Fallen – the ongoing story of Chris Seeley’s memorial

Polar Bear in situ with flowers

You might recall an earlier post about the Sassy Bear memorial honouring my  school friend, inspirational artistic innovator Chris Seeley.  Alas, last week’s wild storms brought great trees crashing down throughout the country – and one fell directly on to the memorial wreaking much damage.  The bear’s strong and sturdy neck was broken off, as was her outstretched paw.


Luckily, I am able to call in the services of another friend, the very able conservator Sarah Healey-Dilkes! With much experience under her belt, (for the V&A and as a free-lancer) Sarah is confident that Sassy Bear will soon be put to right and sashay onward, head held high, for years to come.

Chris’s husband Geoff suggested that the Japanese art of Kintsugi might be used… That is, making the repair itself visible and precious by using an adhesive material  mixed traditionally with powdered gold, silver or platinum…It treats the breakage and repair as part of the ongoing history of an object, rather than something to play-down and disguise.

Of course, many issues need to be considered when repairing an outdoor stone object (such as the effect of weathering over time), so Geoff and Sarah will have to weigh up the different methods of conservation.

In the meantime Geoff, who is a professional storyteller,  has woven fine gold out of this sad accident..  I’d like to share the beautiful poem that he has written in response:

When the tree fell in the night,
did your bear-heart tremble
at its terrible declension?

When it struck your broad neck,
did you cry out in reproach
at nature’s sacrilege?

Did the forest weep for sorrow
as your magnificent head
crashed to the floor?

And what of those who love you,
brought to disbelieving tears
by your shattered limbs?

We remember the old songster:
there is a crack in everything,
that is how the light gets in.

So we will tend your wounds,
and make you whole again
with seams of gold.

The beauty of brokenness
is the only poetry
I care for now.

Geoff Mead  |  Kingscote  |  22 November 2015

I gave a PechaKucha presentation and so can you! :>)

Photo by Maarten Steenhagen

PechaKucha 2When Jon Torrens asked me if I’d like to take part in a PechaKucha event I knew I’d been offered a publicity gift-horse I’d be a fool to turn down (no matter how hard my fear begged me to do so).  What I didn’t realise was that preparing the talk would be a transformative experience in itself, bringing benefits that went way beyond a publicity shot.

‘Talk about yourself and your work’ sounded innocuous enough, but it prompted serious soul-searching -‘What exactly do I do?’.
On one level this question is easily answered – ‘I’m a stonecarver/ sculptor…I sculpt stone’…. but that answer wouldn’t fill up the allotted 6 minutes 40 seconds, or be very enlightening.

The  20/20 format (20 slides on screen for 20 seconds each) requires more than just the bare bones – but not much more. What’s needed is much thought – and a very distilled response.

My prep notes felt more like a haiku, though I’m sure my delivery was less succinct and more garbled (I haven’t had a chance to listen to the recording yet, and nerves erased the whole experience from my memory).  However, I found that jotting down thoughts had enabled me to see threads running through my work, which I hadn’t seen before, or needed to verbalise – even to myself.

The slide shows and accompanying voice-overs will go on line in the next fortnight,  but I’ve already got more than I could have hoped for from the experience – a prompt for self-scrutiny , followed by feedback from a warm and welcoming audience.   Who couldn’t profit from that?

I heartily recommend PechaKucha to anyone –  as a participant or as a curious on-looker, by coming to an event at your local venue or watching on-line.
Check out the global PechaKucka site for more info.

My presentation and those of the 5 other participants will be on line by the end of November. See PechaKucha Cambridge

PechaKucha 1

Historical recreation – creating new artwork rooted in the past

My latest commission was initially to make an exact copy of a stone lion that had guarded a 15th century doorway in Italy.  However the project soon turned into a more creative challenge – to carve a newly designed lion in a specifically medieval style.

  6a  6d

Not making an exact copy of an existing carving has its benefits – I was able to take into account the client’s individual preferences, and the room in which the sculpture will be placed;  The lion is to sit in a bay window at the front of the client’s house so I placed his tail where it will be seen through the window and turned his head to greet people as they enter the room.


Though one specific lion prompted the commission, the new design was influenced by several other 15th century examples. My client had seen the Italian antique in an auction catalogue but the carving was weather-damaged with many features worn away. (See the original below, and others further down).

15th century Italian door supportIt wasn’t hard to find similar carvings whose features remain clearly visible.  Lions symbolised courage and nobility so can often be seen on medieval tombs supporting the feet of armoured knights.  Sheltered inside churches their details are often well preserved and a great resource for study.

