Carving has been on the back-burner recently as I’ve been concentrating on stone conservation more. However, I did find time to make a couple of simple coasters from Cumbrian slate for teachers, as my daughter was leaving primary school.
Meanwhile, a work trip to York Minster in July to meet the Clerk of Works and head mason and conservator gave us a great behind-the-scenes tour, including this glimpse of their carving casts collection.
An inability to say no has led to a busy spring. Here are a couple of pieces of work carried out these last 3-4 months:
The plaque for Stanley Grant at Eckington Church in Derbyshire was cut in a (rare) piece of Hopton Wood (it looks a little patchy here as it is still damp from washing down). An even, hard limestone, it gives a lovely crisp letter and was a favourite of Eric Gill. Only available in very small quantities from Lowes Marble works in Matlock, Derbyshire as it hasn’t been quarried for some time. Best used inside as it weathers to an effect similar to a breakfast cereal (I’m told!).
This Crosland Hill headstone was quite a design challenge. The client wanted a smallish stone, but a lot of references to different parts of the deceased’s life. Therefore, I also used the back of the stone to bring in all the elements she wanted.
Both of the above were designed and drawn by me, and beautifully cut by my colleague Alan Micklethwaite.
Blog posts will resume in 2016, until then, all good wishes for Christmas and the New Year.
Colin Wood is a piece of living history, a character seemingly from a bygone era. This is because Colin is a rare thing in this world of mass and global production; he is the ‘village’ stonemason, living in the beautiful small Lincolnshire Wolds town of Caistor.
When I was cleaning Caistor war memorial last year, a sprightly older gentleman quietly introduced himself, telling me that his stonemason grandfather had erected the monument. He invited me a cup of tea, and his fascinating story began to unfold.
Colin still works out of the same C18th workshop that his grandfather began working from in the 1880s. However, unlike every other mason’s workshop I’ve visited, with its air-tools, grinders and computers, Colin’s workshop is pretty much unchanged from the nineteenth century. Working alone, entirely by hand (even his invoices are hand-written), his workshop has a pre-war feel about it that even the best National Trust curator couldn’t reconstruct. The distempered walls are covered with pencil sketches of memorial designs by the two generations who went before him. Many of his everyday tools are family heirlooms. In his charming house next door to the workshop are order books and receipts dating from the 1880s onwards – including a poignant gap during and just after the First World War.
Colin was taught letter drawing and carving by his father, and his style show an unbroken line to late C19 work, unselfconscious and not influenced by the likes of Gill, Kindersley et al. This in itself is fascinating, as Colin works in a 12-15 radius; once a local style would have been typical in any small town or village, and can still be seen in the churchyards in the pre-Victorian headstones, but now this is practically unknown (monumental mason workshop use computers, standard fonts, stencils and machinery for their inscriptions). Very content with his craft, Colin remains a busy man. However, tellingly, when I ask about apprentices, he tells me young people are baffled as to “why he wants to do it the slow way”. On leaving, I can’t help feeling a little sad that more than fifty years of experience and three generations of work will eventually come to an end when this gentle man finally packs away his chisels.
House names can be beautiful functional items. They should be visible from a distance, and contain well-spaced, clear letterforms. The one below was recently completed, carved from (particularly hard) Crosland Hill sandstone. The client had specified the size of the stone ( 21″ x 14″ ) as it was to go on a long outbuilding and she didn’t want it to look ‘lost’ on the lengthy wall. However, when drawing up the design, my usual mantra of ‘bolder the better’ on sandstone didn’t seem to apply as the lettering was in danger of looking absurdly large, even when passed at speed in a car! So, I decided to reduce the size of the letters a little and take up some of the space with a wide textured border. Creating a tooled frame around the design provides interest for the eye without distracting from the clarity of the sign, improving the overall look of the carving.
It’s been a ‘bitty’ few weeks in the workshop. One small job has been the addition of a name to a headstone near Grimsby. One of the first questions the client asks is “Can you add a name on our headstone in-situ?”.In most cases, no. Drawing and spacing the lettering and cleaning the stone, followed by carving the additional name which is often on the lower part of the stone, and physically can be hard to do.
One of the things I enquire when designing a headstone from scratch is whether the grave is a double plot and therefore whether there is likely to be a second name added to the stone in years ahead. If so, this can be designed in by careful measuring of lettering heights and inter-line spacing. However, when you inherit a stone carved by another craftsperson, and no plan was made for any addition, this can throw up a challenge.
In this instance, this headstone carved from soft sandstone had a lovely hand drawn and cut design, with a recessed inscription, which balanced well. However, there was no space for further lettering within the recess without throwing out the whole design. Therefore, following lifting and bringing the stone back to the workshop, it was cleaned and treated with biocide, then quickly determined that the only way forward was to set the new line below the recess. The client had asked for the new letters to be similar but not exactly the same, so a sympathetic rather than exact copy of the Roman style was used. Unusually, the deceased had asked for a simple Latin inscription rather than her name. The finished result sits reasonably happily with the main inscription, complementing it rather than detracting from it.
