WAXWORKER AND SCULPTOR
Born in New Cross, Southeast London, he was the second of three children to Walter Butler, a docker, and his wife Rosina.
Walter built the family a house at West Malling, Kent, about 6 miles from Maidstone. James spent most of his childhood there.
But his father died when James was just 12 and his mother converted the home into a café.
James always loved drawing and was encouraged by his teachers at Maidstone Grammar School.
Aged 16 he went to the Maidstone School of Arts and Crafts, to study painting, but whilst there he had his eyes opened to other art forms – particularly sculpture.
His lecturer was Jock Stewart. Jock got offered a new job, lecturing at St. Martin’s School of Art in London. He persuaded James to join him there.
In his last term, the students were given a lecture by a visiting sculptor, Gerald Giudici. He was very impressed with James’ work and asked him to take up a carving apprenticeship with him and his brother Raimondo. James accepted the offer.
He got his National Diploma, did his apprenticeship, and also did 2 years National Service with the Royal Signallers. And he married Daisy Gutteridge.
Then he became a full-time carver with the Giudici brothers. He was allowed to work with other artists at the same time, including William McMillan, Charles Wheeler and James Woodford. He was a carver on the ‘Queen’s Beasts’, now displayed in Kew Gardens.
He continued to learn. He did evening classes with Bernard Sindall on classical Italian sculpture – something that would prove a great influence on him.
He also won the Beckworth Scholarship, which enabled him to study sculpture at the British School in Rome for a while.
In 1956 he got a scholarship with the Royal College of Art, but it didn’t work out well. He found their expectations of him very restricting, so in 1960 James decided to go solo.
He became a private art teacher and a sculptor at the same time.
In 1964, he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy. He was just 32 years old.
At this time he was living with other artists, firstly at the Abbey Art Centre in Barnet and then at the Digswell Art Trust in Welwyn Garden City. This also led to a divorce from Daisy.
He then married Janet Love. It was a very brief marriage, although they did have a son.
In 1966, he married Elizabeth Nassim (she would go on to write crime novels under the pseudonym Liza Cody). They had a daughter. They bought an old Victorian schoolhouse in Greenfield, Bedfordshire, which gave him lots of space to work in.
Because he was now freelance, James (who was known only to his friends as ‘Jim’) would accept any work. His slogan was, “We Never Say No”, which he had printed onto his T-shirt.
He designed stage sets for the Royal Shakespeare Company and did waxwork sculptures for Madame Tussauds.
In 1972 James was elected as a fully fledged member of the Royal Society and suddenly commissions started flooding in, including many from abroad.
He designed a statue of Kenyan President, Jomo Kenyatta, which was twice lifesize. It now sits in the centre of Nairobi.
He also designed the Monument to Freedom fighters in Lusaka, Zambia.
By 1975 he was so successful that he could afford to give up teaching. That same year he was divorced for a third time.
Then he married Angie Berry, a journalist, author and owner of a travel company. They were to have 4 daughters.
The couple moved to Valley Farm in Radway, Warwickshire. There, the outbuildings were converted into additional studios for his work.
He designed a statue of King Richard 3rd for the city of Leicester (as well as one of a spinning woman).
In 1981, James became a fellow of the Royal Society of British Sculptors. He immediately won the Otto Beit medal, for his creation of the Cippio Fountain at the Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.
His 1985 statue of Earl Alexander of Tunis, which is displayed at the Wellington Barracks, won him the society’s silver medal.
He designed the Green Howards memorial at Crepon in France – near the Normandy Beaches. He also designed the memorial to the Fleet Air Arm on the Victoria Embankment (in 2000).
In 2001, the Royal Mint commissioned him to create a new Royal Seal of the Realm. This was really small scale work for him. It required several sittings with the Queen – something he was going to do much more frequently.
In 2004 he designed a new 50p piece, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Roger Bannister breaking the 4 minute mile barrier.
He also designed a statue of former England football captain Billy Wright, for the city of Wolverhampton.
In 2006 he was made a Senior Royal Academician, but he soon fell out with them. “The Royal Academy no longer looks after figurative sculptors.”
Nevertheless, he still enjoyed the perk of eating at the Royal Academy Dining Club. He famously once caused a real commotion when they had run out of mustard to go with his roast beef dinner.
In 2009, James was awarded an MBE.
He designed various statues for the town of Stratford, including one of the Bard himself, of which James was immensely proud.
In 2015 he designed a bronze statue of Queen Elizabeth 2nd, which was placed at Runnymede, to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta.
His last major commission was the Rainbow Division memorial, placed at the site of the Battle of Croix Rouge Farm in the First World War, in Picardy.
He still continued with private commissions and was still working at the age of 90.
RIP – Remodelling Important People