Interview with sculpture caster Venâncio Neves

Venâncio Neves, Pedro Gonçalves (Galerias Municipais)


This interview with sculpture caster Venâncio Neves follows another conversation conducted with Rui Sanches in the context of the exhibition Espelho [Mirror], which was held at Torreão Nascente da Cordoaria Nacional between 29 September 2019 and 2 January 2020. During the interview Rui Sanches referred to Venâncio Neves as: “a kind of relic of Portuguese sculpture,” citing the necessity of interviewing him and preserving his memory.

Venâncio Neves was born in 1938 and began working in the studio of sculptor António Duarte from the age of ten. In the 1940s he began to learn methods of sculpture casting, a practice which he continued until the 1960s. During this period he perfected various techniques, from the most common such as the enlargement in clay of a sculptural model and the subsequent creation of a plaster “negative”, from which the final sculptural piece is made; to carrying out the same process in other materials, such as wax, gelatin and rubber, depending on the formal and technical characteristics of the model. He worked with several Portuguese sculptors during this period, including Leopoldo de Almeida, Joaquim Correia and Francisco Franco. After a hiatus of almost twenty years dedicated to other professional activities, he returned to work as a sculpture caster both for established artists such as Lagoa Henriques, and for younger artists such as Francisco Tropa and Rui Sanches.

Pedro Gonçalves: To begin, I’d like to understand how you began to work in this area and what your training was like. You mentioned earlier that you were 10 years old at the time.

Venâncio Neves: Exactly, it was when I was 10 years old, in 1948, with António Duarte. I was born in 1938. Still in time for some of the pavilions of the Portuguese World Exhibition [1] and to work with artists like Barata Feyo, Álvaro de Brée, Francisco Franco, and so on.

PG: How did you start working with the sculptor António Duarte?

VN: I used to live in Pedrouços, very close to where Lagoa Henriques had his studio. I lived right near there. My father worked in fishing boats which in those days they called galiões, which were wood or coal-fired steamboats. Then they started to make other better ships. In the old days, the Pedrouços Dock was the port for seaplanes. The seaplanes used to dock there. We lived near there.

PG: What were your early responsibilities?

VN: I started as an assistant, washing, cleaning the workshop, sweeping, taking care of this, that and the other. I had a certain level of responsibility. Then, as I got older, I moved up. In those days there was a lot of work in sculpture. After working in António Duarte’s workshop for about two years, I joined António Branco’s team of casters. António Branco had specialised in stucco work, so there was plenty of work. At the School of Fine Arts at the time, the final-year students had to do an almost life-size figure for their final project. António Branco’s workshop was one of the only places they could produce them. We did many projects there. I did João Duarte’s school project. Joaquim Correia’s. His project was a statue of Orpheus [2]. And so on and so forth. I got a taste for this kind of work and kept going until I got to the “Caravel” monument [3]. The “Caravel” has 33 figures, each is seven metres high, and the Infante [Prince Henry] is nine metres high. The final monument is a 10-fold enlargement. Production of the model and enlargement began in 1953-54. 

PG: Had you already been working with Leopoldo de Almeida or did that begin at the time of the “Caravel”?

VN: I had already been working with Leopoldo de Almeida for some time. He had his studio in Rua Coelho da Rocha, where Anjos Teixeira and Álvaro de Brée also had theirs. Number 69 in Campo de Ourique. In 1961 I got married, the monument [Padrão dos Descobrimentos] was finished, andx Leopoldo de Almeida’s horse was installed in Praça da Figueira [4]. That statue in Praça da Figueira has a mistake too. If you look at the anatomy of the rider, he is 80 centimetres too tall for the horse he’s riding on. We made our own pantographs to do the enlargement. You couldn’t just buy them. At that time, all good sculptors had their own caster. Leopoldo de Almeida had Alfredo [Gonçalves Henriques]. And when we were enlarging the horseman, I can’t remember if it was four or five fold, I said to Alfredo: “that’s a mistake”. Leopoldo always used drawings to work, always had an architect. I don’t remember his name. It might have been António Lino. Anyway, seen from below, the rider looked short and stocky. Leopoldo was teaching at the school at the time. The architect called Leopoldo and Leopoldo was very attentive to what people were saying. He would listen, but wouldn’t say anything. He would then study what people said. That is, he would analyse and examine what people said. Then he called the architect and the architect told me: “Venâncio you are right”. So we ended up by making the horseman 80 centimetres taller, because we could do whatever we wanted. Whether it was 70 centimetres or 50, we could scale it up.

