My passion for sculpture was probably seeded by my general interest in engineering. Nineteenth-century English civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel (I love his name) is a hero of mine. I have read much about and long admired his feats creating new concepts in an age of iron; he had no steel. The experience of being able to look at the three dimensions of sculptural pieces, walk around them, touch them, and even sit on some was for me, in my earlier years, a more tangible art form than two-dimensional works. (Later on, pictures became very important to me as well.)

My wife, Maggie, and I both love to build things and were forever taking on projects—including our house, Eddington, a great old building in Berkshire with famous connections to the past but in need of care and attention. We bought it in a fit of madness in 1985. It was a rabbit warren of a place, with no logic or reason to its internal arrangement. So, we took it apart, and over the course of the next two years, we rebuilt it into what we really wanted and came to truly love.

The central atrium of Sir Peter and Maggie Michael’s residence featured their most cherished sculpture, Locking Piece, by Henry Moore.

Sadly, in 1997, Eddington burned down. A shaving mirror in a pine bathroom had caught the sun and set a towel on fire. But we rebuilt it, and actually improved on our first effort.

The new design centered around a double-story atrium with various wings branching from it. The atrium is lit by a huge skylight that provides perfect lighting for the most important piece of sculpture I’ve ever bought: Locking Piece, a beautiful bronze composed of two large interlocking forms, which was created by Henry Moore after a day on the beach when he found two pebbles that fitted into each other perfectly. He made it in 1962, the year Maggie and I were married, and it sat in pride of place, illuminated at night by spotlights, and it looks marvelous. But all that was to come later.

(There is another version of Locking Piece, somewhat larger, at the Tate Britain gallery. Enormous as it is, during the biblical gales of 1990, it was blown off its pedestal and rather damaged.)

“Pete had a real desire to see permanent outdoor works being done, and both he and Maggie encouraged me to look at bronze as I began to look more at sculpture. Clay is a great medium; it is very flexible but has one flaw: it breaks.”
Alan Peirson

The metamorphosis of the atrium from a concrete shell into a room in our home was going to require major style decisions, presumably to be made by us both. That’s where the trouble started. Maggie saw in her mind’s eye a traditional Victorian atrium full of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century structural elements and ornamental details and fretwork, whereas I saw a contemporary design, elegant and stylish but with no embellishment. So came the day when we stood in the atrium-to-be, together with our architect and building teams, and proceeded to have the mother and father of a row. Maggie is a very determined woman, a force of nature, and she would give nothing.

The intensity of the debate increased as we both felt certain we were right; it provided a great cabaret for the guys looking on that was talked about in these parts for a long while, and probably still is. Eventually, Maggie’s fatal flaw made its appearance: she totally lost it. She walked out, managing to imply a slamming of the door behind her. So that left me with a clear coast, and you may guess what the style turned out to be. (Later, Maggie told me that having left the field of battle, she immediately realized that she could no longer influence the decision and couldn’t return while the project was underway. But eventually she did return, after the atrium was completed to my instructions, and she was big enough to tell me that I had been right all along. It’s not often that happens!)

Sir Peter poses on one of the “Nail Forms,” created in 1995 and titled Resting.

Stacked Cubes was created in 1987 by partners Lesley Warner-Peirson and Alan Peirson.

Three Penny Nail, sculpted in 1993.

One design element in the atrium that held particular interest for me was the balustrades. I found myself pondering over the style of sculptor Alberto Giacometti. Although for all I know he may have designed a balustrade in his time, I’d never seen any—but, I had previously bought a Giacometti coffee table at auction and really loved its slim, attractive lines. I appealed to Philomena Davis, president of the Royal Society of British Sculptors (RBS; this became the Royal Society of Sculptors in 2017), to help me realize a Giacometti-style balustrade. Happily, she came to my aid (and conveniently, she happened to have a husband at the time who ran a bronze foundry). In turn, after our collaboration, she recruited me, and that’s how I became vice patron of the RBS. I did whatever I could for sculptors for ten years; early on in the process I brought the amazing Richard Serra into the society. (In case you are wondering why I wasn’t patron, that post is graciously occupied by HM Queen Elizabeth II—that is why it is the “Royal” society.)

In 1982, after many years of searching, I purchased six hundred acres in Northern California, the parcel that soon became the Peter Michael Winery. Alan Peirson joined the enterprise the following year and became responsible for managing the estate from very early on. Right off, I perceived in him an artistic talent beyond his day job; he was a very creative part-time potter, producing a wide range of utensils and ornaments that he gave away or sometimes sold. He would spend about six months making the “green” clay pieces, and once or twice a year set up a big wood-fueled kiln in his backyard.

“Their opening of the ranch to whatever could be possible, along with their care of the property, encouragement, and unwavering support of the arts was their contribution.”
Alan Peirson, residence artist and former Knights Valley Estate manager

On firing day, Alan would load the kiln with tray after tray of items and then fire them for one continuous twenty-four-hour binge day and night, with plenty of alcohol-fueled partying going on while the temperature mounted to over 2,000°F. Maggie and I would go to bed at our normal hour, so I have little idea, really, of what went on during the nocturnal marathons. We did see that when everyone had recovered the following day, and after the kiln had been slowly cooled, it was taken apart and the core unloaded with lovely practical and ornamental pieces. We use the plates still.

Alan then started putting his talents to sculpture. The first piece I remember seeing was a two-dimensional figure I named New York Man: rectilinear, it stood 4 or 5 feet high and looked like a banker with a briefcase, running—as everyone in New York City seems to be doing constantly. He’s now guarding the Golden Gate Bridge over Redwood Creek. Alan then moved on to using materials from the ranch—the rocks, some huge, and the clays—molding these things God had provided into sculptures with the common theme of a clay nail piercing through a rock and emerging out the other side. They are wonderful, and we have several at the ranch that have stood the test of time, as well as a large piece in Paul’s garden in England.

Because I thought that Alan was showing such great talent and energy, I encouraged him to use bronze; I would support the additional cost. He did, and from then on, his pieces became really professional—so much so that he was able to make a significant contribution to his income, as art lovers began to seek out the “Nail Man” at Peter Michael Winery and commission his work.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, I was sponsoring an annual competition for aspiring young sculptors, who submitted their ideas to win a scholarship year in California. The winners worked under the supervision of Alan, who by then was accomplished, well liked, and a good (although not certified) teacher. One of these fortunate young people proposed to sculpt spheres from rocks on the ranch. During his year, he had good success with half a dozen or so—each over 3 feet in diameter—which now sit beside the creek in our own little version of Jurassic Park. We expect someday one will hatch into a baby Brachiosaurus . . . we don’t know precisely when, but we still check them every day on our walk.

The most successful young English sculptor in this program was John Tinney, who had a fetish for concrete and was very productive during his year. Pieces of JT concrete in various forms are scattered over the grounds. There is a stack of concrete wine cases in the winery garden that look very good indeed; and there is a massive piece at the Yellow Jacket Creek Bridge, in which it looks rather as if Caesar might be entombed. When John returned to the UK, he was recruited by Sir Anthony Caro, a famous English sculptor, to work with him. I believe he has had a good career in sculpture since—no easy thing to achieve.

There are about sixty pieces of sculpture scattered around the garden and grounds of the Peter Michael Winery. I love them all and feel grateful for the time, talent, and imagination of those who made them and helped make us what we are. Visitors have the freedom to consider how they like them, too. I’m not at all creative in the pure artistic sense, but feel that to have helped a few young artists get a leg up in a hard world is a tick in a box somewhere.