Stone: whose work is it anyway?

I receive letters like this once a fortnight. They effectively promise to do sculptors’ hard work for them at a very reasonable cost. I send a small model or maquette to China, and it will be factored to my dream size in granite or my chosen material; hardness no object. Permanence guaranteed. All from the comfort of my chair.

This process is behind much of large work¬†¬†in stone today – the anodyne Borough works of ¬†statuary as well as large works by non-stonecarving artists who (perhaps) are using stone as an addition to their oeuvre, to tap into the huge market for “public sculpture”. The sculpture of Alison Lapper¬†which occupied Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth typifies todays working – Marc Quinn unashamedly having a life cast made before the enlarged final marble was crafted by Italian artisans. ¬†Much sculpture has undergone a regime change and has become what was formerly known as design. ‘Professional’ sculptors have ideas and ¬†‘project manage’ them with finesse.

Interesting to compare an earlier worker of granite who worked by hand with the expertise gained from the Dartmoor granite workers at Sticklepath.¬† John Skeaping RA, first husband of Barbara Hepworth and a former Professor of Sculpture at the Royal College (1953-59), lived in Chagford, Devon and worked on an over-lifesize figure which shows absolute mastery and craftsmanship of the hard yet extremely brittle material. This in a day before diamond disc cutters and tungsten carbide tooling; when axes and drills – or the percussive blast of the chisel – were used to shape the stone. Memorial (1955/6, pictured right) is seen by Skeaping’s son Nicholas as his sculptural tour de force… and it contains much of the sculptor’s feeling for Paul, his and Barbara Hepworth’s son who was killed in RAF service in 1953.

Contrast the work in Scottish granite by Ronald Rae who also works alone, by hand. His sheer persistence with a hammer and chisel does not overpower the stone. It appears to be a well-matched battle, with the sheer stoniness of the sculpture – and the overall form of the original block – being allowed to remain. The twenty tonne Lion of Scotland is a work of Rae, but it is also still a boulder of Corrennie granite.

Ironically, although their work is very different, the later work of Rae and some of that of Peter Randall Page (whose team of skilled sculptors use industrial tools where helpful) ¬†is ¬†similar in its formal arrangement. Randall Page’s intense concern with surface in works such as Give and Take (right) similarly respects the integrity of the ice-worn boulder, which has its own visual balance through years of geomorphological activity. We experience the same effect through picking up well-worn – yet still irregular – beach stones which have a completeness of surface about them.

Rae selects recently quarried boulders which speak to him; their developing new figurative identity maintains the perceived overall volume of the block whilst his chiseling introduces a completeness to each of the irregular sub-divisions created. Water and ice erosion have provided a similar but universal effect over millions of years in boulders selected by Randall-Page. In Give and Take (right) there is a completeness of form in each regular tesselated unit and – as the units are similar in form, depth and surface treatment – in the sculpture itself.

So is the actual path of sculpture coming into being completely irrelevant? I trust that somewhere deep inside the maker there is a marker about the intrinsic rightness of things. Hopefully this feeling with be in evidence to the viewer in influencing the decision of whether the physical time spent between sculptor and stone is important; whether it ¬†makes the content¬†richer or warmer.[Alan Thornhill’s definition of content:¬†‘that phenomenon of communication in which the observer’s ¬†awareness senses signals of presence and action issuing from another consciousness, that have been embedded, without self-regard, in a chosen material’]

Working granite by hand is hard but the experience cathartic – one has to be incredibly persistent. ¬†I certainly wouldn’t want to be working it all the time and I do not go looking for it – but it sometimes just arrives serendipitously. I picked up four irregular chips from the working of Ronald Rae’s latest block at Cramond, whilst visiting for his¬†portrait sitting¬†which will be part of my ‘Sculpture’ series of heads. They are tiny, slight and extremely difficult to work without snapping them asunder, but are a challenge nonetheless – and I’m unsure quite how exactly I’m going to work them because of their brittleness. Another block turned up after a phone call from someone who wanted a piece of ‘heavy marble’ moved from their Petworth garden. It was indeed heavy, and turned out to be the most stable and resistant black granite known, prized for these qualities for the ultimate flat, stable surface for truing precision instruments and the like. With uniformly fine textures and tight porosity, ¬†black granites are extremely resistant to water absorption or warping from humidity, being twice as stiff as light-coloured granites based on Young’s Modulus of Elasticity as they contain¬†no crystalline quartz.

The resulting work ¬†(a high relief of two feet square) has taken three years, because my threshold of being physically able to work it by hand has been so low. Working it for twenty minutes at a time, I would rapidly think of something more intelligent to do. But without any love for it, and with no desire for a “result”, something interesting gradually emerged which had as much to do with the unyielding stone and its fiery origin (seemingly) as it did with the sculptor. But I do have a 5-year-old and I’m sure the books we read also creep into the work. Igneous (2011) will be at the Surrey University Lewis Elton Gallery solo exhibition¬†in Guildford, weekdays from November 15th until 22nd December.

Come along to the Private View on the evening of Monday 14th November.