Stone carving is one of the oldest crafts still practiced all over the world today, dating back to before the days of civilization itself. We had the opportunity to speak to Ben Russell, a pioneer of his craft and an experienced stone mason and sculptor. Offering a real taste of authentic stone carvery, The Dorset Stone Carver blend the most contemporary methods and modern materials with traditional techniques which have barely changed over centuries.
THE FOXLEY DOCKET: When did you first fall in love with carving and the sculpture industry? What was it about this art that stood out to you?
BEN RUSSELL: I first fell in love with the carving and sculpture industry when I got to hit my first piece of stone at college. Luckily, I took to the working of stone fairly naturally. One of the first exercises was to square up a large rough boulder of the local Dorset limestone using only hand tools. Within the first couple of lessons my mind was exploding with possibilities but there wasn’t much time on the course for sculpture as it was aimed at training people in the conservation of stonework. Due to this, my housemates and I (who were also stone workers in training) decided to start carving in our front room – much to the landlords dismay!
The thing that stood out to me about stone as a medium was its permanence. You are creating something that will outlive you for hundreds of years out of a material that was created by nature, millions of years earlier. There’s something quite special about that – I like the thought that there are hundreds of sculptures under our feet, waiting to be realised in stone.
TFD: Where did you begin to hone your craft? How did you step into the craft professionally?
BR: Having completed my first course in Applied Architectural Stonework and Conservation at Weymouth College in Dorset, I felt that I had gained a good all round knowledge of the skills needed to work within the conservation and masonry industry, but my passion was definitely to carve. I decided to move to London, where I attended the City and Guilds of London Art School. Here, I learnt all aspects of carving for the heritage industry, such as replicating architectural ornament and figurative pieces, clay modelling, letter carving and drawing from life. It was here that I began to understand what being a stone carver would entail, and I was really happy to be gaining the skills that would allow me to have a career in the more creative aspect of stonework, whilst allowing me to express myself through sculptural pieces of my own imagining.
I was lucky enough to sell a piece of my work to the owner of a successful London based conservation firm during the degree show which concluded my time at C&G. This led to a job shortly after, and so I spent around a year and a half working all over London at places such as The Tower of London and Highgate Cemetery along with numerous historic façades. I didn’t get to do a great deal of carving during this time, but the skills I picked up during this period were invaluable and have really helped me to be well rounded skills-wise when it comes to all things stone.
TFD: When did The Dorset Stone Carver begin? What circumstances led to your own business’ establishment?
BR: I started The Dorset Stone Carver earlier this year, having previously traded under my own name. I have been working in stone for ten or so years now for various stone firms, individuals, artists, sculptors, conservation companies and upon various commissions, so I decided that it was high time to give myself a brand and an identity to move forward with. I have always had my own website, but I have felt it was lacking in a strong identity. After some careful consideration, The Dorset Stone Carver was born. I am proud to be from Dorset and I felt that it was important to me to remember my roots whilst I shape my new business. I set up The Dorset Stone Carver to showcase the more unusual ways in which stone can be used alongside my work within the heritage industry. I want to create more and more bespoke and unusual pieces as time goes on. By starting my own business, I hope to show people something a little different. Having worked under many different people in the stone industry, I felt that by starting my own business I am able to uphold my high levels of craftsmanship and produce pieces to a standard of which I am proud.
TFD: Where do you source the stone utilised by The Dorset Stone Carver?
BR: I try to source as much as possible from the UK. Much of my work in and around London is in Portland stone from Dorset as when replacing damaged stonework, you must replace like for like. It’s nice to work with material from my home county. There are many beautiful stones quarried within the British Isles, and I hope to produce many pieces in the future to show off their qualities. When working to commission, the client quite often has a type of stone in mind already so that will determine from whence the stone is sourced. For example, I produced a large memorial for a client last year which had to be white marble, so I had blocks of marble shipped over from Italy before carrying out the carving work from my London studio.
TFD: How important is a British background in the creation of The Dorset Stone Carver pieces?
BR: Being British has given me a great respect for the history in this country and has driven me to help to care for our important landmarks, sculptures and buildings. I also have a love for the stone in this country and I feel it is important to me that much of my work continues to be produced using our native materials. It is a great feeling to take a piece of naturally occurring British stone and create something beautiful using traditional techniques that have barely changed for centuries. One of my strongest influences in my work is nature and organic form. Growing up in the Dorset countryside, I like to think that it has shaped and will continue to shape the outcome of my work. I spent a great deal of my time exploring the Dorset woodlands whilst growing up, and I like to think this mystical British landscape has made me who I am today.
