The slab was the first thing in the van. A piece of Irish limestone about three feet by one foot by three inches thick. Probably the heaviest single thing I owned: I could just about lift it. I’ve moved enough times since carving it to know that it goes in first, sandwiched by double-thickness cardboard. Everything else can pile on top and I know it’ll be alright even though it’s one of my most treasured pieces, carved with a repeating Romanesque star design that always seems to look new.
I was moving into a friend’s spare room. My place in Falmouth had turned out to be not just damp but wet. There had been a few warning signs. The sea mist that came in through the closed windows. The warped folder of drawings I’d picked up one afternoon that started to drip. The carpet that oozed around my toes. The metal picture frame that had rusted on the wall. The only thing left was to get out, put everything in storage and move into Matt’s house across town.
As I heaved the stone into the back of the van I remembered how I’d found it: in a skip at a monumental masons’ yard. It took a fair amount of shifting of other offcuts to reach it, the single, pale grey corner that had initially caught my eye gradually increasing in size as I got closer. It wasn’t a perfect rectangle. One of the ends was at a slant, and there was a vent along one side, presumably the reason why it was discarded in the first place. Being sawn on six sides, there were no rough surfaces, though there were a few chipped edges. Otherwise it was a good find.
As I would discover, Kilkenny limestone is a lovely stone to work. It’s hard but cuts cleanly. It holds edges well – it will chip rather than crumble. The colour is the thing, though: cut it and it’s pale grey, polish it and it goes a glassy black, like marble. (In fact, it’s often called Kilkenny marble.) For several months I wondered what to do with that stone until a trip to a Romanesque church in Herefordshire showed me the way. It was the lintel to the south door at St Andrew, Bredwardine, which became a lesson in the possibilities of repeated geometric patterns. The Bredwardine lintel is carved with one giant rosette or hexafoil motif similar to those on the Cornish fonts at Altarnun, Warbstow and so on. This one, however, was divided so that each spoke or petal crossed a dividing line into an outer ring. Between each point in the outer circle there were smaller circles, each one containing a four-pointed star. On either side of the rosette the remaining space of the lintel was carved with massed star patterns. The design even carried on underneath. Look at it long enough and new patterns were formed from the building blocks of each square. It was an incredible piece of work, showing the potential of simple motifs and their repetition.
Not long after that visit I started to carve test pieces of star motifs on different offcuts of stone, just to get the pattern into my hands. Then, once I was confident, I set out the design on the slab. Star ornament is relatively straightforward to set out. First, you only really need a square with two diagonal lines crossing in the middle to work from. Each quarter, which is a right-angled triangle, becomes a shallow, sunken, unequal-sided pyramid, in effect, as you carve each face at the same angle. Do this for each quarter, twelve faces in all, and you have one four-pointed Romanesque star. Second, the design is flexible enough to fit all manner of imperfectly sized stone. So long as a four-sided shape can be drawn onto it, or squeezed into a corner, it is possible to produce a star motif.
On my slab I intended to do thirty of approximately similar size, in three rows of ten. The slight angle at one end of the slab could be accommodated by stretching the design; one point of some stars would appear slightly longer than the others. I thought that would look good: human, imperfect and purposeful (‘Good sculpture is purposeful,’ as John once said to me. ‘You may not know what its purpose or meaning is, but you can feel its presence.’)
I carved it in my friend Rosie’s studio on the edge of Dartmoor over several months, a day here, a day there, whenever I could find the time. I averaged about three to four stars per visit. ‘Edge’ of Dartmoor doesn’t really do the location any justice – the gate to the moor is right next to it, a former barn now carpeted in white marble dust and stacked with pieces of stone: Portland, Carrara, Spanish alabaster. Sometimes I’d cycle there from where I lived in Ashburton, taking a short cut through the grounds of Buckfast Abbey and up the ridiculously steep hills behind Scoriton and Combe, several miles of gradient. It seems to me that where you make something is almost as important as the making itself. The studio, remote and at the end of an unsurfaced road, the weather, my journey there, the conversations we had, all went into the stone in some way, which itself drew from the long heritage of decorated lintels, grave slabs and other architectural sculpture. Centuries of working practice, not to mention daily life, live in each project.
While sculpture, like other artistic practices, can bend itself into the shapes of words, it takes its life from the sensory realms beneath and beyond them. These ‘empty spaces where art happens’ are impossible to quantify. It can be difficult to know, let alone explain, the feelings a work inspires, not just during its making but in the life it then takes on when finished, separate to the circumstances in which it was produced. The artist and teacher Philip Rawson believed this was due to the complex connections between memory and sensory experience. Those works of art that resonate with these submerged memory traces are like powerful beams of light illuminating forgotten or hard-to-reach aspects of ourselves.
