Gary Churchman has been carving stone for more than 30 years, embracing a wide range of sculpture, lettering and ornamental relief-work.
Much of his work concerns architectural restoration, and often involves the painstaking re-creation of intricate pieces from scraps of evidence or fragments of the original.
On leaving school, Gary’s first impulse was to work in photography, but an advertisement for a stonemasonry apprenticeship caught his eye and led him to work in a traditional monumental stoneyard in Luton. Gary comes from a creative and technically adept family, so he was naturally inclined towards arts and crafts.
While at the stoneyard, he met sculptor Rosemary Slinn, who inspired him to approach monumental stone carving in a more sculptural way.
After his apprenticeship, Gary took an art foundation course, followed by a three-year honours degree in Fine Art Sculpture at Newcastle Polytechnic (now the University of Northumbria). Graduating in 1983, he began work as a freelance stone carver and sculptor, and has remained so ever since.
His wide-ranging work has included a number of projects related to historic parks and gardens, including Hampton Court in Surrey and Chiswick House in London. His most recent work has been on the restoration of the Darnley Mausoleum at Cobham Park in Kent.
The Darnley Mausoleum is a Grade I-listed building, designed in 1783 for the 3rd Earl of Darnley by one of the leading architects of the time, James Wyatt. By the mid-20th century, the park had become neglected and the mausoleum had fallen into disrepair. It became the target of vandals and in 1980 a fire destroyed the roof and interior of the chapel.
Restoration of the mausoleum began in 2006 as part of a wider scheme to restore the buildings and landscape of Cobham Park. Gary had already worked on the project, carving a new herm’s head for a structure known as ‘Repton’s Seat’ in the park. For the mausoleum, he has carved two new Corinthian capitals and is now at work on a reredos for the mausoleum’s interior.
In beginning a piece of restoration work, Gary often has very little original information to go on. On site, he takes lots of photographs, makes sketches, and records numerous measurements from what is left of any originals. Many carvings, like capitals, are created using strict geometric principles. Gary uses evidence from similar carvings, together with these historic principles, to carefully build up a picture of what he believes the original would have looked like. For the Corinthian capitals, Gary was sent one of the originals to work from, but this was itself badly damaged.
‘There were eight capitals in total, and I carved two new ones. The rest were intact, but partially fragmented. Many small pieces had broken off, which you have to allow for. Almost by intuition you have to carve those parts how you think they were. There are limits, though: you can’t create something that might never have been there,’
For his earlier work on Repton’s Seat, Gary had just one tiny photograph of the original herm’s head to work from . Landscape designer Humphry Repton worked on Cobham Park: it was one of his favourite projects, and his sons and daughters erected the seat there in his memory. Over the years, like other buildings in the park, it had decayed and been attacked by vandals.
From the photograph, Gary worked up a life-sized maquette (a clay model) of the head . This was then sent for approval, after which a couple of small alterations were made to the depth of the beard and to the headband.
The approval process can take a very long time: six months or more in some cases, as the different agencies, architects, researchers and craftsmen involved in a project mull over the details of a single piece.
The Cobham Ashenbank Management Scheme (CAMS), which is restoring Cobham Park and its buildings, has eight partners: Gravesham Borough Council, Kent County Council, The National Trust, English Heritage, Natural England, The Woodland Trust, Union Railways and Cobham Hall (now a privately owned school).
‘The delay is generally the historical research – they have to get it right, and I want them to get it right. Once I start, there’s no going back – after all, it is cut in stone!’ says Gary with a smile.
The Darnley Reredos, which Gary is at work on now, is the final touch in the restoration of the mausoleum. A reredos slab is a decorative screen that is generally placed behind an altar. In this case, the slab was fixed to a wall in the mausoleum and was completely destroyed by the fire that gutted the building in 1980. An indistinct photograph and a copy of a drawing, both made by architecture student James Wraight in about 1946 was all the evidence that Gary had for the appearance of the reredos.
The original reredos was known to have been inscribed with The Lord’s Prayer and The Creed, but there was no remaining evidence for the style of the original lettering. The reredos had been designed by sculptor Richard Westmacott, which gave Gary a clue as to what the lettering may have looked like. The previous summer he had worked on a tomb created by Westmacott at the Church of St John, Hackney, where he repainted the lettering on the sides of the tomb in tempera.
Working with CAMS’ historical researchers, Gary drew up two ‘cartoons’ or possible layouts for approval. ‘There were various other images that we used for reference, but in the end the tomb was the basis of the lettering for the reredos. We had to make a decision somewhere and there was no real concrete evidence for the style, so that was what we agreed on,’ says Gary.