TFD: Your work has been featured on the Houses of Parliament and St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle among others – how did these commissions come about? How does it feel as an artist to have your work featured on such British icons?
BR: Commissions such as these can come from numerous sources. The grotesque I carved for St Georges Chapel came through a committee from Windsor Castle whose role was to commission new carvings to replace the old and weathered ones on the chapel. They approached C&G art school whilst I was there and asked students to come up with designs in clay. Only a few designs were chosen and my armadillo was lucky enough to be one of them.
I have worked on and off for an old carving tutor of mine for many years. He has good contacts in the stone industry which has allowed me to produce carving work for Parliament, The Albert Memorial, the Shakespeare Monument in Leicester Square and many more prestigious buildings and monuments. I have also tried to make sure I have had an online presence ever since I graduated, so I have managed to gain my own commissions this way. The most significant was the production of two large relief carvings for the main entrance at County Hall. I was also lucky that whilst working at Highgate Cemetery, I was asked to produce carvings used to restore some beautiful memorials.
It’s great to have my carving featured on these famous landmarks. I love the fact that my work has helped to ensure these magnificent structures will be around for people to enjoy for hundreds more years to come. It’s nice to think that in fifty years time, I will be able to show family and friends bits of my carving or monuments that I restored, dotted around the city.
TFD: Your commitment to the craft earned you a Duke of Gloucester award in 2012 – can you tell us a bit about this? How did it feel to receive such a prestigious award for your work?
BR: Throughout my time at college and art school, I was lucky enough to be awarded funds to help towards the costs of training from The Worshipful Company of Masons. Without their help, I wouldn’t be involved in stone today, as money was particularly tight when I was younger. As one of the many recipients of their funding, I was later contacted and asked if I would like to apply for the prestigious Duke of Gloucester Award. I accepted and in 2012, I received a letter informing me that I had won based on my commitment to the stone industry and my high levels of skill and craftsmanship. This was a real honour for me, and it was a great feeling to have my hard work recognised in this way and for my work to be displayed in front of so many of my peers.
TFD: In your personal opinion, what has been the true merit of your stone carving career?
BR: I don’t know about one true merit, but I would say that I am extremely happy to be able to call myself a stone carver. I love the fact that I am able to make an honest living doing something that I love. Some of my earliest memories are of wanting to be an artist with my own studio where I made beautiful sculptures – this is finally becoming a reality after many years of hard graft.
TFD: What’s for the future of The Dorset Stone Carver?
BR: Having built up a good reputation for myself in the historic stonework industry and with designers and artists, I am hoping to start to put more time into creating my own one off bespoke stonework pieces. I created a chair entwined in ivy when I last had some spare time between jobs in order to showcase the kind of work I want to be producing more of in the future. This chair, hand carved from a single block of Portland Limestone, was displayed at LuxuryMade as part of London Design Week 2016 in September, which has given me confidence in producing more of my ideas. My brain is overrun with plans for bespoke furniture and one off items, so I am really hoping to get a chance to start to work on some of these soon. I also have a series of sculptural pieces I wish to create and I am soon to start to seek funding for these also. Stone carving is time consuming and expensive, so unfortunately I am not often able to crack on with my ideas unless time is on my side and I have significant funds. I hope that through gaining more commissions in the near future I am able to expand on this side of my business and start to get more of my ideas out of my head and carved in stone.
I am relatively new to the idea of running my own business, but long term I see a small team of craftspeople, creating beautiful bespoke pieces of furniture, sculpture and interior items either to commission or to my own designs, whilst still caring for Britain’s wealth of architectural heritage whenever possible. I plan to relocate back to Dorset at some point next year to allow creativity to flow with a larger studio and some green space. I will always keep a foot in the door with London, and intend to take on commissions from anywhere in the UK but by returning to my roots and a slightly more relaxed lifestyle, I expect my work to flourish.
I also see myself teaching in the future or taking on apprentices in order to pass on my knowledge and keep the skills of stone carving and conservation alive.
TFD: Anything you’d like to add?
BR: Only that I will be exhibiting some of my carvings and most recent work in the craft section of Top Drawer at Kensington Olympia 15-17 January. So for anyone who wants to come and meet me and see my wares, please do pop along! The Dorset Stone Carver is officially open for business, and I am now taking orders for the coming year so if you have any bright ideas for commissions I can’t wait to make them a reality in stone!
Find out about The Dorset Stone Carver at:
The Dorset Stone Carver