1bAbove: The tomb of Sir Richard de Vere, St Stephen’s Chapel, Bures, Essex
Below, left to right: St Stephen’s Chapel, Bures, Essex, All Saint’s Church, Leeds, Gloucester Cathedral, V&A Medieval Sculpture

1AAll Saint's Church, LeedsTomb lion Gloucester11Lion in V&A collection

These lions are fantastical.  Few Medieval travellers would have seen a real lion so the sculpted features are based on hearsay, the work of other artists, the stonecarver’s personal taste and the extent of his skill.

When it came to creating a new sculpture based on these medieval carvings my client specified which particular elements he liked or disliked, stipulating that his lion should look thoughtful and definitely NOT CUTE’.  As many of these medieval carvings looked a bit like cats or dogs wearing wigs this was a narrow path to tread.

Creating a completely new artwork that was rooted in a specific historic style raised some subtle issues.  The tomb lions (whose body shape I took for inspiration) stoop under the weight of their knight’s feet.  However raising the head and straightening the body posture had interesting stylistic repercussions; I had to guard against making my upright lion look Victorian, like the proud beasts in Trafalgar Square (below).  It also hindered me to look images of real lions – too many anatomically correct details gave the sculpture an excessively modern appearance.
Trafalgar Sq lion

I came across a similar issue several years ago when reconstructing a damaged low-relief image of Anne Boleyn (see below).  Known as ‘The Moost Happi’ medal it was made in 1534, and is now held in The British Museum. This portrait is the subject worldwide fascination because it bears the only surviving, uncontested contemporary depiction of Anne Boleyn’s appearance.  Knowing the intense scrutiny that my reconstruction would come under I made several attempts to capture her image, each more carefully defined than the last. However, refining her features took away the 16th century style of the medallion and gave Anne’s face a Classical appearance. This version would have pleased legions of fans who wish to believe that Anne Boleyn fitted within modern standards of beauty. However, it would have diminished the authenticity of the reconstruction.

1 High resolution Anne Boleyn The Moost Happi medal from British Museum1
(Left, the original medal in the British Museum. Right, my reconstruction)

As a stonecarver I often look at old buildings and like to think that I can spot and date restored carvings.  Victorian restoration work gives itself away by being too neat, and animals carved in the 20th and 21st century often look unintentionally cartoon-like.  We view animals more often on YouTube than in person, whereas medieval carvers showed a close familiarity with nature.  Their mythical beasts might have been fantastical creations but their features look real. There is an attention to detail, such as the bones and sinews indicated below the surface of the skin, that comes from a daily contact with nature ‘red in tooth and claw’. Contemporary culture is no longer imbued with the life-and-death struggle that pre-occupied our predecessors, and we have swopped a knowledge of natural forms for clean lines and a more sophisticated awareness of style.

Trying to authentically recreate the past is a subtle and subjective art. Artists, writers and film directors face the same challenge when creating new work based on historic events. That is, to try and identify the essential elements, and truthfully convey them to a modern audience. How much leeway is given to engage the viewer or reader is up to the artist or writer. But even with the best intention to represent the past accurately, one cannot help but look at the surviving evidence and focus on that which appeals to our current taste.  Cultural philosopher Susan Bordo has written an interesting examination of how history is reinterpreted and represented according to our own preferences and the age we live in.  In her book, ‘The Creation of Anne Boleyn’ she interviews Hilary Mantel, author of the novel Wolf Hall.  Like all historical fiction the book, and its recent dramatisation, has been the subject of much debate regarding its interpretation and delivery of the past.
Mantel observes; ‘All historical fiction is really contemporary fiction.  We always write from our own time’.
I wonder whether people will look back at my historically based sculpture and date it to the early 21st century?

1  163

You can see a short video showing this lion here
Read about my reconstruction of Anne Boleyn’s Moost Happi medal here

A blog for the children of St Mary Magdalen Catholic Junior School to show the work involved in making a sculpture for their Sensory Garden

2 Mary Magdalen rhs a 1 Mary Magdalen face3 Mary Magdalen rhs long  1a Mary Magdalen frontal5 Mary Magdalen foot4a Mary Magdalen back

 Post 10: The finished sculpture :>)

I’ve been so busy (preparing for the installation of the sculpture, teaching my Stone Carving Workshops and working on my next commission) that I haven’t had time to write about the final stages of carving but here at least is a video and some photos of the finished piece.

The figure of Mary Magdalen(e) is going to be installed the the school garden straight after Easter, so that she’ll be ready and waiting when the children come back after the holidays.  I’ve enjoyed the unusual situation of having the finished sculpture in my workshop for a few weeks as it’s given me the opportunity to look at her in different lights at different times of day. I like the way her expression changes depending on the way the light falls across her face. Sometimes she looks questioning (when the the arch of her eyebrow is lit), sometimes she looks like she is about to say something, or smile (when her lips are highlighted), but I think in all lights she looks kind, and that is what I hoped for.