But after that there was no work. Sculpture work began to dry up. At that time Leopoldo de Almeida was the most renowned sculptor. We called him the “Official State Sculptor”. I got married, my daughter was born. I got married in 1961 and work began to slow down. I went to Leopoldo: “I have no work. Martins Correia is going to Carris [the Lisbon Tramways Company]”. Leopoldo de Almeida kept me from joining the army against my wishes. In 1957/58 I was conscripted. I went for an examination and was accepted, which made me happy because I wanted to explore what the army had to offer me. António Duarte said to me: “Get the most out of it, son!” And Lagoa [Henriques] pretty much said the same. But Leopoldo de Almeida said: “we are going to do the monument and I want you as my officer. I’ll pay you 50 escudos a day”, which was a good salary. But because I had never joined the army, I couldn’t join Carris in 1960. The painter Severo Portela had a studio next door at the time. And he saw me a bit down and said: “Here’s a business card for my son-in-law, who works as an engineer at C. Santos. Go see him.” So I started to work for C. Santos, making car parts. I was there at M. Almeida, which supplied parts for Morris and Austin. After three years I got an invitation to come work in Cova da Piedade [Almada] in a parts workshop. I worked there for two years. José, who had the workshop, and me and another guy from M. Almeida set up a car parts workshop and became agents for British Leyland. We became a partnership. So I was a businessman at the time. An Englishman called John supplied the material and would visit from time to time. He didn’t speak that much Portuguese, but we understood each other. And one day he said: “British Leyland is going to close.” We studied the whole situation, the pros and cons, and the best thing was for us to sell the company. Meanwhile, the caster Faiunça [José Branco], who had a piano house and was a good friend of Martins Correia, Hélder Batista, and so on, he passed away in 1982. So I went through a lot until 1981. And so I said to myself: “now I’m going to do what I love”.

PG: Returning to Leopoldo de Almeida for a moment, what was his work method like? You said he worked a lot from drawings.

VN: Exactly, drawing, anatomy and models. He and António Duarte. Leopoldo de Almeida was a well-liked person, simple, treated people well and was never rude. I always had a good relationship with other workers, we all got along well. So much so that I was with Lagoa Henriques restoring Barata Feyo’s works from the Portuguese World Exhibition, which are in the Ajuda Palace. So one day Lagoa Henriques phoned me to ask if I could restore and patinate everything. These pieces are big, three and a half or four metres tall. At that time there was no sisal, the plant to make pita fibre. I was struggling to find any. So we had to use burlap instead. I started to restore the work, but didn’t know how to give the new plaster an old patina. The original plaster was essentially black. It had darkened over time. It had to be just the right kind of patina to unify the whole thing. I didn’t want it to become speckled. With Anjos Teixeira’s help, I made a red clay wash. I strained it, got it all consistent, and started applying it from the bottom up. When Lagoa got there and saw the figures all correct he said: “What paint did you use? Robbialac?” He was amazed. This type of knowledge is acquired on the job. I was really getting to enjoy the work; and was able to correct any mistakes we made. You naturally make a lot of mistakes, but it’s exactly these mistakes that help you learn. Problems arise as you go and you solve them.

PG: Between leaving casting in the 1960s and returning to it in the 1980s, did the techniques and methods for making sculpture change?

VN: No. It has only changed now because of Styrofoam and 3D printing. When we are taking the clay off a mould, taking off the clay mask, as we call the face in clay… I am currently organising all that stuff. I also have one of Anjos Teixeira. A month before he died he called me. He has a museum in Sintra. I was a bit stunned to receive his call, but I realised it was his voice, and I went to see him. And so I made a mould for him. I made one for him and another for me. A nice figure of a woman, slightly inclined.