With each new star carved, the pattern on the stone became more and more complex, new lines and shadows confusing the eye. Some days I’d be dazzled by the thing and unable to focus properly – the apotropaic entrapment theory is far from just an idea. I was particularly excited to finish it. The raw, cut surfaces, textured with my chisel marks, were pale grey. At the edges, where I’d polished it, the grey deepened to a charcoal black. The American author Richard Sennett, writing about the emotional rewards of making something in his book The Craftsman, notes that the process of engaging with a given material means that ‘people are anchored in tangible reality, and they can take pride in their work.’ Connecting with tangible reality is the lightning rod that brings us out of the ether and fully into the here and now, with all its complex and conflicting emotions.
Once the carved slab had been loaded and wedged with other stones, I started to pack in the boxes of books. My books had been the real tragedy of the flat. Once pristine, they were now warped or buckled from damp. Like stones, I’m heavily invested in books. I can generally remember how they’ve made their way into my life; where I bought them, who gave them to me, how I met the author. Some of them are associated with loss. All the different moments and emotions that the physical form of a book contains are woven into my own personal history.
When I was a teenager, one of the nicknames my sister gave me was ‘the dusty historian’. It was intended as an insult and delivered when she thought I was being boring, which, to give her credit, was probably most of the time – maybe still is. I can’t remember when she first came up with the name even though it was her copy of Peter Ackroyd’s novel Chatterton which led me to pick up Hawksmoor and First Light and then to studying archaeology, a legitimately dusty pursuit. But was dust really all that dull? The ‘potential of dust’ writes the philosopher Michael Marder, ‘is not to be underestimated’.
A spatial gauge of time, the reversal of time and space (or the recognition of how closely connected they are) is about as big as it gets: my teenage-self had been right to feel something profound in the archaic. Ruins, fragments, dust, all facilitated a kind of imaginative freedom as well as a profound connection with others, living or dead.
Now I speak ruins, I’m fluent in the language of decay. The years working at Exeter cathedral have completely reorientated me. How could they not? On a daily basis our conversations were peppered with references to failure and loss: stone spalled and flaked due to the build-up of sulphate crusts, or sheered off due to incorrect bedding, or broke apart entirely from the accumulated stresses of freeze and thaw. I was part of the cathedral’s immune system, intervening when and where necessary to slow the processes that lead to damage and repair parts that had already succumbed. Like the best medicine, our work is more effective when it is preventative, and if we are successful it should be difficult to tell we’ve been there at all. Like the generations who had come before me, and those who will come after, I had become an anonymous stonemason, my work now a small part of the cathedral’s grand narrative. Part of the work of stonemasonry is to accept this strange dichotomy and your place within the order of things, always in the peripheral vision – much like the dust itself. Dust had been there from the beginning, a constant companion to my efforts. Dust, ordinary yet capable, in the right moments, of lending itself to insights of some gravity, was the by-product of my craft.
How much time do we have? It’s an unanswerable question. Dust is our future as well as our past. What I did know was that these fonts, tympana, capitals and other carved stones and their churches had weathered through centuries. Centuries of rain, wind, damp, changes in style and aesthetics, politics, religion, and with a little help and the odd repair, they were still here. The stones themselves were millions of years older than the images they bore. Seeking these stones out had attuned me to something greater. It didn’t matter that the images were sometimes indecipherable and their meanings obscure. It didn’t matter that the stones were often broken and split, or partially lost to the weather. They were in a long and ongoing conversation with their surroundings, continually adjusting to new circumstances. Because of this, they still lived.
All stonemasons come face-to-face with the long durations of time on a daily basis. Our work is expected to last hundreds of years, so it has to be good. Yet, by the same token we are often secondary to the original. A stone carved in the 1340s cannot be carved again. Even if it is copied exactly, its circumstances of production have changed, the tools used to carve it have been made differently, and the person carving it is living a different life in a very different world. In replacing a stone it might be argued that different moments in time, then, are what we are really preserving, impossible as that sounds. Perhaps we are recovering traces of events that have occurred in an anonymous life. Through their work we enter a dialogue, and might find ourselves anchored in time and place.
This piece is extracted from King of Dust, a craftman’s personal journey through the landscapes of and the ancient sculpture that first inspired him to pick up tools. Written by Alex Woodcock, the book is a meditation on craft, the importance of the handmade, and the transformative power of art in our lives. After completing a doctorate on medieval sculpture, Alex worked for six years at Exeter Cathedral in Devon, where he helped repair the internationally significant west front. He is also an award-winning poet and essayist, and in 2013 was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.