In May I spent a couple of interesting days helping out my former boss and old friend Mick on a challenging and fascinating job. The Ice Cream Parlour at the top of Steep Hill in Lincoln is known to many out-of-breath tourists as the home of Claire Dennett’s delicious ice cream. The cellar tearoom beneath is perhaps slightly less well known. A little gem of a space, it is a small C14th vaulted room. Structural issues, surface problems, environmental conditions and previous treatments to the stone work had caused fracturing, powdering and flaking of the stone – not ideal as you sit down to your scones and tea. Dr Michael O’Connor (www.historicmonumentcare.co.uk) had been asked by the owners and Lincoln City Council to report on the condition of the vaulting and carry out remedial repairs. The job comprised 4 parts: replacement of failed voussoirs along one main rib; devising a support system for a ‘floating’ rib (someone put a doorway through it years before); chopping out cement and re-pointing the two end walls with lime mortar; and finally smaller repairs to the ribs (e.g. micro-pinning, grouting, spot sticking of flakes, lime mortar repairs etc.). The most complex of these was the replacement of the rib voussoirs (i.e. stones), requiring a carefully engineered scaffold system to support the vaulted ceiling as the stones were removed one by one and new ones slotted in. I should point out here that my skills were only required for small repairs rather than critical assistance here! The vault has been made safe for now, although regular surveying and maintenance of the structure will be essential to ensure it remains in good condition for years to come. In the images below, you can see the metal support over the back door for the floating rib, the two end wall and in the second image the replaced voussoirs to Michael’s left and a decayed rib ready for mortar repairs above his right.
A recent project threw up two main problems. The first was that the client wanted a second stone to match an existing headstone in a Greater London churchyard. The second problem was that he required a large amount of text to fit onto a very small stone (the size being having being set by the PCC rules). Firstly, following a bit of negotiation, the PCC allowed us to up the size of the stone a couple of inches larger each way – you don’t get anywhere by not asking. Next: the stone type. The original headstone was Hopton Wood, a material popular in the C20th for letter carving. However, it isn’t available these days, (although Lowes in Derbyshire, www.lowesmarble.com, have a few smaller pieces remaining in stock). Also, despite it being a favourite of Eric Gill’s, I don’t believe it weathers particularly well outside. This was a major factor, as the new stone was to be laid flat in front of the existing headstone. After some thought, I realised that Purbeck Thornback limestone was the perfect answer. Not only is this probably the hardest letter-carving limestone available in the UK, but it is also a good visual match for Hopton Wood. The stone was duly ordered from Haysom’s in Purbeck.
However, my next problem was one of design. The amount of text and a small motif required by the client was going to make the (still) small stone crowded. After a number of thumbnail sketches and larger designs, I realised the only way forward was to edge the stone with text. This takes a bit of designing, as you need to play with the inter-letter and inter-word spaces. However, the family were delighted with the idea, and thrilled with finished result. I was particularly pleased (and relieved) with the positive feedback I received, as the client was an experienced stone mason, who flew in to fix the stone himself.
Last week I spent a very enjoyable weekend at the Ropewalk Gallery at Barton on Humber. An unusual building which is a tremendous arts venue (where else could you buy beautiful prints, pottery, jewellery and other art/crafts, see an art exhibition, indulge in a delicious wholesome lunch, take part in a course, wander down to the view the majesty of the Humber, wander back and bump into Stuart Maconie – that evening’s entertainment at Rope Hall…). I digress: I was there to take part in Jo McChesney’s wood block printing course. Jo is an excellent print artist, her own work focusing on trees and water.
The process we were learning was based around wood block cutting and printing. Woodcut printmaking involves cutting a design into a sheet of wood, rollering it with paint and taking a print from it. Basing our work on reference material, drawings, photographs etc, stained our wood with ink so we could see where we were cutting. We used sheets of Asian plywood, which we then sketched or traced straight on to. Small cutting tools were used to pare away the areas where ink was not required, to leave our relief image. Relief printing inks were mixed to our chosen colours, then rough prints made on newsprint. In my case, I could see from this that some adjustments were needed, as I wanted my print to be detailed.
I made a second wooden block to overlay my first so I could use two colours (I printed onto my wooden block via a piece of newsprint so that the registration would be correct). I then made a series of prints from my first block, using a dark ink on very thin Chinese paper. I then mixed a lighter colour for my second block, which I carefully registered by eye over the top of the first print image. The prints then need 2-3 days to dry. Above are my two wood blocks, and the finished result is below.
I was delighted to be asked on to Howard Leader’s monthly arts program ‘The Scene’ this week. He invites a mix of different artists/crafts people in for a panel to discuss their work and what’s on. A good show – first Tuesday of the month, 6-7pm. Here’s a link to today’s show: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02jn07q#auto I can also recommend the sites of my fellow panellists – Mick Burns at www.chainsawsculpture.co.uk and landscape painter Fraser Scarfe; www.fraserscarfe.co.uk.