Post 9: Getting closer to the finished sculpture

Much stone has been chipped away since my last post.  I thought it might be interesting to start this update to show you some pictures of the tools I’ve been using, and then what I’ve done with them.

1 Measuring and marking tools
Measuring and marking equipment used to transfer the designs onto the stone.

An electric die-grinder (a small circular saw).
This tool is particularly useful on very hard stones.  I used it to cut outlines around the areas I wanted to safeguard, and then cut deep lines into the surfaces that I wanted to remove.  This is because it’s easier to knock away  large areas of stone with a hammer and chisel if you weaken the stone by cutting channels into it first. With practice you can also use this tool to carve with.

First stage tools
First stage hand tools.  From left to right they are: Lump hammer, pitcher, punch, point, claw, small claw.
You can almost tell from their names alone that they are heavy, hard working tools.  These tools are usually only used in the first stages of the masonry/carving process when they can crudely, but swiftly knock off large chunks of stone.  The claw is the exception as it will be useful until just before the very end. (Some sculptors choose to leave the claw marks showing in their final carving, but I won’t on this particular sculpture.  I will leave fine chisel marks as this subtly affects the way light falls across sculpture, making it appear more three-dimensional and interesting to look at – but I think leaving the claw marks wouldn’t be appropriate for this particular piece).

In this photo you can see how the masoned block is crudely but systematically cut into and areas of stone removed.  At each stage I get rid of the stone that is most obviously not needed (either as part of the finished form, or as a reference point). This approach reminds me of the Sherlock Holmes quote: ‘Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth’.  Often people ask me if I can ‘see the sculpture inside the block of stone’. I answer, it’s not quite ‘seeing’ the sculpture – but seeing the stone that isn’t necessary. At this stage seeing the excess stone is easy, but this approach holds true right until the sculpture is finished.

A sample of carving tools for the later stages.
On the left is a nylon mallet and on the right is a brass ‘dummy’ mallet.  They are as heavy as the lump hammer but instead of crashing down onto the chisel head, the curved surface makes the mallet bounce back allowing the carver to hammer more rhythmically, creating smoother, flowing lines. An even smaller, lighter dummy will be used for carving very fine details such as the face.

Once most of the excess stone had been removed from the block, I started to refine the form.  I started with the skirt and only when I felt happy with that worked upwards. This is because I wanted the skirt to act almost like a plinth – a strong smooth shape that would anchor Mary Magdalen firmly to the ground, with the angle of the cloth directing your eye upwards ther hands holding the urn.

Here you can see how stone is crudely removed in channels using a lump hammer and point, and then the surface is made smoother and more shapely with a mallet and claw.

After the shape has been found using a claw, the form is refined with a mallet and chisel. Then the broad planes are smoothed with a file.  Using a file helps to detect unresolved lumps and bumps on the surface, but the final surface will be re-textured using mallet and chisel.  A filed surface can look too ‘perfect’ and without any contrasting textures to catch the light, the finished sculpture can seem flat and life-less.

6 side view early stages
This photo shows the transition from the geometric lines of the masoned block to the flowing curves of the emerging sculpture.  You can see the grid marks at various points on the stone. It is important not to get rid of reference points until they are no longer useful.

Once I felt I’d secured the simple angles of Mary Magdalen’s skirt I concentrated on establishing the shape of her shoulders and arms as these form an important frame around the urn that she is holding. The folds of the shawl are designed to lead your eye to the urn, so it was important to get the forms flowing smoothly to and from this central feature. You can see that I left the head as a masoned block while I concentrated on finding the shape of the skirt and shawl. This might seem strange but I knew that I would look more critically at these simple, subtle forms if I wasn’t distracted by more complex and interesting features such as her face and hands.  For this reason I wanted to get these simple planes right at the start. The skirt and shawl are by no means finished – lumps and bumps still need to be removed, and the folds and outlines need to be cut in (which will make a dramatic difference) , but for now they are at a stage where I can shape the head and hands.  When the basic shape and position of these features have  established, I will go over the sculpture as a whole, cutting in details and sharpening the lines of folds and edges. This will suddenly bring the form into focus .

8 Profile of head
In this photo you can see how I used a simple template to reproduce the shape of my plaster maquette head.

I made the template out of a bit of old cardboard by drawing the silhouette of my maquette’s profile and cutting out this shape so that it fitted loosely over the plaster head.   I held the template up to the stone block and chiselled away until the template fitted the stone snugly.  This meant that the shape was recreates in the stone, but there was still a generous amount of stone (about 5 mm above the final surface) to play with .  This will allow me some freedom to make decisions about the final form during carving.
Here you can see Mary Magdalen’s profile based on the simplified template.

The overall shape of the sculpture has been established, and now it’s time to cut in the details.

