Purveyor of Bollocks to the Crowned Heads of Europe
Tuesday, 7 August 2012
It's not all about ME!
I was leafing through my 1980s Stone Directory yesterday, sourcing one of three stones for the Salisbury job, when I came across this advert for a mason's company, and took this rather crappy photo of it on my phone.
This picture probably represents the most extreme example of a shortcoming typical of all mediocre figurative stone sculptors - the inability to produce any representation of the human face without accidentally turning it into a self-portrait.
I say 'mediocre' rather than just plain bad, because you have to have reached quite a high level of skill to make a convincing self-portrait, but the difference between a technically good carver/modeller and a very good one lies in his/her ability to transcend the natural tendency to copy the face of the one you love the most, once you have mastered the basic techniques of simply knocking away stone.
Of course, it would be foolish not to refer to your own face as a basic reference when you have forgotten if the mouth is above or below the nose, etc. (believe me, this is not so ridiculous as it sounds - I once carved a figure with six fingers on one hand), but slavishly sticking to every personal detail shows a lack of confidence, or - more accurately - laziness when it comes to actually 'seeing' rather than simply looking at someone else's physical characteristics.
When in the closing stages of carving a massive, stone, bearded head a couple of years ago, I went for lunch, leaving my glamourous assistant with strict instructions to concentrate on the hair and beard parts of it, and nothing else.
This is going to sound very arrogant and vain, but it is a simple statement of fact: I have quite a classical nose, and I have used it as a straight model for some figurative carving a few times in the past. That is the only part of my body that can be used for traditionally classical figures so directly (apart from my penis in certain weather conditions and in states of irrational terror), so don't get the idea that I think I am some sort of Apollo - I would not copy the bags under my eyes, for instance.
My glamorous assistant has a much nicer body than me (well, he is almost 20 years younger) but his nose - though perfectly nice - is shortish and somewhat squat.
When I got back from lunch, I saw with horror that he was in the process of altering the nose I had carved - using his own for reference - and would have completely changed the whole thing from a river-god with fearful and primitive authority, to a Socrates type persona with a cheeky look about him. This was when I first realised that - though a brilliant modeller - he had his weak areas and had to be held in check at certain times.
The other major, utterly self-centred and unforgivable sin with restoration is to leave your signature all over it. This can be in the form of actually signing your work (idiotic) but is usually about leaving traces of your style when restoring the work of someone else who not only died hundreds of years ago, but left without telling us his name.
I once restored a very badly damaged stone item for an antique dealer, and this took so long that he had forgotten how badly damaged it was. When he came to collect it, he said it looked good and asked how much he owed me. When I told him, he said in horror, "But I can't see what you have done to it! How can it be so much money?" I said that if he could see what I had done to it, then the price would be much lower.
The picture below is of an early statue of King Bladud, the semi-mythical figure credited with discovering the curative properties if Bath's hot waters. It's restoration and conservation fell to a good stone-carver friend of mine who is also also a bit of a dab-hand in the use of natural pigments. He is also renowned for turning almost every figurative carving into something of a self-portrait.
How ironic that this figure - carved about 400 years before he was born - could easily be a portrait of him as he looked when he did the work. Maybe that's how he got the job.