If the Jurassic Coast had a Michelangelo, surely it would be Mark Anderson. Mark has no rich patrons in the old sense, and his works aren’t bound for holy places or palaces. But his art reaches a more popular audience. He is the famous sand sculptor of Weymouth, and his admirers include the Queen.
Here in a sandpit of his own making along the promenade a safe distance from the sea, Mark can often be found moulding fabulous figures from the realm of make-believe. One year he depicted Bart and Homer slumped on the sofa. He constructed a Wizard of Oz tableau in 2009; this year he’s chosen Alice in Wonderland. Alice is instantly recognizable, then you spot the Mad Hatter, the white rabbit, the March Hare — and the childhood memories come flooding back.
Over in a side panel will always be a fairytale castle with turrets and crenellated towers. But unlike Michelangelo, Mark demolishes his sculptures at the end of every summer.
Weymouth’s sand, the colour of lightly baked biscuit, is ideal for sculptures, says the 44-year-old Portland resident. It’s the purest and sets like stone when compacted. “It’s cohesive and locks together,” unlike Blackpool sand, which disintegrates after it dries.
Mark is part of a dynasty that skipped a generation. His grandfather Fred Darrington started sculpting sand on the promenade in the 1920s. As a young lad, Mark helped him by collecting and carrying water, making tea and selling postcards. Mark loved the work, but didn’t think his future lay that way. He left school, studied at catering college and worked in that field for six years.
But one morning he woke up and thought, “I’m not satisfied with this… I want to be my grandfather’s apostle.” In the summer Mark worked for him, and at the close of the season set out to see the world, travelling as far away as Australia.
By his own admission, his first few sculptures were appalling. “There was no finesse of details. They were crude.” He improved, he says, partly because his audience would make candid remarks about how he was doing.
No one could say they’re crude now. At the height of summer, you can expect to see crowds six and eight deep staring down into the sandpit, oohing and aahing.
“The highlight of a trip to Weymouth is seeing the latest sand sculptures,” says Lyme Regis resident Judy Cottis. “I’ve enjoyed them since the 1960s, when Fred was in charge. Sand sculpting is part of a wonderful seaside tradition along with donkey rides and Punch and Judy.”
“The thing about the Weymouth sand sculptures,” says Pam Porter of Bridport, “is that they’re so playful and witty. His ‘Shrek’ was a masterpiece.”
The over-enthusiasm of some fans has forced him to shroud the stage in netting. If he went away on a short tea break, people would throw coins at the figures. “It can ruin a whole sculpture if it hits in a vulnerable part,” Mark explains.
He may not be supported by patrons, but corporations retain him to create backdrops for their commercials. A recent project was to build the world’s first sand restaurant for a fast-food chain. Peugeot commissioned him to construct a playful scene from a seaside community. His replica of Canary Wharf was built on a 1:100 scale and took him and two other sculptors 400 hours to complete.
Mark has travelled to sand sculpting competitions in America, Canada and all over Europe. He competes regularly at Jesolo, Venice, in a festival organised by Sultans of Sand. A block of sand is provided, and he will have two weeks to carve a sculpture.
At the World Championship in Vancouver in 1996 he received the Sculptors Choice award. In Moscow in 1998 his two-man team’s ‘Belosnezhka’, or ‘Snow White’ , tied for third. The lid of Snow White’s coffin had an overhang of six inches, the largest he’s managed — “The sand from the Moskva River stuck together well.”
The talk at these competitions often revolves around upcoming projects. “Everyone is going in a slightly different direction,” Mark says. “Some have moved on to more permanent mediums.” Sand may be their lingua franca, but over the years he’s made many friends, some of whom have become collaborators in other projects.
This year Mark is organising Britain’s first competitive sand sculpture event, which will take place at Weymouth’s Preston Beach. Colleagues and friends from all over will be there, building maritime-themed sculptures such as pirates, armadas, mermaids, U-boats and Vikings.
Of course Mark doesn’t use a kiln. He compresses wet sand into a series of crate-size containers. Then he uses these blocks to make the bulk of the shape, and adds and subtracts bits with his hands. Sometimes for jobs that aren’t meant to last long, he simply piles up a lot of sand and wets it. He depends on a rotating team of a dozen or so who mix the sand. Ten-hour days are usual.
Beachniks and budding architects of all ages aspire to build the most intricate, lavish sandcastles. But Mark’s project last summer was everyone’s dream castle writ large. For the Queen’s visit to Weymouth he built a replica of Windsor Castle nine feet high and 140 square feet in area, complete with 20 turrets. Prince Philip was fascinated, and gleefully pointed out the room where he takes his morning tea. Sadly, the castle was displayed for just one day before it was bulldozed.
Mark says he’s still a work in progress. “I’ve refined the detail to quite fine, but it’s taken 20 years. I keep making improvements annually with each piece I do, and I’m happier.
“I’m never going to be a wealthy man, but I do something I love and I live somewhere I love.”