What’s next?
The big important forms have now been found and the details now just need to be cut in. Until now I’ve been wielding my hammer or large mallet in a fairly carefree manner to remove fairly large chunks of stone .  From now on however, I must switch to a smaller mallet or my brass dummy, and work with much greater care and precision as I get closer to the final surface of my figure.

At the moment the surface is still about 5mm above that which it should be, according to the plaster model – but this allows me to make small tweaks and changes to the design.  Even though I am making a faithful recreation of my original clay maquette, clay and stone are very different materials and some aspects are impossible, or inappropriate, to try and reproduce as a carving.  Therefore it’s important to allow some room for manoeuvre so that I can find the right way to express these details in stone. This slight leeway also allows the forms to flow naturally from one form to another as a record of the carving process. This will give the carving a sense of life and immediacy, making it more than merely a slavish copy of the smaller plaster model.

The next update will be when I can show you the finely carved details….

Post 8:  Final preparations, and then at last the carving begins.

After the summer holidays I didn’t  return straight away to the Mary Magdalen project.  I ran several Stone Carving Workshops here in my workshop, teaching adults how to carve stone.   Each course only lasts 3 days, but by the end of the workshop the students have learn enough tools skills to carry on carving on their own (though most come back year after year as the workshops are such fun).
I also did some work on the commission that I will work on after Mary Magdalen is complete. Because the whole process takes so long (the initial consultation and decision making, and stone selection and ordering in the early stages) you have to start the next job rolling before the last is finished.
SCW sept 13
Here is a picture of me with some of the students on my Stone Carving Workshop

In between these courses and my consultations, I modelled a full sized maquette of Mary Magdalen’s head and cast both my foot and my hands so that when I come to carve these features in stone I have something to refer to for the details.

1Head 2 Head 3 Head 4 Head 5 Head 6 Head a 7 Headplaster head cropped
Here are some photos of the development of the maquette of Mary’s head, and how the plaster cast appears with grid marks applied to the contours of her face.

At first I sculpted her skull and then gradually added her features; nose, mouth, eyes, ears and lastly hair. Even though her skull and ears are hidden by the hair it helps to model these correctly so that the final form looks right.  The eyes and hair will be more detailed when carved in stone, but in this maquette I just wanted to establish the overall shape.

Not every stonecarver goes into such detailed preparation before carving a sculpture. In fact, in the early 20th century there was a revolution by sculptors such as Constantin Brancusi and Henry Moore against using maquettes and the pointing method, in favour of what they called Direct Carving. They thought it was better to just pick up a chisel and get stuck in, and find the shape of the sculpture in response to the stone.

I use a different approach for several reasons; my work is almost always to commission, and this way I can give my client a good idea of what they will be getting for their money and reassure them that they won’t be getting a sculpture that they didn’t expect. Also, direct carving works best if you have time to ‘get into the zone’ and lose yourself in your carving (which is very, very enjoyable) . Because I have kids who are still at school I need to keep my eye on the clock so that I don’t leave them stranded at school.  Using maquettes helps me know exactly where I am going with my carving, even if I need to stop and start many times.

Lastly, the most frequently question that people ask stonecarvers is ‘What do you do if you make a mistake?!!?’.  There is a stone glue that does a pretty good job at sticking back bits of stone that chip off by accident, but the truth is, with this amount of preparation, accidents very rarely happen.  For me it’s this level of thought and concentration, balanced with the physical activity of breaking and shaping stone, that makes stonecarving so enjoyable;  you just can’t drift off and think about other things, and so the act of carving is totally consuming and, despite the physical labour, very refreshing.

9 final transfer of data

Here you can see how I have transferred the details from the flat line drawing onto the angled planes of the masoned stone block.  The maquette of Mary’s head, now cast in plaster is in the foreground.

10 The first cuts2 steps3 steps4steps
These pictures show the first steps in the carving process.  

At this stage it’s a case of figuring out which bits of stone are definitely not needed, and which bits of stone have useful information drawn on.  In the first photo you can see that I am using the line drawing on the side of the stone to help me find how far I should take down the front surface (see the urn and the drapery).  You can see the tools that I am using in the foreground. I use an electric tool called a die-grinder to cut quickly and deeply into the block, and then break off the excess stone and begin to shape forms with fairly simple chisels using a hammer or mallet.

After eons of careful preparation this is where stonecarving becomes very physical and messy. Portland stone has a very distinctive smell when carved – the fossils embedded in the rock release a strong and fishy smell when the stone is first broken open.  It’s quite breathtaking and takes some getting used to.  At the end of the day I am covered in a fine powdery dust made by the die-grinder, and many small chunks of stone have found their way into my hair and down my neck.  This is where carving goes ‘off road’ – through a veil of dust and sweat I have to translate my careful preparations  into a convincing and moving piece of sculpture in stone. The final piece has to be more than an exact translation of my design, it has to have its own sense of life.  Wish me well :>)

Post 7:  The masonry stage has been completed
Mary Magdalen roughed out.

