Barton Science Centre – Tonbridge School

Transforming of the UK’s first purpose built School Science Building

The following article appeared in the above brochure detailing the commission Barton’s Chair for Tonbridge School’s Barton Science Centre.

Barton Science Centre Brochure cover

The article:
(If you would like to read the article, please see the text from the article at the end of the page.)

Barton Centre 1st spread

Barton Centre 1st spread

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Text from the article:

A note from the Artist
Briony Marshall

Barton’s Chair – The Art of Connection

Barton’s Chair is a large specially commissioned sculpture hanging in the central atrium in the heart of the new Barton Science Centre of Tonbridge School. It is based on the chair conformation of cyclohexane – a molecule formed by a ring of six carbon atoms.

Both the sculpture and the Science Centre are named after Old Tonbridgian Sir Derek Barton (MH 1932-5). In 1969 he shared the Nobel prize for Chemistry with Norwegian Odd Hassel for the ‘development of the concept of conformation and its application in Chemistry’. In other words, he discovered that carbon rings could either exist as a chair shape or a boat shape.

The sculpture is 8 billion times life-size and combines a scientific model of a molecular structure with a human call for connection and cooperation. Each carbon atom is represented by an adult figure coloured black, and each hydrogen atom by an infant coloured white. The colours reflect the CPK colour convention used in Chemistry. The limbs of the adult figure and the right arm of each infant represent the covalent bonds that hold the molecule together; carbon usually forms four bonds, but hydrogen only one. The adult carbons are holding the hydrogen infants by the hand – an intimate analogy of connection and nurture. In the words of the novelist and Old Tonbridgian E.M. Forster: “Only Connect.”

I was approached by the school as I am a sculptor with a background in science and I had created a series of works using human figures to represent molecules, including both the chair and boat isomers of cyclohexane. I am fascinated by the building blocks of life, and use these to look at the fragility, beauty and complexity of human life.

The work was created over 6 months. Physical and computer models were first created to work out the best scale and positioning of the sculpture in the space.

Initially I created a wax maquette at 1/3 the size of the final sculpture, and worked with a male model and babies to understand the anatomy of the poses. I then created a large armature out of steel and aluminium, combining a 4 sided pyramid with wire bodies. I worked up the figures in clay, letting go of the purely literal and used the movement of the muscles and body parts to highlight the dynamism and geometry of the sculpture.

A silicon mould was created from the finished clay, and this was used to cast 6 male figures and 12 babies in resin, which were connected together through a stainless steel framework of rods and tubes. The finished sculpture was then raised up and suspended from the ceiling in the atrium of the school.

My hope is that my sculpture will inspire the students of Tonbridge not only to become fascinated with chemistry like I was at school, but also get an insight into how the pursuit of scientific knowledge is one of the ways humans use to try to understand the mysteries of life: how and why are we here? We may never discover a final ‘truth’ but both the arts and sciences give us different windows into viewing the meaning of “life, the universe and everything”.


For more information about the Barton Science Centre, see the Tondbridge School Website

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