpture. Pye proposed that a conical yew tree should be echoed in bronze, with water cascading down its sides. The Carew Poles are genial hosts, and led many guests up that garden path. Some wanted water sculptures of their own.

Pye’s commissions are as varied as the houses and gardens, cathedrals and public squares he has animated. “I’m sensitive to wonderful architecture and gardens,” he says, and every project depends on empathy with its context. Yet making water behave also requires certain forms and textures. On a visit to the Vatican, he studied two basin-shaped fountains, water pouring over the rims. Pye’s response was to ask himself, “Could I make a dish precisely shaped to a profile the water would cling to?” He could indeed, and through such tricks his fountains seem to choreograph water: pouring, dripping and dancing.

Unlike portable works of art, preparations for his garden fountains mean owners must ensure they have the necessary permissions, decent foundations and a water supply; electricity too. And sometimes, access for a crane to haul bronze, steel or stone vessels into place.

Storage area in Pye’s studio © Leo Goddard

All this costs money. Pye says the reception of his prices “could go either way” and that it has little to do with wealth. “I was invited to make a proposal for the wife of a shipping magnate surrounded by works of Degas and Moore. She went potty at an estimate of £35,000.” This would have been the lower end of the scale; the “Vannpaviljong” public water sculpture in Drammen, Norway, came in at €1m.

In 2014, a commission came from Dumfries House, the Scottish mansion about to be auctioned off with its Chippendale furniture but for the intervention of the Prince of Wales. The improvements to the garden front include Pye’s new fountain, bronze arches like an imperial crown spraying interlaced jets of water within. The sandstone for the basin was locally quarried to match the house, and in time will patinate to harmonise.

Pye fountains are serious investments in crafted materials, promising years of pleasure. So if you have money to burn, why not spend it on water?

Photographs by Leo Goddard

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