Life & Culture

The artist racing against time to sculpt Holocaust survivors

Frances Segelman is on a quest to capture the images of the generation who witnessed the Shoah


When sculptor Frances Segelman was approached to sculpt Auschwitz survivor Arek Hersh MBE, she found the idea “harrowing” and tried to avoid doing it.

Having spent the previous 25 years sculpting celebrities and royalty including the late Queen, the Prince of Wales, Dame Joan Collins, Boris Johnson to name a few, this commission was far out of her comfort zone and she quite simply wasn’t sure she could handle it.

In the end, she agreed to the commission from Makor, the Jewish Culture Office for Leeds, and returned to her native Leeds to perform a live sculpting session in front of an audience of 200 people.

That was six years ago, a life-changing experience. Since then she’s been sculpt ing the images of as many survivors as possible, in partnership with Yad Vashem UK. Many of her sitters are in their nineties, with a zest for life that defies belief given the brutality of what they experienced in their early years.

She is working on her 14th sculpture, Eve Kugler BEM. She had the good fortune to sculpt Sir Ben Helfgott MBE and Zigi Shipper BEM who both passed away earlier this year aged 93. The bronze of former Olympic weightlifter Sir Ben Helfgott now sits in the National Portrait Gallery as part of its permanent collection.

Before each live session, she spends some time chatting to her subject, in order to get to know them, to study their expressions and personality, and to observe how they sit and hold themselves. And then she gets to work, fuelled by time pressure and adrenaline. With a caliper, she measures their face and features. She aims to mould not just a physical likeness but what she calls the “innermost spirit” of the person sitting in front of her.

“I feel like I am in a different world. I am not on this earth when I do these sittings. It’s a very emotional experience,” she observes. “By the end my voice has gone. I just go into a different level, a tunnel vision level.”

Segelman’s second subject was Hungarian-born Ivor Perl BEM, who was just 12 when he was taken to Auschwitz. His older brother Alec saved him from “the jaws of death”. His seven siblings and parents were murdered.

The artist says the actual performance is cathartic for the sitter, as they physically see the first stage of their bust being sculpted within two hours. “When I sculpted Ivor Perl, he said: ‘Can I call you mother? I feel you have given me a new life, as it will carry on.’ That is what got me hooked.”

Ivor Perl observed that being sculpted for posterity was a “very healing process”. He said: “In 100 years’ time, people of the future could see that sculpture, find meaning in it and learn about what happened in the Holocaust.”

The live sculpture is just the first part of a long, laborious process. The clay is then moulded into wax. Segelman gets to work diligently, first in the chasing room where the hollow wax copy is “chased” by sculpting tools. A ceramic shell goes on to the wax mould and then bronze is poured into it. Then in the patination room she painstakingly works on the colouring until it is perfected. It is a long process in which she is highly skilled, given her 30 or so years in the business.

Segelman, who is also known as Lady Petchey as she is married to philanthropist Sir Jack Petchey CBE, grew up in an artistic household in north Leeds — her father was a violinist and composer, and her mother was an artist and dress designer. As a little girl on holiday she would spend hours carving sculptures of bodies and faces in the sand. Growing up, she was captivated by the form of the human body, inspired by Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Rodin, and studied anatomy religiously.

Although she got into art school in Harrogate, her art career was derailed when she was picked up by a modelling agency at 14. She spent a few years modelling before becoming a young mother. A few years later, with two young children, she started attending a sculpture class.

“I became completely obsessed. I was getting up in the middle of the night to sculpt. I was so excited.” Not long after becoming a student she became a teacher, where the concept of live sculpting sessions was born.

In 1993 she walked into Harrods to ask if they would buy her work for a new space called The Egyptian Room. The store commissioned her to do a series for them. This catapulted her into the world of celebrity sculpting, culminating in the commission to sculpt Queen Elizabeth II in three sittings in 2007. “It was absolutely surreal and unbelievable to go into the room at the palace and measure her head, it was really nerve wracking.” Next year she will be sculpting Queen Camilla.

When she sculpted the Prince of Wales, initially she finished him in a shirt and tie. But he wanted to be portrayed with his ornate uniform, so she went to the galleries in search of the right painting to help her, which turned out to be at the National Portrait Gallery.

In spite of having worked on so many members of the Royal Family, she says it’s her Holocaust survivor series that has turned into her most-valued work.

Earlier this year, through The Fed’s My Voice Project in partnership with Yad Vashem UK, she sculpted 99-year-old Marianne Phillips who came to England on the Kindertransport. She lost her mother before the war, and her brother and father perished in the Holocaust.
“In spite of everything Marianne has been through in her life, I have never come across such a positive person,” says Segelman. “It was so inspiring to sculpt her, such an honour.”

Her next goal is to get the recorded clips of the survivors’ stories to be installed in the bronze itself, thereby bringing their testimonies to life.

The project has had a profound impact on her relationship to Judaism. “I was brought up with going to synagogue with my grandparents. When my father died when he was 53 I was so shattered by it, I lost my feeling,” she explains. “Sculpting these people, seeing their belief in God and religion and seeing how amazing they are, without bitterness, makes me cry. I am very moved by it. It has changed me. I have gone back to my Jewish roots a lot more.”

She is currently completing the bronze of Manfred Goldberg BEM, which will be unveiled in October. Manfred was just 14 years old when he spent more than eight months as a slave worker in Stutthof and its subcamps, including Stolp and Burggraben. He hopes the work will stimulate interest in finding out about the Holocaust and that this “horrendous period in the life of the world” would never be forgotten.

Her work is so much more than the story of one life. It is the preservation of history, a testimony for future generations.

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