So Stephen, I believe stone carving runs in your family, tell us where it all began.
Well it began with my grandfather, who found his love for stone carving just after the second world war. His passion was primarily three dimensional figurative stone sculptures, although he did also turn his hand to occasional lettering commissions as a way to make a living. My father took a different path, becoming a landscape architect, but he learnt how to carve stone from my grandfather and did it as a hobby for many years. It was only when he retired that he began to carve stone full time. He is much more interested in letter form and calligraphy, so focuses far more on stone lettering than sculpture.
And when were you introduced to the art?
When I was about 4 years old. I remember being given a hammer and stone chisel on a family holiday and I, along with my brothers, were kept entertained for hours, carving into bits of limestone. But my brothers never had quite the same enthusiasm as me. Ever since then, there have always been plenty of blocks of limestone lying around, as well as tools, so I have been really fortunate really. All I have to do is find enough time.
So were you basically just given a piece of limestone and left to get on with it?
Yes, I tended to be given little projects to focus on and my father and grandfather would then give me feedback on things like the depth or shape of the letters I had carved. But a lot of my learning came simply from observing them, I guess by a sort of osmosis.
What do you think it was about stone carving that attracted you?
I was fascinated by the rhythm of carving stone, which I have always thought is like a mixture between dancing and playing a musical instrument. Letter carving is a way of fusing the worlds of poetry and craft together. I like to draw on spiritual texts, words which have deep meaning for me. Through the carving of them, they become like a mantra. I see letter forms as abstract sculptures in themselves which when sensitively designed, can give the text an added meaning and personal touch.
Do you have a favourite type of stone to work with?
Well, certainly limestone is the easiest material to use, as it is very soft. I began with Bath stone, which is a Jurassic limestone that has been used for buildings all over the world. But as time has gone on, I have moved towards harder stone and I would say I prefer this because soft stone doesn’t last as long. After 50-100 years, the crispness has been lost a bit. I like the permanence of hard stone. In 1000 years time, whatever has been carved will still be there. Culture, imbedded into the stone for future generations. I like to work with off-cuts of stone: the flawed, cracked, inconsistent pieces of stone; making beautiful that which is seen as worthless. Through working with the challenges of irregular rough stones, each piece develops a unique character that would be lost in carving clean cut consistent blocks of stone.
What are the types of rock that you might choose you carve and how do they differ?
The sedimentary rocks, such as limestone and sandstone have been formed by layers forming on top of layers. Whereas metamorphic rocks have been transformed under high pressure and heat. Then there are Igneous rocks, which are volcanic. One of the nice things about limestone though is that you don’t need to wear a mask, whereas you do with a lot of other rocks, due to the silica content. This can cause silicosis….
But sedimentary rocks are more prone to weathering, especially if the grains are running vertically and exposed to the rain. To avoid this, it is necessary to keep the stones as they would have been laid in the quarry, with their grains running horizontal. Then there are freestones and non-freestones. Generally, freestones are favoured for large, outdoor, ornamental sculptures, because the layers have almost merged, so they are much more hardy, like granite. Stone masons would often prefer to work with this stone, which is where the name freemason is derived.
And what is the biggest piece you have ever done?
Well the most extensive piece was probably a lettering commission piece in Sheffield, where we were carving poems from a local poet about the history of the markets in Sheffield onto stone benches. I was working with Pip Hall, who is an amazing stone carver, from…. and is arguably the fastest letter carver in the west! It took us 12 weeks to complete. The biggest single letter I have done was an ‘S’ that was about a foot high and wide. I’m not sure where that is now; in a park somewhere?!
So for anyone wanting to take up stone letter carving, what equipment is needed to get started?
Well, the main two tools are a lettering chisel and a lettering hammer, otherwise known as a dummy. A small hammer would work okay, but the round metal head of a dummy gives you more control. Clamps are also useful to hold the stone in place while you work on it and of course you need a sturdy table to work at.
Then you just need time and inspiration.
Letter carving is a way of fusing the worlds of poetry and craft together. I like to draw on spiritual texts, words which have deep meaning for me. Through the carving of them, they become like a mantra. I see letter forms as abstract sculptures in themselves which when sensitively designed, can give the text an added meaning and personal touch.