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The Ice Men Cometh

Ruth Wyatt meets a specialist team of sculptors that create beauty out of frozen water.

Mary Queen of Scots, blindfolded, awaiting the executioner’s blade, kneels regally in a corner of the freezer. A gigantic bear, weighing in at a couple of tonnes, fills much of the space in front of her. To one side, a box of thistles so delicate a strong look might snap them are being packaged in acres of bubble wrap. And this is just a normal day at Hamilton Ice Sculptors.

The family-run firm is the UK’s oldest professional ice sculpting business and, arguably, the best. One of only four ice sculpting specialists in the land, it produces a vast array of frozen fancies, which, as you might imagine, can lead to some fairly bizarre conversations at the Summerstown- based company.

“I’ve sculpted the weapons, done three fairies and the thistles so I’ll get on with the wolf,” says Jamie Hamilton by way of example of an ordinary conversation between the sculptors. “We have the most bizarre to-do lists.” Right on cue, one of the team, Jack, pops in with: “All the weapons are finished so I’m doing the shell throne now.”

Hamilton Ice Sculptors was set up by Jamie’s father, Duncan, some 40 years ago. It all started when Duncan, then a banqueting chef, was asked for an ice sculpture of a swan. “I couldn’t buy one – there wasn’t anywhere creating ice sculptures – so I had to make it. It was love at first bite,” he recalls.

Television appearances – Duncan is the proud owner of not one but three Blue Peter badges – and coverage in national newspapers boosted demand for his services, and the business really took off in the late 70s. Jamie joined full time in 1994. “I grew up with the business,” he remarks. “The office was at home for years and I used to help out with sculpting from when I was tiny. [Duncan] gave me enormous responsibility when I was very young.” “Best way to learn,” Duncan responds.

It would appear he’s right. Jamie took over the organisation of the business several years ago and it has gone from strength to strength. For the last six years it has created the spectacular Magical Ice Kingdom at Winter Wonderland, Europe’s largest indoor ice and snow sculpture. This year’s Deep Sea Adventure will feature more than 250 individual pieces sculpted from more than 500 tonnes of ice and snow. Work started on the attraction, which opens in Hyde Park on 17 November, in April and involved months of intricate carving, shaping and polishing.

Winter Wonderland is its biggest client, but the Hamilton team also finds time to do the weird, wild and wonderful in many settings, from promotional work, commercials and films to art galleries, theatre and charities. They made 400 identical miniature ice swans designed as bowls for caviar for a society wedding – imagine the timing involved in getting those out as exquisitely detailed receptacles rather than fishy slush! They have encased a single mosquito in two tonnes of ice and frozen a dead dolphin in a mammoth block.

The Ice Bear Project with renowned wildlife sculptor Mark Coreth is one of the things that Duncan is most proud of. Designed to highlight issues around global warming, it involved carving a 4m-long polar bear from a single block of ice that contained a life-size bronze skeleton, in front of the viewing public in a day. Then the sculpture melts and what starts off as a thing of magnificence and glacial beauty gradually becomes a horror story. “Soon all you are left with are bones and water,” Duncan intones. There’s truth in beauty.

Photos by Peter LindgreenPhotos by Peter Lindgreen