Bill Smith was born and raised on Tyneside when it still breathed the dust and smoke of heavy industry. His grandfather built ships at the mighty Swan Hunter shipyard on the Tyne yet could describe every bird, flower and creature and was a mentor in the ways of the natural world to young Bill. But Tyneside ran on coal and rivets back then so art as a career path was never an option despite a clear natural ability. Bill thus entered the world of engineering instead, leaving his pastels and airbrush buried and all-but forgotten in a cupboard.
But a strange metamorphosis took place as he thrived on the design jobs that baffled others, opening a startling niche fusing art and manufacturing to produce precision fabrications for the motor industry. After seventeen successful years in automotive, he arrived at another crossroads where his other great passion, diving and exploration, led to his most demanding challenge yet. Initially this was to locate and raise the smashed wreckage of Donald Campbell’s iconic Bluebird jet boat from the depths of Coniston Water, where it had lain for 34 years after crashing at well over 250 mph in January 1967.
Imagine it thus: “Bill, you like jigsaws, don’t you? Well, here’s one. It’s to find Bluebird and all its myriad pieces. They’re spread over thousands of square feet. Oh, and by the way, they’re 150 feet down on the silty bed of a dark lake…” Yet that was not the complete story. As the salvaged machine and its associated components lay still dripping lake water on to his workshop floor in North Shields, Campbell’s daughter Gina made the astonishing request that he completely rebuild her father’s craft.
It was during this fifteen-year project to resurrect the jet boat from its own remains that an elderly blacksmith, who had worked on it back in 1956 as a young apprentice, came to lend a hand. In a rare moment of down-time he crafted a beautiful flower from small scraps of aluminium, awakening in Bill a fascination with the engineering behind living forms, whether flowers or fish.
He has been sculpting for over a decade but until now none of his work has seen the light of day, let alone become available to others. Working mainly in aluminium due to its challenging properties, with the occasional foray into copper and stainless steel, his aim is always to dispel the cold harshness of the metals in capturing the delicacy and beauty of nature’s exquisite science and technology.
The results, as more and more who see them are coming to appreciate, are outstanding and spellbinding examples of what might aptly be termed emotive engineering.