In about 2001 I had my first carving experience – a weekend workshop with Graeme Mitcheson hacking at a large piece of Ancaster Limestone with a heavy stonemason’s hammer and a point. Free-carving – just making something the stone suggested. In my case it was something my friends later called Gay Bunny, but I was thinking more of the Ordinance Survey map symbol for tumulus.
I loved it, despite the excruciating pain in my right arm from wielding the hammer, and in my left hand from hitting it with said hammer. Fortunately there was solace to be had in the hot tub of the extraordinary bed & breakfast where I stayed. Generous with the wine at night and the most extensive breakfast I have ever seen.
I went back for more, and as I now know, characteristically decided to push the boundaries, designing a water feature carved from Ancaster Limestone, a square block made circular with a channel running in a spiral round the outside and drilled right through the middle so the water could be pumped up the centre and then run round the outside of the stone back down to the bottom.
I scrawled a rough drawing for Graeme who went out and bought the biggest drill-bit he could find. Later, after I had spent three days of attacking the stone with the hammer and point, he went with me to buy the pump and makings necessary for the water feature. Unexpectedly, it did work.
10 years later I went on a stone-carving course at The City Lit, taught by Geoffrey Aldred. This was a much more structured course, carving a two dimensional relief using (in my case) a geometric design and requiring the interesting technicalities of creating a consistent curved surface. Here I started to learn the process and language of stone carving.
First making a drawing, then creating a maquette in clay. Then using a file to take the arrises off the sawn block of Portland Limestone to create chamfers to protect the sharp corners from chipping. Then transferring the drawn design to the stone using a setsquare, ruler and compasses.
Then using a dummy hammer and fire-sharp steel chisel to painstakingly cut a firewall to prevent subsequent blows with hammer and chisel removing too much stone. The curved surface had to be drawn in section and then the different depths to be removed marked on the stone. Finally once that was done I could use a tungsten tipped chisel to start to cut my design, and then a riffler to remove the rough edges and tight inaccessible corners, finishing off with wet and dry paper on the smooth surfaces.
The next stone-carving course at The City Lit in early 2012 was lettercutting. I hadn’t tried to draw since leaving school, and drawing letters to carve seemed quite a scary prospect. Geoff began by patiently teaching us to draw the lettercutters’ standard style of lettering taken from the Trajan column in Rome. We spent weeks drawing letters and learning about letter spacing. I found myself drawing letters in idle moments, on a train journey, waiting at the doctor’s, on the bus – in a notebook, on a meeting agenda doodled while the meeting droned on, on an old envelope stuck to another one as the design grew…
Finally Geoff let us design something to carve and then took all our drawings and tacked them up on a wall of the City Lit’s carving studio so he and we could crit each other’s work. When he came to mine he said ‘this is where you shouldn’t start!’ as it would normally be advisable to design and cut something conventional so you can develop your eye for spacing and your carving skill within tight boundaries.
But he let me start there, with Carpe Diem, or less kindly Card Piem. The M ran off the edge of the stone with his encouragement and provided our first joint challenge – how to make it go round the corner? And the A and R became joined together – a ‘ligature’ – needing some carving thought.
I now know that it often happens to me that the design exceeds the space allotted to it. And subsequently Geoff and I have often worked together to solve the carving conundrums my designs cause – with some raising of eyebrows and amusement on his part. I also know that those first two weekends with Graeme sowed the seed for something I now couldn’t live without.
And it gave me a love of using the only tool a stone-carver would need on a desert island – a point.