In conversation: Barnaby Barford

Barnaby is an internationally-exhibited artist renowned for his work across different media, most notably ceramics, sculpture, drawing and film

Barnaby Barford is an internationally-exhibited artist renowned for his work across different media, most notably ceramics, sculpture, drawing and film. 

Among his most recent critical successes was the monumental Tower of Babel project staged at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and constructed from 3,000 bone china buildings, each depicting a genuine shop from the city that he had photographed. 

A graduate of BA (Hons) 3D Design (1997-2000), Barnaby has a workshop in London and is represented by David Gill Gallery in Mayfair. On his first visit to the Plymouth campus, he gave a talk to students and conducted some tutorials, and took some time to share his thoughts on careers and creativity.

Barnaby Barford
Barnaby Barford
The Seated Bear
Barnaby Barford
The Tiger - close up

How has your career path changed since you graduated?

Interesting. Although I studied 3D design, when I first started, the reason I liked ceramics was because of a ‘slip casting’ project we had done in the first year of my degree. And the realisation of being able to make multiples of a piece of work, relatively easily and cheaply, was a real ‘wow’ moment for me. So I carried on doing ceramics throughout the course, and then went to the Royal College of Art, where I changed from doing design to more conceptual art. But actually, when I look back, I am still using those same techniques of mass-producing ceramics, just now in the creation of unique art. So in one way I have changed completely, and in another, I haven’t changed at all.

What has been the most difficult issue you have faced?

When you work in the creative industries, everything is difficult – there is nobody telling you how to do it. You just have to keep going and persist and do new things. You carry on and carry on and carry on, and that is the difficult thing. I am not sure students realise how difficult it is!

On the flip-side, what is the best and most interesting thing you’ve done?

The best thing about what I do is that I don’t really know what I’ll be doing! So, I started with ceramics, but since I finished at the Royal College, I’ve made a film (an animated film for Channel 4); I’ve done some massive projects such as the 'Tower of Babel'; and I’m talking to a big corporate company about doing a residency with them – and three months ago, it hadn’t even crossed my mind that that could happen. So, although it is really difficult and not particularly ‘stable’, the beauty is that you don’t know what’s around the corner and you’re always making your own opportunities. So it’s fun and exciting. Each time you finish a big project you realise that you feel most alive when you’re under the cosh!

What, if anything, do you wish you’d done differently in your career?

It’s quite a difficult question. The reason I am where I am is because of the path I’ve taken – and I’m quite happy where I am. But, I think knowing what I know now and the area in which I’m working, which is more ‘artistic’, I would have concentrated more on that in my studying period. But it’s difficult. You are always on a journey. I’m not done, I’m still pushing and still trying to do new things.

Barnaby Barford

What advice would you give to students?

The thing is, it’s really competitive, and the creative industries are super competitive and you need to work hard. You need to be reading, going to exhibitions, understanding what is going on, You can’t rely on what you’ve been taught – that is the bare minimum. You need to understand what is going on in this increasingly global world, and where you fit in, the context of your work.

And it didn’t necessarily feel like that when I was studying, but the world has changed quite a lot. And, you’re in an institution with fine artists, designers, architects – mix with all of those people, Find out what they do. Try and work with them. Go and see what else is going on, soak in everything even if you don’t think it directly relates to you. And then when you leave, it is a matter of persistence, of sticking at it and sticking at it and sticking at it. It takes time, but the people I see who have done so have done well. Ultimately, we’re not here doing accountancy or writing essays – it’s what we love to do. So, love doing it, but do lots of it!

How did studying at Plymouth help you to develop?

I was at the University when the arts faculty was based in Exeter. It was a great place, with a real art college environment. I’m still in touch with a number of friends, many of whom have moved to London, and we’re all still close. It gave me a skillset that has been really useful. The teaching staff gave me a lot of support and I did Erasmus in my second year, and that was a huge turning point in my life. I’d recommend anyone who has the opportunity to do it should do so and really throw themselves at it. I went to study in Italy, and I met my wife there. We’ve been together 19 years, have children, and I get stuff manufactured in Italy, and our friends there have moved over and set up business here. It’s what the whole ethos of Erasmus and the European Union was all about it. So that really was a kickstarter in everything I do.

What piece of work are you most proud of and why?

The best or most important work is always the one you are working on! I have been fortunate enough to have done some really interesting projects, the film I made for Channel 4 was a wonderful experience, working in an industry where everyone has their job and everyone knows how to work together and as a director you can oversee all of these parts. The output as well was something totally new to me. Each project comes with its own challenges and its own rewards. The 'Tower of Babel' was an enormous undertaking, over two-and-a-half years' work; it nearly killed me! But what started out as a critique of our society ended up giving a lot of people a lot of pleasure.

Barnaby Barford - the Tower of Babel
The Tower of Babel