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Eduardo Paolozzi in his studio, 1993

I went to the Eduardo Paolozzi class in Munich in 1989, during my third year of a sculpture degree at Edinburgh College of Art. I had written a letter to the art school in Munich to see if someone would be interested in doing an exchange from the Akademie der Bildenden Kunst. The letter found its way to Paolozzi, who encouraged one of his students to apply. Tony Romer did, and we embarked on a three-month exchange. We are the best of friends to this day, and as far as I am aware, a continuing exchange through the Erasmus and Socrates programme has been operating between Munich and Edinburgh for the past 15 years—nice to think the letter I wrote has had such an influence on so many lives (including one marriage between two exchange partners).

I had a bit of a struggle getting Anthony Hatwell, then head of the sculpture school at ECA, to agree to the exchange, but was later to learn that there had been some professional rivalry between Eduardo and him back in the 1950s when they both showed work in the Festival of Britain exhibition at the opening of the South Bank Centre in London. A very slim catalogue of that joint exhibition exists in the ECA library, which has one of the most extensive collections of Paolozzi publications.

I was very nervous first meeting him. I had seen photos before, but nothing quite prepared me for the physical presence of such a huge person. He asked me where I was from. He imitated my Scottish rolling R with a cheeky look of delight in his eyes. He then told me to document in photos my stay, and above all to see the Glyptotech.

He was working on an exhibition in the Stadt Gallerie at the time and had invited the class to make small self-portraits for the exhibition Arch Nova. He treated the students as apprentices in accordance with the German system where a class works closely under a professor.

Eduardo invited me to take many cups of coffee with his class and took me to my first opera. He saw life as a wider education and all parts of life—including sport and entertainment, high and low—as an inspiration to the creative experience. I was only 21 years old and was so taken that he was genuinely interested in my company, opinions and thoughts, naïve though they were at the time. He did not make a secret of how he had achieved success and gave advice freely. He said to try for every possibility and told us that having the time and space to create is a great luxury. I have tried never to forget this. On a practical level, he advised never to leave a skip unturned, you never know what you will find discarded: I have found many a useful thing in my time.

I returned to the Academie in Munich in 1992 and stayed six more years, partly working in Paolozzi’s studio. It was an exhilarating experience that has enriched my whole life.

I later met Eduardo in Edinburgh. On one occasion I had just passed the top of Leith Walk—it had been announced that Eduardo was to install three large bronzes there. I thought then that it was the most amazing thing a sculptor could do—leave a sculpture behind in his native city. Suddenly, I spotted Eduardo, jumped off the bus, and said Hi. He was on a swoop of the bookshops hunting down postcards to be incorporated into collages, and asked me for a coffee. I declined as I was on my way to see Sugar Baby, a film set in Munich. Watching it, I thought how silly I had been to miss the opportunity to have a coffee with Scotland’s most important sculptor to see a film for nostalgic reasons. I sheepishly went to his hotel, (which he had asked me to do). We went to the Fruitmarket Gallery and I was whisked round town—he was showing at the RSA that year.

My enduring memory of Eduardo is of a huge character. He had a unique approach to everything. His generous spirit showered people with gifts (I received a cast, posters and postcards). He seemed to take an almost child-like delight in life, and though he could also be cutting and brutal, and woundingly insensitive to those he regarded as ‘hangers-on’, he was one of the most cultured people I have ever met. He has been a great influence and an inspiration to everyone for what can be achieved in life.

Duncan Robertson has a studio at Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop