Retrospective: Building the Unseen University!

Back in 1997, which saw the birth of Dolly the clone Sheep, the death of Princess Diana, and the first broadcast of the Teletubbies, the Discworld Emporium’s founder Bernard Pearson unveiled another great cultural landmark… The Unseen University!

Bernard had already blazed a trail for fantasy sculpture with renditions of dragons and incredible architecture, but ‘The Cunning Artificer’, as Terry Pratchett had named him, decided to reach new heights (certainly as far as the Tower of Art was concerned), with the largest scale model from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and most complicated piece of Discworld merchandise in the multiverse. Ever. This epic sculpture would create the definitive picture of Unseen University, and would become a paper model nearly ten years later when it was illustrated for the Unseen University Cut-Out book in 2006. Produced in only a short number it is now a rare and sought-after beast. In this blog, Bernard takes us through the creation of the ultimate piece of Unreal Estate, from an idea planted by Terry Pratchett, to the madness and magic of the ‘Unreal’ thing…

            “The Unseen University started life on Terry Pratchett’s sitting room carpet. It was Christmas in 1996 and Isobel and I were staying in Broad Chalke with Terry and Lyn. I had been commissioned by an American company to design and sculpt a large imposing fantasy castle for their collection. This castle, the largest piece of fantasy sculpture I had ever undertaken, combined my loves of story-telling and architectural sculpture. The piece was called the ‘Grail Castle’ and was full of detail that led the eye from rocky base through archways of stone up long stairways and on up to domed towers. It was an absolute bugger to cast, and the painting was a challenge as well. I seem to remember something like ten were made to test the mould and trial various paint finishes. It was one of these that Isobel and I took with us from our then home in Suffolk to show Terry in Broad Chalke that Christmas. As Isobel unpacked several large boxes Terry had her arrange the various components on the carpet and then to our surprise he got down on the floor beside it. He looked at it from every angle, above, below and alongside. Getting to his feet he picked it up and put it on a nearby table, again he looked, not saying a word. You can imagine my feelings, Terry was not one to flannel or over enthuse; he told you just what he thought. No wrapping words up with ribbons of flattery or slip-sliding criticism in with bland mutterings. It turned out that he really liked it and it found a place in their home, which I considered a real privilege then as now.

As we sat and worked our way through the biggest collection of spirits outside the Society of Psychic Research or indeed the Licensed Victuallers Association’s private vaults we talked of sealing wax and string, the meaning of life and what would that bottle of funny sticky green stuff taste like. Then Terry suggested I might like to have a go at creating the Unseen University, if I thought I could, if I had the time. I was gobsmacked, pleased, worried and in receipt of the best Christmas present I had ever had. On the back of a serviette with holly on – well it was Christmas – he drew up some ideas he had following a plan described by the esteemed Mr Stephen Briggs in the Discworld Companion. This continued over breakfast the next morning and when eventually we left for the long journey back to Suffolk I had his blessing and encouragement to start designing what would be the most challenging and involved piece of architectural sculpting I would ever do…

The size of the project meant that each part of Unseen University was produced as a separate unit and, as each section was designed and sculpted, the wax was transported to Terry for his approval. The look of the thing was partly inspired by Brasenose College, Oxford, with a touch of Nuffield perhaps. At Terry’s suggestion I consulted with the venerable Briggsy who not only knew Oxford like the back of his hand but had also drawn the original doorway for the UU. With his description, a pile of architectural reference books and with Brasenose as reasonable starting points, from there on in it was seeing the pictures that Terry drew in my imagination with his words that built the UU. And what clever words they are.

Of course a Watch houses or guild building is one thing, but the creation of Ankh-Morpork’s multidimensional magical university campus presents somewhat unique engineering challenges! With the ‘real’ Tower of Art being a lofty 800ft, it was made plain to me that the Tower would have to be as was practical. If I kept to the scale I normally worked at it would need to be eight foot high to be in proportion with the rest of the building! It couldn’t be that, but even so it had to tower above the rest, so the ancient crumbling tower stands at a still impressive 60cm tall!

The Unseen University sculpture was launched for pre-sale at a Clarecraft Event in the summer of 1997. It was a hot sunny day and we sat at a small table in an old farm building where I was working on the slightly melting wax model of the Tower of Art and Isobel had a large red book for people to reserve their editions. Terry signed up for Number 1 with a whopping great signature (in red pen no less), and that weekend more than 100 people put their names down.  At the time we took no money, only a commitment to buy. Those who subscribed to what later became known as ‘The Cunning Artificer’s Very Friendly Society’ probably still rue the day. Many of our past pieces were created in short editions of 100-200, partly because demand for Discworld-related ephemera was fairly limited back in the days of old-fashioned mail order, but mostly because of the sheer complexity of creating the things… not to mention shipping them! If we were to produce something similar today, it would probably be just as rare.

 In the end Discworld’s Unseen University took over a year to create. There were seven sections which dove-tailed together to create one of the most remarkable pieces of literary merchandise in fantasy franchise history! The final great edifice comprises the clock tower, Great Hall, Library, High Energy Magic Building (home of Hex), observatory, Tower of Art, various accommodations and service quarters, and the boat house. When laid out according to the accompanying floor-plan, the complete model takes up about a meter square, and weighs almost as much as I do! Each of the seven sections were released to subscribers in instalments, with one master mould-maker to cast and fettle each piece by hand, and one exceptionally patient painter to painstakingly bring each piece of the UU to life with a paintbrush!

If sculpting Rincewind was the beginning for me in making little bits of Discworld then the Unseen University was my coming of age. I went on to create two Watch Houses – Treacle Mine Road and Pseudopolis Yard; Guild buildings including those of the Seamstresses, Assassins, Fools and Thieves; Lancre Castle; Don’tgonearthe Castle; Granny Weatherwax’s Cottage; The Thunderer printing press from The Truth; the Unseen University’s Mighty Organ (a Bloody Stupid Johnson creation) and all manner of ‘stuff’ that had at its heart the words of Terry Pratchett and his books. A craftsman reaches his peak when the skill of his hands matches his imagination. I had the unique privilege to work directly from Terry’s imagination and bring my skills to make just some of his imaginings real enough to touch.

On my desk is a small wooden box; it was made by my father when he was at school. In it are some of the small wooden and metal tools which I carved years ago when I started the Unseen University. These tools created the bricks and mortar, windows and roof tiles of most of the Discworld Buildings I created and they represent the thousands of hours I spent having more fun than a man should when earning a living. Tiny bits of wood and brass, bits of old clock, rubbish to almost everyone but me, but I treasure them as I do the memory of a remarkable man and very close friend who lay on a carpet and had a brilliant idea.”


With thanks to Steve James AKA Steeljam for allowing us to use his marvellous iconographs!