In this photo you can see how the square block of stone has been masoned into a simple version of the figure. The scale drawings in the foreground were used to work out which bits of stone should be kept for the final carving, and the angle-grinder was used to cut away what wasn’t needed.

After the summer holidays I’ll cut into the flat surfaces of the masoned block, and begin the process of carving.  I’ll still refer to the plaster maquette, but from now on I will need to work much more instinctively to create forms that flow and convey emotion.

Post 6: Announcing which work inspired by
St Mary Magdalen has been singled out for praise.
Heart full of prizes
A heartful of gifts, and certificates, have been sent to the children who sent me inspiring images :>)

Year 3 First Prize goes to: Luca and his family
Year 3 Winner - Luca and familyYou and your family have created a lovely guardian for your school Luca.
Her flowing robe gives this design a wonderful outline.

Year 4 First Prize goes to: Clara
Year 4 Winner - Clara

Clara – I love the strong and thoughtful expression that you have given Mary Magdalen,
and your written description is excellent! I like the 3-D plinth too.

Year 5 First Prize goes to: Ariana
Year 5 Winner - Ariana
Good layout! Your comic book style presentation is great Ariana and conveys a lot of information well.

Year 4 Highly Commended goes to: Sywald and Rachel
Year 4 Commended - Gabriel
Year 4 Highly Commended - Rachel
Sywald and Rachel, you have both produced beautifully detailed drawings, and your text is  relevant and thoughtful :>)

Year 4 Commended goes to:
Gabriel and Tyron….
Year 4 Highly Commended - SywaldYear 4 Commended - Tyron
Both these drawings are bursting with joyfulness. Gabriel’s is wonderfully detailed, and Tyron’s is so simple but gives out a powerful sense of love.

and Ronnie and Eleanor

,Year 4 Commended - EleanorYear 4 Commended - Ronnie
Both of you have produced lovely drawings with lots of careful detail. I love the bird Eleanor, and Mary’s beautiful dress Ronnie.

Emma and Irene….
Year 4 Commended - EmmaYear 4 Commended - Irene
Both Emma and Irene wrote about what Mary Magdalen means to them on a personal level – and produced very serend pictures.

and Lucas and Hannah :>)
Year 4 Commended - LucasYear 4 Commended - Hannah
Both of you have chosen to tackle interesting poses. Well done. I also love your backdrop Lucas, and your colour scheme Hannah.

Year 5 Highly Commended goes to: Jude and Therese
Year 5 Highly Commended - JudeYear 5 Highly Commended - Therese
Jude’s Mary Magdalen has a lovely beaming smile and the message is simple and strong. Therese’s Mary is calm and serene, and her hand gesture is lovely. Beautiful work!

And a BIG THANK YOU goes to: Rebecca and Rebecca in Year 3,  Dairon, Alexander, Mathias, Pharrell, David,Lewis, Alessia, Cian, Matt, Sadie Emily Micai, Lara, Mia, Myleene, Kyle, Claran, Shania and Kyah in Year 4, and Nicole in Year 5.

Lewis’s wonderful drawing below shows how fantastic the competition was. It was impossible to chose the best as they all had something wonderful going on.

I shall love having your work up on my wall as I carve the sculpture of St Mary Magdalen for your sensory garden. Thank you all so much x x

Y 4 Lewis

Post 5:
Video number 6:
The children at St Mary Magdalen School sent me some lovely work inspired by their patron saint, St Mary Magdalen. This video is a quick thank you to them.

I will be uploading pictures of their work early next week, and announcing prizes for some of the best contributions (a difficult decision because they are all in own way excellent).

Post 4: The stone finally arrives and I can get started.

4 Base stone delivered from Stancliffe Stone
The stone is delivered in a lorry on a pallet.

5 base stone on delivery pallet
Before the delivery driver leaves, I opened the wrapping to check that it’s a good piece of stone and cut to the right dimensions.

6 Close up of Great Tew Ironstone
A close up of the stone which I have chosen for the base. It’s a limestone known as Great Tew Ironstone. I chose this stone because of it’s lovely warm colour and interesting texture. The swirling layers show how the stone was formed millions of years ago.

7 Portland stone close up
A close up of the stone that Mary Magdalen will be carved from. It is a limestone called Portland Stone. It is quarried form the island of Portland in Dorset,  and is famous for its smooth texture, hardwearing quality.  If you look closely at the sculpture you might see the occasional fossil embedded in the stone.