The reredos is being carved in Bianco P, a pure white statuary marble. The original would probably have been in Carrara Statuario, but it proved impossible to find a large enough piece of this without veining.
When starting a piece of work, Gary follows the same techniques used by sculptors for centuries. First comes the ‘pitching’ process where the sculptor works fast to knock off large lumps of stone from the block with a Concorde-shaped chisel. After that is a process known as ‘pointing’, using a sharply pointed chisel to knock the stone into shape further. This is followed by work with a third type of comb-like tool known as a ‘claw’.
Nowadays, some of the work is done using machine tools. A pneumatic hammer can be fitted with various tungsten carbide chisels for the roughing out and carving process, while a hand-held angle-grinder with diamond cutting blades help the sculptor to complete the carvings at many stages with great precision.
‘Double-sided diamond blades have diamonds on the sides as well as along the edge, and it’s amazing how close you can get. Purists would probably be against them, but the majority of carvers work with blades now,’ Purists would probably be against them, but the majority of carvers work with blades now, says Gary.
The second stage is the critical part. This is the hand carving, where the stone carver must bring into play all the knowledge and feeling he has acquired for the forms of the original.
‘You’ve got to understand where the original carver was coming from and how they created the forms before you can replicate them. It’s worth just sitting and looking, working out why they carved that line in that direction and not the other,’ says Gary. ‘There’s this thing called the “Hogarth curve”, or “line of beauty”. When you look at something, break it down, you often find this curve, and it’s what makes a piece sing.’ Does starting on a new carving ever scare him?
‘It’s a tentative process at first, but you quickly realise the qualities. Stone can be very variable and you have to go in there with a positive attitude. When you do your first cuts, you’re horrified, your heart sinks, but you get used to it!’ laughs Gary.
‘You have to learn how to work with the stone every time – it sort of dictates to you how to work it. You can’t impose on it, but generally it yields – it has to, otherwise you won’t get the job done!’ he smiles.
Bianco P, quarried in Italy, has minimal veining and a superior texture to the marble that is generally quarried for memorial work. It has a very fine grain, and, says Gary, feels like porcelain.
‘The reredos slab is fantastic, it’s lovely and soft. It all depends which part of the mountain it comes from: there are loads of different variations. Even within the same block one area may be soft while another is hard and brittle.’
Once Gary had prepared the slab, he transposed the design contained in the cartoon, drawing everything at twice the size of the cartoon on to the stone with pencil.
‘You draw it out very quickly, not absolutely perfectly. When you’re carving with the chisel, it takes much longer and that’s where all the spacing and the form of the letters comes,’ says Gary.
The lettering is done using a mallet and chisel. With lettering work, Gary begins in the bottom right-hand corner and works upwards, so as not to rub off any of the pencil design.
‘It can be quite daunting, sitting at the bottom and looking up, thinking “Oh gosh, I’ve got to work my way through there!”’
Once the letters are complete, Gary will define them using a pale-grey oil-based paint from a heritage range. He tests the paint on a separate piece of stone first to check for leakage or seepage. After this, the paint is applied in two coats and the surface of the slab is cleaned to leave the letters looking crisp.
The final part of Gary’s work is to install the piece he has so lovingly recreated. Where the piece is part of an existing original, great care and forward planning is required so as not to damage the original further.
With the herm’s head for Repton’s Seat, Gary had to fit the new head on to the original shoulders of the herm. To do this he used a roman joint, which involved carving a cylinder-shaped form below an oversized neck to the head as part of the design. On site, Gary then carved a cylindrical recess, about four inches deep, into the neck of the herm to receive the head. He inserted a stainless steel dowel and carved the cylinder to fit snugly into the slot. He then carved the neck further to make it anatomically correct and run seamlessly into the original, finishing off with lime mortar to seal the bond.
Gary does nothing other than washing down to finish his stonework. ‘There is no need to treat stone, just leave it to weather down. Stone protects itself through what is called “case-hardening”, the process of getting wet and dry,’ he says.
The new Darnley Reredos, when installed, will crown the restoration of a magnificent neo-classical garden building. Gary has the satisfaction, rare in most professions, of knowing that his work will be there to be enjoyed by thousands of people for centuries to come.
Churchman, Gary. Personal interview, 11 April 2008.
Daniels, Stephen, Humphry Repton: landscape gardening and the geography of Georgian England (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 1999)
Rogger, Andre, Landscapes of taste: the art of Humphry Repton’s Red Books (London: Routledge, 2007)