PG: How do the work methods of the artists you worked with in the 1950s and 80s differ?

VN: The main difference is in how we look at things. Now we have artists like [José] Pedro Croft, Joana Vasconcelos. Around two years ago, a student at the School of Fine Arts asked me to help cast a work because there was no caster at the school. She was going to take the plaster to France to get it done in stone. So one Saturday I went to get the model to mould and cast it. I corrected some mistakes. One hand did not match the other. And she said: “There is no one here that points out stuff like this.” Sometimes you have to know how to tell people things. I did the work, she came to see it, and then she went to France to do it in stone. I never heard from her again.

PG: You mentioned earlier that there’s no one working in casting in Portugal anymore.

VN: No. There are some butchers, as I call them, who can roughly slap something together. But sculpture has to be treated with care.

PG: And why do you think this is the case? Because of a lack of interest? Because art schools don’t include it in their curricula?

VN: It’s a problem. Many people on various courses today know nothing at all about it. I ask them stuff and they simply don’t know about it. Those who took a sculpture course, like António Duarte, Anjos Teixeira and people like that, they knew how to cast. Hélder Batista. But the new guys, nowadays, don’t know. For example, I know a sculptor in Elvas who made a very fine bust of a woman. He worked the clay very well. When he saw me coming with the metal shims for casting he said: “Mr. Venancio, what are you going to do? You’re going to ruin my work!” He himself came to the conclusion that his training had been deficient in that respect. There is no one to teach casting and even the teachers sometimes don’t know that much about it either and don’t accept the opinion of someone like me. It’s not great. These new teachers lack information and knowledge.

PG: Have you ever taught?

VN: I gave some classes a while ago at São Jorge Castle. But you can’t learn to cast in a day. You learn with experience. It’s like mixing plaster. I can go get a bucket, put the water in, make the plaster, go have a coffee and come back, and the plaster is still there ready to go. They don’t know how to do that. You learn from working and correcting mistakes. But as I was saying earlier, what would we be teaching for?

PG: You mentioned earlier that many statues need restoration. And if that knowledge starts to get lost…

VN: It gets lost. Part of the culture of art gets lost over time when there is no interest, no desire to maintain it. It’s a shame. And then there’s the problem of pay. They pay you in three instalments in Spain. Here in Portugal they only pay at the inauguration. Casters don’t have the working capital to work like that. They need something up front, something during the project, and then again at completion. So even if I take on someone to teach them… Who’s going to pay for it? Insurance, travel, everything. It doesn’t work. I can teach and I’m happy to teach various things. But for what? All this work and material, maybe I’ll ask the Casa Pia to see if they want to come and take it. I have clay, metal shims, moulds. It’s all going to waste. I also have João Duarte’s moulds over there. Multi-section plaster moulds that nobody knows how to make anymore. The multi-section moulds have two functions: either you make a piece in plaster or a piece in clay. With clay, you need to tamp it in. You also need to know about the type of clay to use. All that is being lost. It’s a shame, but I can’t do anything about it. People from the cultural sector, they listen carefully, but it doesn’t go beyond that. If we went out to the park and talked to the old people, we’d learn a lot. And I say this because I like this work and I’m knowledgeable about it, but we can talk about other things. It’s like King Fernando II’s frigate. It’s there because nobody knows how to fix the wood. And so we lose all these little things. If it’s possible to teach a single person employed by the state who is interested and gets X amount of money, fine. But otherwise it won’t work.

PG: No one interested in learning has ever come to find you here?

VN: There is a lot of things to learn. You have to know about anatomy, geography, mathematics, everything. A while ago João Oom, who has a workshop in Campo de Ourique, did a figure for Mem Martins, for the church. I made the model. As Soares Branco says, works should be a little slender, never stubby. They’re more elegant that way. And in this case the figure was a little stubby. And I told João. And when it came to enlarge the figure, I did it. He was very happy that someone was able to solve his problem. You learn this over time. You have to know some maths to do these things and pay attention to what you are doing.

