Barton’s Chair

Barton’s Chair – a sculpture by Briony Marshall from Briony Marshall on Vimeo.

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 who attended Tonbridge School 1932-35. 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’. They had discovered that carbon rings could either exist as a chair shape or a boat shape.


The chemistry behind the sculpture

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. An adult figure coloured black represents the carbon atoms, infants coloured white represent the much smaller hydrogen atoms. 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.”

How it came about

The school approached me as a sculptor with a background in science. I have created a series of works using human figures to represent the atoms in various molecules. I love the shape of carbon rings. This led me to produce two small sculpture of the chair and boat isomers of cyclohexane. I am fascinated by these molecular building blocks of life. I use these to look at the fragility, beauty and complexity of human life.

How it was made

It took less than 6 months to create the sculpture. The school gave me the go-ahead in July 2018 and we finished installing it before Christmas. That was quick for a project on this scale, but we needed the work installed for the opening of the science building at the start of term.

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. To do this I 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.

From the finished clay we created a silicon mould, 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.

The result

My hope is that my sculpture Barton’s Chair 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 we are 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”.

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