School of Hard Knocks
Burngate Stone Carving Centre perches on what is known locally as The Top Road, between the villages of Langton Matravers and Kingston, opposite the junction to Worth Matravers. The view is fantastic and the fields that surround it are alive with wildflowers. You don’t have to be carving to enjoy the place – they even serve tea and coffee for the view. Structurally, it comprises the made-over ruins of two ancient stone sheds that appear both strikingly modern as well as faithful to their quarrying and pastoral heritage. Stone from the ‘underground quarr’ nearby was worked here up until mid-last century. The mine is now reserved as habitat for wildlife, most notably bats, while the cattle and sheep that once sheltered under crumbling corrugated-iron have found more salubrious accommodation.
The Centre as an idea found wings during a flurry of funding activity about a decade ago. It provides an accessible point of entry for anyone and everyone to discover the world of Purbeck stone through working with the material itself. Pictured on these pages is tutor and founding member Valentine Quinn, an ex-quarry worker and an artist who works predominantly with Purbeck stone. Here, he takes us through the ‘taster’ course held each week at the centre.
Val may not appear the most ebullient of teachers – ‘I look like a grumpy curmudgeon,’ he observed on seeing these images – but his passion for Purbeck stone is still infectious. ’I quite often take the students into the gallery next door and show them what (their stone) will look like when it’s polished. Stan Bonfield’s got a lovely rack of stone tablets that he’s cut and polished from each of the beds in his quarry, just his quarry alone, which is amazing. I just sort of fell in love with names; Feather, ‘The Vyebit’, ’Downs-vein’, ‘Thornback’. ‘The Vyebit’ is a perfect illustration of the dialect because it was split into five – five-beds – vyebed – vyebit, I think that’s how it goes. You’d have to talk to Stanley.’
We’ll do that one of these days.
I made these templates, or patterns; birds, flowers, leave, fishes – as simple as possible. People can choose one, place that on the stone and with these hard pencils, 10H, 9H, draw a nice hard line around the pattern that won’t rub out when they’re working. Then it’s a question of resting the chisel outside the line, at a certain angle, and beginning to tap away.
Mason’s dummy. It’s round but used as a hammer, not a pestle, which some try – but it doesn’t work. The beauty of it [the hammerhead] being round is you don’t have to think about which end you’re hitting with; you can hold it by the handle or in the palm of your hand – and it’s comfortable.
A ‘point’, which is used for getting rid of ‘waste’.
Two Tungsten tip chisels: one 10mm, one 5mm. The flat chisels are for cutting around the original pattern. I encourage people to go as deeply as they can, not to be afraid of it, otherwise you haven’t got the material to carve (your figure). You don’t want to leave any ‘flat’ from the sawn faces.
If you hold the chisel too upright, you’re only going to scratch the surface; at too low an angle, it slides along. Holding the chisel at about 45 degrees enables it to get a purchase on the material. It’s a gentle thing, a wrist action – I’m using dummies that only weigh a pound, I’ve given up using pound-and-a-half dummies, too hard on the elbow. Yes, Purbeck stone is harder than Portland stone but people deal with it. When people used to say to Tom Bonfield, ‘Oh, it’s hard stone,’ he’d say, ‘Well, you gotta’ be hard with it’ (Tom and his son Stan are local quarry owners of many generations). It is quite a tough material, it’s not porcelain. There are weaknesses in the stone that will sometimes appear, like hairline fractures (see P!J, edition 6) but you can be firm with it – just no need to be brutal.
Some people seem to need to prove themselves by belting away but most get the idea. Sometimes I need to correct the angle of the chisel, and very rarely there’s the occasional person who just doesn’t get it – but even they walk away with a piece they’re happy with because they’ve actually done something. And that, I reckon, is the thing nowadays; a lot of people working in front of screens or whatever… they actually enjoy doing something physical. And stone is the oldest material known to man; working with it is kind of therapeutic, it’s a rooting thing, it’s meditative – it’s a ‘First-Thing’, like wood, or clay.
I also encourage a vertical cut along the edge of the carving, or the ‘arress’, as it used to be known, so you’ve got a really nice sharp edge on whatever it is you’re doing – and then you start to mould it, which is when it gets difficult. You want to get movement in there. If it’s a fish, you need to go deep to get the body rounded, even though it’s a relief carving.
You’ve got to find a way to work comfortably, so you’re not bending over too much and hurting your back. You do get involved in the work and it’s easy to forget that, and the next minute its ergh, aagh…
We start with a relief carving as opposed to a sculpture in the round, which would take days or weeks. Whether it’s an all-day session or a few hours, this is just a taster.