Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Silent voices

Riding on the back of the last post about that bit of stone furniture, I want to do a bit of thinking out loud about what makes the difference between one approach to an ordinary job and another. Why does some garden or domestic design hit the spot, and others are hopeless failures?

I've met many extremely successful designers in my work, and the two who spring to mind most readily, produce environments that I really don't like very much at all, but their clients do, and that is the main thing. Or is it?

One set of well-known garden designers have used me (and others like me) a lot over the years, and I have noticed that they would rather cut their own hands off than introduce me to their clients. That makes commercial sense, of course, but it does show a very insecure attitude to their own abilities. The whole point of a good designer is that they bring the whole project together with the help of all the artists and craftsmen - then put their own magic on top like sprinkling fairy-dust, and this is what makes the project unique to them.

My job is - when making objects from new - to put some magic into it or, more precisely, bring some magic out of it. That Portland Roach stone is physically very difficult to use, which is why it is avoided by most ordinary masons (who have a hard enough life as it is) but when used properly, it makes the magic part of the job so easy. How? Because it actually speaks to you.

I know this sounds like a really arty-farty thing to say, but it is true. Have you ever wondered why people refer to some noisy streams as 'babbling brooks'? If you have never done so already, then the next time you find yourself in a quiet spot in the countryside, next to water that is running over rocks, sit down and listen for as long as it takes. After a while, you will fall into a trance-like state, and then you will hear the voices. You will never be able to understand what they say, but you will hear them nevertheless.

When you cut Portland Roach stone into a formal architectural shape, what you are really doing is opening a window so that it can look through at you. It speaks to you silently, like the Al Fayum tomb paintings do. Stare at that portrait above which is staring back at you, and you will hear the voice of a person who has been dead for 3000 years saying, "Remember me!" It even works from a book, or - in this case - off a computor screen.

Nothing is more ridiculous and disrespectful to an antique object than bad restoration. When a proud craftsman leaves his own mark or signature on an ancient object he has restored by making a plainly obvious repair, he is - effectively - gagging the object for ever. If he hasn't totally gagged it, then he has been idiotic enough to elbow the thing out of the way until he takes centre stage, and by doing that he has ruined it - all the while imagining that his name will live forever through the object. Well his name is soon forgotten like everyone else's, but his stupidity lives on.

I have always taken great care in trying not to leave a trace of myself behind when restoring or conserving stone, antique objects, and when I have failed to go in and out unnoticed, I feel very silly indeed.

An antique-dealer customer once left me an object to restore and, during the time that it was at my workshop, he forgot what it used to look like and how badly damaged it was.

When he returned to collect it, I gave him my bill and he said, "How can it be that much? I can't even see what you have done to it!"

I told him that it was that much because he could not see what I had done to it, and if I had done a worse job, then it would have been cheaper. Bloody antique dealers.


  1. That pedestal is gorgeous Tom. You are one of those artists whose work will be around in hundreds of years. I would like to see that finished stone closer up.

  2. Wonderful post Tom. I'm listening for the voices. Radios work for me.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. I changed my mind.

    I love that portrait. It always surprises me the amount of impasto they used!

  5. Tom, where can I buy soapstone blocks in this country?

  6. In reverse:

    Chris: Soapstone in the USA? How the hell do I know - I live in the UK. South Africa is a big exporter of alabaster.

    It was encaustic, Cro (sometimes used in impasto fashion.

    Radios are more my thing too, Sarah.

    Thanks Raz and Starting - you'll have to come over.

  7. ... you are in the USA, aren't you Chris?....

  8. Tom - this piece of writing needs a wider audience than your blog frankly - it is so full of truth.

  9. I'm not sure where I am? ...

    Where am I? ...

    Who are you?...

    What's going on here?...

  10. My nurse says my name is Chris and I live in a place called England...

    Time for my medication now...

  11. Oh, I'm so sorry Chris - why did I think you were in the States? (maybe because your profile does not say where you are, and you are wearing a baseball cap and flotation vest?). Right, back to Alabaster - the large, carvable blocks are usually imported from South Africa, and are a dreadful, worm-like, pinkish brown colour. Really disgusting. You can get a sugar-mouse pink alabaster from Penarth in Wales, a steel blue coloured one from Blue Anchor Bay on the North Somerset Coast, and a lemon-yellow one from just below the old bridge over the Severn Estuary on the M4 - all of them off beaches of one sort or another, and all free to he who illegally picks them up off the beach. I have had tons in the past.

    Ok, Weaver - find me a wider audience and I will pay you a commission!

  12. Must be the southern draaaawwwll in my comments or the fact that the sun is shinning in most of my photos that threw you.

    Ta. Only asking 'cause I've found my old (and unused) stone carving tools purchased from Tiranti eons ago gathering dust.

    Your beautiful craft and handy-work has inspired me to have a bash at using them in my own ham-fisted and amateurish way.

  13. Re your post...

    ... I work with architects day in, day out and see a lot of buildings go up, some of which work beautifully and sympathetically with their surroundings and others just look plain f**king hideous and wrong.

    The best designs always seems to have less individual ego imbued in them. E.g. putting a 40 storey planar glass tower in the centre of Bath because the architect wants one in his portfolio - it happens a lot...

  14. You have a set of Tiranti tools? Do you find the corners of the oblong, iron hammers take little v-shaped sections out of your hand when you miss the chisel?

  15. now I know this may sound sick, but he looks kind of attractive!

  16. ps I thought chris was a yank too!!!!

  17. Maybe I am...I'm getting confused now...who the hell am I? Nurse!

  18. WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU SHOUTING, CHRIS??? Don't you know that John is a nurse? Talk about inviting Dracula (or the bailiffs) into your home. Next thing you know, there will be a knock on your back door and a slavering Boxer will be standing there (with Constance standing behind).

  19. Oh TOM
    sorry shouting!

  20. 'Tweo' is better - I love it when you talk in a Welsh accent.