For decades, sculptor Sally Arnup has been crafting beautiful statues of animals and birds at her studio just outside York. Tomorrow, a new exhibition of her work opens at York’s Blake Gallery. STEPHEN LEWIS went to meet her.

SALLY Arnup is a gatherer of life’s waifs and strays. Animal waifs and strays, that is. There is a thick folder of photographs of the sculptor in the archives at The Press, some dating back more than 50 years.

In most she is pictured with at least one animal, and often with the bronze sculpture she made of that animal for good measure.

Flicking through these old photographs with her in her studio at Holtby prompts a flood of memories. There is Jasper the South American spider monkey, pictured with a model she made in 1969.

“I rescued him from a man who was an antique dealer,” she says. “He kept him in a cupboard, which was really cruel. I brought him home, and he had quite a good life with me.” She pauses. “He didn’t like Mick [her late husband] though. He didn’t like it if Mick put his arm around me.”

Then there is the pair of fox cubs she rescued in the mid 1970s. One ran off aged three months, but she kept the other for a couple of years. He never really became domesticated and one day he, too, sloped off.

That was back in the days of fox hunting. “I laid a fake trail when he went. I hope it managed to distract them.”

She sculpted both foxes as cubs – and a couple of years later sculpted the grown fox in a hunting posture, as though pouncing on a small creature in the grass.

In 1993, she made a sculpture of Turk the turkey. She got him when he was a few weeks old, but waited until he was fully grown before she modelled him.

“He took a shine to me, which is why he would display for me,” she says, looking at a photo of Turk with his feathers out in a classic turkey display posture.

Her studio/gallery at Holtby is filled with wonderful bronzes of the various animals she has sheltered and/or sculpted during her long working life: an elegant, prancing horse; and lambs, bulls, foxes, cats and dogs, all captured in moments of life-like alertness or repose.

“I’ve always been interested in animals,” the 83-year-old says. “When I was young, my father let us have a playroom. We used to keep little animals in there – mice, the odd stag beetle or passing snake, caterpillars and frogs. I was always interested in frogs.”

She was less than three years old when she made her first sculpture – a model, in clay, of an orange. “My hands were wet, and I pulled my hands away, and it made a nice texture,” she recalls.

She was brought up in Surrey, where she went to a Montessori school. By the age of five, she had already decided she wanted to be a sculptor. She went to art school in Kingston Upon Thames at the age of 13, where she managed to survive the school’s attempts to turn her into a dress designer instead, then went on to the Royal College of Art.

She and her artist husband Mick came to Yorkshire in the 1950s, when she was aged 24. She’s been here ever since.

Most of her work is sculpted in clay. Silicone moulds are taken, which are then used to cast the bronze pieces she is best known for.

Some of her sculpture is on very public display in York – the bronze calf in the inner courtyard of King’s Manor, for example, or the hart at Hartrigg Oaks.

While she mostly sculpts animals, she also does human figures, too. The statue of the abolitionist William Wilberforce as a young man that was unveiled at Pocklington School by the Archbishop of York in 2007 is one of hers.

She based the sculpture on two coats that once belonged to Wilberforce held in the Wilberforce collection in Hull – but also drew inspiration from a portrait of Wilberforce as an old man held in the National Portrait Gallery.

“He looks straight at you with incredible warmth,” she says. “He was apparently loved even by the people he was arguing with. He was a lovely man.”

One of her earlier and most poignant sculptures, made in the 1960s, was of a starving infant.

She had recently given birth to one of her four children, and the baby had serious health problems. Science, and the NHS, kept the child alive. But the sculptor was very conscious that there were tens of thousands of children in Africa dying of starvation who weren’t so lucky.

“My child had all the help that medicine and science could give, and survived,” she says. “But those children had nothing.”

She made the sculpture to express her horror at what was happening in countries less fortunate than ours. And she and Mick set up a branch of OXFAM in York shortly afterwards, then opened the city’s first charity shop.

Almost 50 years later, in 2009, she loaned that very sculpture of a starving infant to St Martin’s Church in Coney Street, to be displayed alongside a ‘peace candle’ drawing attention to the most recent famine in Africa.

She continues working to this day, 80 years after sculpting that first orange out of clay as a toddler.

“She is still creating some of the finest sculptures,” says Michael Hourston of The Blake Gallery in Blake Street, York, where a new exhibition of her work goes on display from tomorrow.

It features both new works (such as a beautiful, iridescent hummingbird, made following a visit to New Mexico, where she observed them in a friend’s garden), and older ones – including some ceramics she made 45 years ago. Pottery pieces made by her daughter and fourth child Hannah will also be on display.

“She runs a pottery just north of Limerick, on the west coast of Ireland,” the sculptor says. “I like showing ceramics and bronze together – they work well.”

• The exhibition of work by Sally Arnup and her daughter Hannah will be on show at the Blake Gallery from tomorrow until November 2. The gallery is closed on Tuesdays and Sundays.