8 Dave drilling base blogpost
David Crowe Dave is one of the best lettercutters in England, and a very fine carver, but he’s also excellent at handling large blocks of stone. He was on hand when the stone was delivered, and is going to help me to install the finished sculpture at St Mary Magdalen School.  Here he is drilling a deep hole into the centre of the stone, so that we can attach the finished sculpture to the base stone using stainless steel rods.  Even though the pieces of stone won’t be attached until the end, it’s best to get this job done at the start.

9 Line drawing marked onto stone
I enlarged the very accurate drawings that I’d made and used carbon paper to transfer the information onto the surface of the stone.

10 Stone before anglegrinding
I then marked out very clearly which areas I can cut away with my angle grinder tomorrow. I will start by cutting the side profile and then redraw my markings onto the top surface of what is left, and cut out the front to back profile.

Post 3:
Using the maquette and a perspex box to make very exact line drawings which are then marked onto the stone.

2 About the plaster copy (1)
The original model cracked up as the clay dried out and shrank over the wire. But that doesn’t matter because I have an exact plaster copy which was made using a fibreglass and silicon rubber mould.

Video number 4: In which I talk about the plaster mould and how I started to construct a measuring box:

A step-by-step account of how I made and used my measuring box:

3 About the plaster copy (2)

I  taped the panels together to make a sturdy box whose inside dimensions are exactly half that of my block of Portland stone. By placing the maquette inside the box, it is easy to see how the figure fits within the block, and figure out which bits of stone can be cut away.

I then got some long thin sticks by taking apart a sushi-making roll, and poked them through the holes which I had drilled into the panel. I went around the figure, trying to get as close as possible without actually touching the model.  The result was an outline of sticks which gave me a simple profile (like a cookie cutter) and showed which bits of stone I won’t need to make the sculpture.

Using graph paper to make a scale drawing, I marked down the positions of each bamboo stick, and joined the dots together to record the 4 different profiles. I then simplified the outline into a series of straight lines.

This simple outline shows me which areas of stone can be cut off the block of stone using an angle-grinder. An angle-grinder is an electric saw used for removing large chunks of stone. This is very time saving in the early stages of a sculpture, and is known as Masonry. The later stages of stone cutting, when the shapes become more subtle and flowing, is called Carving.

Before beinning to cut into the stone there were a few more measurements I needed to take. This time I used the perspex grid and sticks to record much the finer details of my maquette.

I dipped the end of a stick into paint, and poked it through the holes until it touched the maquette leaving a small coloured dot on the plaster. A set-square helped me check that the stick went in at 90% so that the dot was at the same level as the hole. This enabled me to record the exact position of each particular feature.

Using multiple grid positions I was able to translate a complex three-dimensional shape into a highly accurate line drawing. I then scaled up my drawings and used carbon paper to transfer the information onto the 4 sides of the stone block.

I used a perspex box and a stick, but in the past sculptors used the same method by constructing a wooden frame around their maquette, and attaching vertical and horizontal lengths of string across the frame to form a measuring grid.  There are other pointing techniques and a specific piece of equipment that you can buy called a ‘pointing machine’, but the box method is cheap to make and just as easy to use.

Post 2:
The First Stage – Making a maquette

After I’d been given the go-ahead for my design,  I made a maquette (a small preliminary model) of the sculpture in clay.  This was so that I could examine it from all sides to check that it not only looked good, but was structurally sound (no vulnerable bits that might easily get knocked off) and would weather well (no hollows where water could collect and cause problems when it froze in the winter).  Making a maquette is a good idea as it’s much easier to make adjustments in clay than in stone.


1)  I made a basic figure out of wire and tape, using a model skeleton to check that the proportions were correct.


2)  A clay body was then built up over the wire structure.


3)  I quickly modelled a face onto the figure, but will model Mary Magdalen’s features more carefully in a separate, full sized maquette.


4)  When I was happy that the figure resembled a young woman, I added clothing. A thin sheet of clay was wrapped around her shoulders like a shawl, and wedges of clay were used to build up her skirt (which also made the model more sturdy). It might seem strange to spend time modelling a figure only to mask it with clothes, but this approach makes it easier to get the right proportions and body posture.

5 (2)

5)  My daughter kindly posed for me holding a jug.  This was so that I could check that the pose looked natural and suitable for the role, but also wouldn’t pose problems when carved in stone.

6 (2)6

6)  I found that the best way to make a well shaped jar was to build it up using coils of clay – just like a potter might.  I laid the coils around a ball of clay so that the finished jar wouldn’t squish or dry out too quickly.


7)  The jar was attached to the figure using a bit of wire pressed into the clay. This meant that I didn’t have to hold it while I was positioning Mary’s hands around the jar, and that her arms didn’t actually need to carry the weight of the pot.
8)  Once the jar was in place, Mary’s arms and hands could be covered in clay and set into position. While I working I wrapped the bits that I wasn’t working on in cling film so that the clay didn’t dry out too quickly.