PG: Can you talk a little bit about what the work of a caster is like? What it consists of and how it’s done?

VN: I don’t know where to start. When working with clay, whether for a figure, a bust, high-relief or bas-relief, we have to study how to remove the clay and get the negative. After the negative, we make the positive. All this comes with time and work. If it’s too hard or too soft, where to cut and where not to. It’s the work itself which shows us what we need to do. For a large work, you can either do the entire front of the figure or divide it up into parts. Cristo Rei, for example, which is made in cement, was done in parts. Some time ago I was working for the Cristo Rei, restoring the model, which was by Francisco Franco. It is two metres and eighty centimetres tall. The actual statue is twenty-eight meters high. So it was enlarged ten times. This was done in parts. The parts have to be perfect. They cannot expand, open or close. It reminds me of the bridge [25 de Abril Bridge]. The last deck of the bridge was in the middle and had to be installed at night because the material expanded during the day. They couldn’t install it during the day. It’s the work itself that teaches us and tells us where we have to make the cuts.

PG: Let’s return to artists’ working methods. Can you recall any artist who had a more unusual working method?

VN: João Duarte works differently for example. Jorge Vieira’s figures are very fat. Apart from that everything is pretty similar. I recognise the artists when I see the work. This is by Lagoa [Henriques], this is this one, this is that one… For example, Martins Correia is different. It is almost the work of a poet. It’s poetry. Rui Sanches is different again. You can more or less recognise them. We have to respect each other’s work. Anjos Teixeira is very precise, his anatomy is very precise. Everything has a certain way of being. I can adapt to all these different ways of working. Going back to the moulds, you have to really be careful with the agent that keeps the mould and plaster from sticking together so that it doesn’t spoil the positive. If you put in too much potash, it eats away at the positive, where the artist’s fingerprints are. They disappear. And the artists really like to see those, whether in bronze or in wax.

PG: The basis of Leopoldo’s work was drawing.

VN: Yes. And for Lagoa. Soares Branco too. They drew a lot. Soares Branco always had many models. So did António Duarte. He relied a lot on models. Sculptors nowadays don’t rely on models so much.

PG: But they started with the drawing, and then they turned it into clay?

VN: Exactly. They made the clay model. They did it themselves. They simply asked: “I want a platform with a straight wire or a crooked wire to do this or that.” They gave us the drawing and we made the structure more or less from the drawing. And then they started to apply the clay. And then we would do the enlargement. After these enlargements in clay, we would cast it in plaster.

PG: Did any of them work on the natural scale of the piece?

VN: No, we did that work ourselves. Like stonemasons. Stonemasons work the stone on the basis of the plaster model given to them. They have their own pantograph. Plaster models could then be used to transfer the sculpture to stone or cast it in bronze. We also make wax forms. A few days ago, Francisco Tropa asked me for some sardines in plaster with X dimensions. For sardines, like any other fish, it’s best to make the mould in wax. You make the shape in wax and then you can do any number of pieces you want. You make the negative in either rubber or gelatin. Each work has its own way of being done.

PG: In the late 1950s you abandoned your craft for lack of work. Why did that come about? Were there just no public commissions in those years?

VN: For some time there were plenty of tenders. There was a lot of work with the Portuguese World Exhibition until the 1960s, more or less. Then it dried up. Now there are no tenders. The tenders used to allow you to make a living. It didn’t matter if you were self-taught or not. When there were tenders, there was a certain amount of money to do the work. There was a taste for these things which isn’t there now. It’s all died off a bit. Another thing is that artists stopped taking an interest in each other. Antero Baptista and António Trindade said, if I’m not mistaken, that there is still that regulation that you need to have a work of art in every building that is made, for example here at the Pingo Doce or any other building like that, or even residential buildings. I don’t know if it’s 5% or 10% of the total value that has to go to a work of art. Back then there was a tender. Now there is none of that. There are no works like that being made anymore. People stopped being interested. They stopped pushing for it. I don’t know why. Artists themselves should demand it. But that has been lost. I think the regulation is still in force, but people have lost interest. They go into teaching and that’s it, it’s over. That’s gone and the whole profession of casting is being lost too.

