Sketching the classics, or, I want to be a stone mason

Today I spent an hour or so sketching in the Cast Gallery at the Museum of Classical Archaeology, which is just one of Cambridge University’s many fabulous free museums. Part of the Faculty of Classics, the gallery contains casts of statues and friezes from all over the classical world and is an amazing asset for Cambridge. I love to sketch, but in all honesty have done so only twice in the last twenty years or so that I can recall… What motivated this little excursion from my daily routine of teaching/ school runs/ wondering what to make for supper/ buying stuff to cook for supper/ laundry/ more laundry/ feeding kids their supper etc was that I am going to learn to be a stone mason!!

Or more truthfully, I am attending a long weekend course in September at which I will learn the techniques of stone carving and (hopefully) carve something half decent myself. The course was a Christmas present from my husband, so back in the early spring time I contacted the teacher, Lucy Churchill, and asked her advice on what I should be doing to prepare myself for learning to carve stone. She said ‘look at as much sculpture as you can’ and recommends sketching it too, thinking about what shape block you would need to start with and ‘how you would go about taking away the unnecessary stone in slices and checks’. She has a lot more information in her 15 page document for prospective carvers, but I am tantalised just by these comments.

What initially sparked my desire to become a stone mason wasn’t actually classical statues or friezes, but rather the incredibly intricate carvings found in the churches and cathedrals of England. Regular readers of my blog (are you out there?) might recall that I have been visiting cathedrals with my family with the aim of visiting all the Anglican cathedrals in England, but we have made a few other non-cathedral visits recently too, notably to St Mary’s, Beverley, and to Romsey Abbey which both contain stonework fascinating in itself and historically significant for Britain. For me, the showstopper so far, however, has been Southwell Minster. The attendant there could see my delight at the carvings and took time out from greeting at the door to show me some of the intricacies of the Chapter House — the hidden beasts lurking under stone fronds of oak, the hollow space behind more leaf work extending for several yards over the arched doorway, the master mason himself with his special master mason’s hat atop the serene face of one who knows he has overseen a job well done. I was left speechless and ecstatic by my visit to Southwell.

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The master mason in the Chapter House at Southwell Minster, identifiable by his hat

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The entrance to the Chapter House, Southwell. It’s hard to make out without a torch held under it, but the leaf work around these arches is hollow behind. Much of the stonework in Southwell Minster is too intricate to be adequately restored, despite being in grave need of restoration after water damage

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From underneath you can make out these two pigs snuffling for acorns in the Chapter House, Southwell Minster; they are hidden at eye level by the oak leaves

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The White Rabbit at St Mary’s, Beverley, was apparently inspiration for John Tenniel’s illustration to Alice in Wonderland

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Fabulous faces overseeing entry to St Mary’s, Beverley

But Southwell and Beverley are both a bit too far away to nip off to for a quick sketch, so I returned to the cast gallery in Cambridge. Then I had to decide what to sketch — so much choice! Not a human face — too tricky, certainly not a god’s face — too hubristic, not a frieze — too flat, aha! A lovely deer!

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Detail from Diana of Versailles

This young deer, apparently a companion to Diana, surely not an imminent victim (in her hand above its head is the remnant of a bow; her other hand reaches for an arrow, presumably for a different prey somewhere in the direction of her gaze), has all the serenity in its face, it is so graceful, and yet is so full of flow and movement in keeping with the whole composition. It is so slender of feature, so beautiful. I will not do it justice, but I will try!

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Diana of Versailles. The original in the Louvre, a Roman work from the 1st or 2nd century AD, is believed to be a copy of a Greek bronze by Leochares from the 4th century BC. A bronze copy was given to Charles I and is now in Windsor Castle

This being my first attempt at sketching in a lot of years, and never having done any art seriously at school, I found it fascinating to note how I looked at the sculpture, and how wrong I was in interpreting what I saw. I would look, then I would make a mark on the paper, then I would look again and wonder why what I had done looked so wrong. My line would, I realised, be going in the opposite direction from where it should have been going. I had looked and perceived all wrong! I did this a lot of times. Not to mention scale, proportion, perspective… However, I had a good go at it, but my time was up all too quickly and I had to leave to pick up my youngest from pre school. Looking at it later with fresh eyes I was pleasantly surprised to see what resembled a deer on my page. None of the serenity and flow of my sitter, granted, but a deer nonetheless, recognisable!

Next task, to carve it in stone with a weekend’s tuition under my belt!

I am grateful for the advice to go and look at sculpture in order to figure out how to carve it, but the best advice in order to really look is definitely to sketch. Now, school holidays start tomorrow — do you think I will be able to get my kids to sit still and sketch with me, just for an hour or so?

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I forgot to take a rubber with me

I am also grateful to the Classics Faculty at Cambridge University for having such a wonderful and free museum.

My photos don’t begin to do justice to the incredible carvings both in stone and wood at all the places I have mentioned in this piece. I urge you to go and visit them for yourself:

St Mary’s, Beverley

Southwell Minster (it is properly a cathedral, but the name ‘Minster’ has stuck)

Romsey Abbey with its Saxon carvings and especially its rood

Should you wish to learn to carve stone with Lucy Churchill, her courses are booked nearly a year ahead. I will aim to write about my experience when I have something to show for it.

Here are some more images from Southwell:

And some more from St Mary’s Beverley:

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