9)  I rolled out a square of clay and gathered it up to create realistic folds for her shawl.
10)  When the fold had been placed over Mary’s arm, I added extra clay underneath, making sure that the shape remained the same.  This means that when the form is recreated in stone it won’t be too delicate.

Once all the basic elements were in place, I took photographs from all angles, printed them out and stuck them up so that I could look at them from a distance.  This helped me to see the shape of the sculpture with ‘a fresh eye’, and decide what changes I wanted to make or details I needed to add.


11)  If you compare the two photos above you can see that the right foot has been moved outward.  This makes it seem as if Mary is stepping forwards, and also works as a visual device; the folds of the skirt (and the shawl) lead your eye to Mary’s jar of ointment.


12)  I asked my daughter to pose for me again so that I could see exactly how hair weaves in and out when plaited.
13)  When I first built up the figure, I left her hair as a wedge of clay. By this stage it was ‘leather-hard’ and I could carve a neat plaited design into the clay.

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14-17) Photos of the finished maquette.  I find that looking at them in black and white helps to see the shapes more clearly.  You can see that the sculpture is stylised, the features aren’t totally naturalistic.  The forms and features have been simplified in order to emphasise Mary Magdalen’s gesture of service.

Post 1: My first video blog-post

Here is the first of a series of videos that I’ll be making to document the making of a sculpture of Mary Magdalen for the school Sensory Garden.

I hope to show what’s involved in creating a piece of sculpture in stone, from the initial idea to the final installation.

Video number 1: Introducing myself

Video number 2: Showing the clay scale model before it’s cast in plaster.

Video number 3: A better look at the scale model

Stone Carving Workshop in my workshop, March 2013

Day 1 of another Stone Carving Workshop in my studio, and as ever I am amazed.  I have given up trying to predict what the students will be like – and what they will achieve.  At first glance my students today looked quite genteel and reserved.   Being somewhat past the first flush of youth, I wondered whether they might struggle to shift the stone, and regretted that I didn’t have blocks of softer stone to hand.  However, I needn’t have worried. As Yvonne (in her 60s) said; ‘We are mature and don’t have any time to waste!’.  A great attitude, and very productive.

These photos were taken early in the afternoon after a morning learning different tool techniques….. Although none of these students have carved before they are already chomping away competently. It’s very exciting to see.


Stone Carving Workshop January 2013

This weekend I ran the second Stone Carving Workshop in my new studio.  It was the first time that I had 3 students in this space, and though I was fairly sure that there would be plenty of room for us, I was still pleased to have this confirmed.

One of the students had already come on one of my carving courses, so I knew already that the weekend would be fun with her around.  Five years ago Sue had carved an abstract sculpture, based on a woman’s bottom.  The lines produced by a claw tool had been used to emphasis its voluptuous curves, so it looked like a potent fertility icon. I remember a group of teenagers walking past the sculpture almost tripping over themselves with shock and awe.

The other two students, a lawyer and an architect, hadn’t carved stone before. Chris decided to carve a book which symbolised part of his heritage, Jim wanted to carve an abstract sculpture, and Sue decided to tackle a more complex form this time – a curled up, sleeping baby.

The first morning of every workshop is spent with me demonstrating the tools and the students trying them out.  Then, when suitable stones have been chosen, work begins on their individual projects.  It’s very exciting to see the progression – from uncertainty and doubt, through moments of frustration, to increased confidence and assurance.  Suddenly the rhythm of the hammering becomes harmonious and is a joy to hear.

Even though the workshop was shorter than usual due to snowfall and difficult travel conditions,  everyone really got stuck in and made some lovely pieces.  And because by the third day the students knew exactly what they were doing, I even did a bit of whittling myself…  A really nice way to spend the weekend  :>)


Stone carving on Channel 4’s Time Team programme. Lucy Churchill’s blog about the experience.

Stone Carving  on Channel 4’s TIME TEAM: 

 Lucy Churchill’s blog post about the experience.

Series 19, Episode 7.   To be televised: Sunday 4th March 2012, 6pm.

In May 2011 Time Team  excavated the site of Earl’s Colne Priory in Essex.  The Priory was destroyed by Henry V111 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536, and it’s contents were looted and dispersed.  It was hoped that excavation would recover lost information about the buildings, and possibly some artefacts.

Several  alabaster tombs commemorating members of the de Vere family,  were taken from the Priory when it was demolished, and  later re-housed in St Stephen’s Chapel, Bures, Essex.  My part of the project was to look at the monuments with presenter Alex Langland,  to teach him the rudiments of stone carving, and to recreate a small piece of carving to demonstrate the labour involved.   It was a lot of work to cram into 2 days filming, and so much preparation was required beforehand. 