PG: It also seems that there used to be a greater connection between sculptors and casters. They all had their studios and workshops in Belém. It facilitated greater contact between them.

VN: Leopoldo de Almeida, [João] Fragoso, António Duarte, Martins Correia, Lagoa [Henriques], Joaquim Correia. They were all there. Mário Simões also had his studio there. Portela. It’s a shame that all that’s gone. Those pavilions were like a school. That was all in Lisbon’s port. But boats make more money. Then the guys couldn’t keep a studio because there was no work. In those days every good sculptor had a caster. António Duarte and Barata Feyo were very close. They had a caster called Zé. Leopoldo de Almeida had Alfredo [Gonçalves Henriques], Francisco Franco had Renato, and so on. All good sculptors did. More average sculptors didn’t have dedicated casters. The ones who were in Janelas Verdes, like [António] Paiva, Jorge Vieira. They would call casters from outside to do the work.

PG: Did you do the casting here or in the studios?

VN: In the studios. If it was small enough yes, I would do the mould there and bring it here. For example, for Eça de Queirós [5], the mould was brought here. It was made of clay and was three and a half metres long. The positive was made from that. I made the positive in plaster and then it was transported there. The models always come here. For Alves Redol, Lagoa Henriques didn’t want  me to bring the model here. He told me: “Can you do me a favour? Can you do everything here?” It was so that everything could be filmed. Mário Soares’ son, João Soares, must have the photos of all that. They were very good friends and he filmed all that. I did the whole of Alves Redol in his studio. It’s interesting because when the mould is finished, we start taking out the metal shims, taking out the sisal, dividing the mould, you get quite nervous. Another interesting thing is why we use two colours of plaster on the mould. First we put dye in the plaster. We use yellow, red or blue pigments. This has two functions. The first is to weaken the plaster, because plaster becomes weaker with pigment, unless it’s white, which makes it stronger. The second is that when we peel the white away and the yellow or blue appears, I know the positive is near. So I start to tamp softer, sweeter, as I usually say, so as not to damage the positive. And if there is a tight spot, it’s the yellow bit that splits, not the positive. Little bumpoffs can keep the plaster from coming off, so the negative breaks, but not the positive. And there are other times when we put the first layer on certain places very thinly to see if it will break off with a knife. Every artist has his own way. They had a lot of confidence in me and I in them. There were no problems at all.


[1] The Portuguese World Exhibition took place in Belém, Lisbon, in 1940, in the context of the commemorations of the Foundation of the Portuguese State (1140) and the Restoration of Independence (1640)

[2] The statue was finished in stone in 1947 and gifted by the artist in 1958 to the Municipal Council of Marinha Grande, which placed it in the Municipal Garden where it is currently located.

[3] A reference to the Padrão dos Descobrimentos or Monument to the Discoveries in Lisbon. This sculptural group conceived by architect Cottinelli Telmo and sculptor Leopoldo de Almeida was made with perishable materials and unveiled in 1940 as part of the Portuguese World Exhibition. It was converted into concrete and stonework twenty years later to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator in 1960.

[4] A reference to Leopoldo de Almeida's equestrian sculpture of King João I, inaugurated on 30 December 1971 at the centre of Praça da Figueira in Lisbon.

[5] A reference to the statue of Eça de Queirós by António Teixeira Lopes. Made in marble in 1903, it was placed in Largo Barão de Quintela in Lisbon. Following various acts of vandalism, Lisbon City Hall decided to replace it with a bronze replica in 2001. The marble work was restored and installed in the gardens of the Museum of Lisbon in Campo Grande.


Interview with Rui Sanches in the context of the exhibition “Espelho / Mirror”
Pedro Gonçalves (Galerias Municipais); Rui Sanches


Curated by
– 12.01.2020
Rui Sanches
Delfim Sardo
Torreão Nascente da Cordoaria Nacional