I went to St Stephen’s Chapel to examine the tombs and see what I might be able to recreate during the time available.   I was awe-struck by the experience.  The chapel is on a remote hillside, and the alabaster figures lay in the dark stillness, beautifully serene. The only sound I heard all day was the call of a cuckoo, and as I sketched the figures  I watched a spider making a web between the knight’s nose and his folded hands.  It was a deeply peaceful  and  pleasurable experience.

Memorials such as these were commissioned as a display of high status and virtue, and were covered in significant details for the viewer to decode.  The de Vere family had a history of supporting the monarchy in battles and on crusades, and much symbolism was to do with wealth, power and devotion.   I poured over the tombs trying to place each reference;  some were obvious but others required further research.  I particularly enjoyed deciphering the broken fragments of script on Sir Richard de Vere’s helmet and sword.


Even the finest details of the  knight’s  armour was carved with precision, including the delicate chainmail under-suit, and ornate buckles and straps.  You can see the finger nails, and also the ‘knuckle-dusters’ he is wearing on his hands held in prayer.  His wife, Alice de Vere, is wearing a strange and intricate headdress perched on her high plucked forehead.   Small fragments of pigment show that parts of the memorial were once been richly painted; red, blue and gold.  Not only is their wealth demonstrated through the depiction of  their rich clothing, but by the fact that they could pay  highly skilled craftspeople to record such intricate details.

The  alabaster figures are covered with incised graffiti;  initials, dates (the earliest being 1532), and most intriguingly, pentagrams.  I later discovered that early Christians used this symbol to represent the five wounds of Christ.  Given that some of these scratchings predated the dissolution of the priory,  it seems as the graffiti  was not a mark of disrespect, but something a pilgrim might do – like lighting a votive candle, or dropping a coin into a well.  


The producer of Time Team had suggested that I should recreate a shield-bearing angel from one of the tomb’s panels.  However,  my eye was caught by a three-dimensional  boar  on top of the helmet,  which lay beneath the head of Sir Richard de Vere.  As hunting and eating wild boar was an aristocratic pursuit, this animal symbolised bravery and largesse.  It is likely that the stone carver had little contact with these beasts as even though the form is very lifelike,  it looks more like a plump pig than a boar.  Perhaps to give vigour and virility to the crest, the animals’ genitalia are depicted with  great detail.

The boar’s head was broken off,  so while at the chapel I modelled  a new head in soft wax, working directly onto the stone.  This helped me to get a better sense of the carvings original appearance.  I took many photographs and measurements, and made sketches, which I used later to make templates to work from. 


The De Vere tombs are made from English Alabaster, a cheap alternative to marble during the mediaeval times.  However demand for alabaster declined after the Reformation when the production of religious icons fell, and marble become cheaper to import for funeral sculpture.  At the end of the 20thC it became more profitable for English quarries to blast the stone out of the ground to make plaster. 

Michael and Nigel Owen, stone merchants in Northamptonshire, hold the last stock of English Alabaster.   Unfortunately the remaining pieces are tiny, so I could only buy a small panel suitable for my project with Alex.  I bought a larger block of Italian alabaster for the boar, but even this stone is in short supply and the dimensions had to be scaled down.  The preparations were now complete, and I was ready for action.

On the first morning Alex Langland and I were filmed at St Stephen’s Chapel.  It was a strange contrast to my previous visit; then the only illumination had been sunlight coming through the windows, moving slowly across the monuments over the course of the day.  Now the chapel was filled with bright lights and equipment and the bustle of a tight schedule.  Again and again Alex and I were directed to burst through the door,  and I had to try and recreate my initial awe on seeing the alabaster figures.  I’m not a very convincing liar so I probably blushed throughout.  It was fascinating to see the amount of work involved in making such a program.

The rest of the day was spent showing Alex stone working techniques, and guiding him as he carved a star (another emblem of the de Vere family) into the small square of English alabaster.  Not having a television I was unfamiliar with Alex Langland; I thought that having done a bit of televisual chipping, he would disappear  leaving me to finish the product.  However he was naturally very skillful and applied himself to completing the piece, even after the film crew had moved on.  I was genuinely impressed

My background is as a restoration carver, and I am trained to recreate objects with great accuracy.  However because of the limited time schedule, I had to put aside the time consuming process of cross-referencing.  As I had studied the original in such detail I  threw myself into the carving and worked largely from memory.  


By the time the light faded and filming had to come to an end, a credible carving of the heraldic boar had been achieved.  Paul Whight, the owner of Earl’s Colne Priory, had watched the work in progress and promptly bought the sculpture.  It’s there now, in place of the alabaster tombs – I hope that the original stone carver would approve.


More about Time Team:   http:// ww.timeteamdigital.com/w

More about St Stephen’s Chapel:   


More about Lucy Churchill:    http://www.lucychurchill.com/

(See new website early February)