Set in Stone: Linda Newbery

It may seem odd to do your research some while after finishing the book - in this case, five years after publication. But everything is useful to a writer, and I’m sure that somehow or other I’ll make use of the stone-carving I did last summer.

It’s not that I did no research at all for SET IN STONE. I talked to stone-carvers, handled stone, studied the work of Eric Gill, learned about Jurassic limestone. But last May several things fell into place and I found myself chip-chip-chipping away.

Shortly after SET IN STONE was published, I met a local stonecarver, Bernard Johnson, who was exhibiting during Artweeks in Oxford. I loved his work, and could see at once that he was influenced by Eric Gill. I’d decided that if my publisher gave me a commission to write LOB, I would find a stone-carver to make me a Green Man for my garden, and was hoping to find someone suitable; as soon as I saw Bernard’s work, the search was over. He made me a calm and wise Green Man, in Portland stone, which is now in my garden.

During Artweeks (three weeks of open studios throughout Oxfordshire), Bernard offered the chance to have a go at carving, and this was too good to miss. His studio, The Pig Sty, is an outbuilding of a farm near Chipping Norton. With another student, I began work on what started out as a two-day project – I wanted to make a stylised owl in relief. Bernard gave me a plaque of Bath stone, introduced me to the tools and showed me how to get started.

I loved it. At first it seemed impossible; I drew my owl in pencil on the surface, and was hesitant about even touching the stone with the chisel. Then Bernard showed me how to whack chunks off, and how to make cuts to preserve the bits I wanted. By the end of that day I'd roughly cut an owl shape, and was covered with dust. My clothes were whitened, my hair was full of dust, I had no doubt breathed in lots of it, and every cup of tea or coffee we drank was laced with dust. Jurassic dust. Occasionally a fragment of shell or fossil would fly out of my piece of stone – from a creature that had been crawling around maybe a hundred and fifty million years ago. It’s hard to get your head round that.

I kept thinking of a phrase I had given my stone-carver, Gideon Waring: “To handle stone is to handle the stuff of life and death, and of time and change, and the mysteries of the Earth itself; there is something humbling and moving and immensely satisfying in it.” Now I was doing it myself – very clumsily, but handling the tools just as an apprentice might have done five or six hundred years ago, or a thousand. Bernard was cutting letters inside the pig sty, the other student and I were chipping away at our pieces, swifts were screaming overhead – we could have been in a medieval stone-yard, using the traditional tools and techniques.

My owl was nowhere near finished, so I went back to work on it for several more days over the summer. I gained in confidence; the tools began to feel comfortable in my hand. I loved the fact that you can’t rush stone-carving; it takes as long as it takes. At the end of each day I took a photograph of my piece, because sometimes it seemed that I’d made no progress at all. But I could work happily for hours on end. It felt very different from writing, on which I can concentrate only for limited periods; with the carving I didn’t want to stop, apart from short breaks when my neck or hands ached. Whereas I’m all-too easily distracted from writing by emails and phone calls, with the carving I felt that everything else could wait.

Often we listened to music while we worked – Bernard has quite a selection, including his own “Pig Sty Mix”, which ranges from Ladysmith Black Mambazo to Madness, with Russ Conway and other surprises in between. We had makeshift lunches, each of us contributing something: salad from our gardens, strawberries, or soup cooked on Bernard’s little stove. Happy days!

My last visit was in September, after which I had to leave off for the winter in order to meet my writing deadlines. My piece isn’t finished, although it definitely resembles an owl. I’ve got lots more to learn. In fact, I don’t want to finish it, and when I do I shall be looking for a new project, if Bernard is willing to go on teaching me. Cutting letters, perhaps. It’s made me look at letters cut in stone with a new appreciation. Having watched Bernard at work I have seen the precision of valley-cutting and the immense care that goes into the placing of letters – it’s not like setting a typeface on a computer. Bernard gives careful consideration to the spaces between letters and how they relate.

Once, when I wondered if I’d ever finish, Bernard said, “Well, it’s slow work on resistant material.” Ah, yes. Quite a lot like writing, after all.

To see more of Bernard and his work, visit his website:


julia jones said…
Fascinating - and I loved Set in Stone, by the way. Did you think while you were carving? Margery Allinghan (the writer I know best beyond my own family) liked to do some huge dressmaking project when she was thinking out her next book. Not quite consciously thinking but leeting the lower down levels of the mind churn around and do their mysterious business.
Dan Holloway said…
I shall make sure to go and visit Bernard during Artweeks this year! Stone masonry always seems like it would be wonderfully satisfying. I remember seeing Monty Don's programme during his Mastercrafts series and marvelling.
madwippitt said…
Love your little owl! What ois it about owls - an owl was the first thing I made when I started learning to carve in wood!
I now need to go look up both your mentor and your book!
And can you post another pic when you finally finish your owl? It would be nice to see the finished result.
Susan Price said…
That's a b* good owl!
Lee said…
Some of Bernard's work would make for a lovely cover.
Linda Newbery said…
Thanks, Julia, Dan, madwippit, Lee, Sue. I'm not here, and struggling to keep up with things ...

Yes, I agree about the cover, Lee!
Dennis Hamley said…
Linda, your owl is great! Bernard Johnson is a wonderful stonecarver. We shall certainly visit him during Artweeks. (And, speaking of Artweeks, may I give my own little plug? Kay, my partner, is exhibiting this year not only in Summertown but also in Worton Farm Park, half-way between Cassington and Yarnton,as one of a group of ten artists in various media. She will be mainly showing more in what I think is her superb series of paintings of the Oxford Canal. The exhibition starts on Bank Holiday Monday, May 5th, to the following Sunday. You must all come to the opening!)

I remember that quotation from Set in Stone. It seemed then to be an utterance which could only come from a sculptor. And now you are one and those words have even more significance. I remember the rainy evening at the Turrill Sculpture Garden when you showed us Bernard Johnson's wonderful lettering which you had just bought. If I didn't fear that the balcony would collapse under its weight I'd buy some of his work for our flat!
Lovely post and lovely owl too. My husband (Alan Lees) was a full time woodcarver before arthritis meant that he had to give it up. He had a go at stonecarving once or twice, but found it difficult. With wood, if you make a mistake, you can fix it! Green men were his speciality - he did a wonderful series of woodcarvings for the 'maze of the green man' at Kelburn Country Park in Ayrshire, many years ago. People occasionally managed to steal the birds and beasts, which I suppose was something of a compliment, but the big three dimensional green man (carved out of solid oak) at the heart of the maze couldn't be moved!
Ann Evans said…
Lovely post Linda, and your owl is amazing, especially as this was your first attempt at stone carving.
Will look out for your book, the cover is beautiful.
Linda Newbery said…
Thanks, all - and Catherine, how amazing that your husband made a green man! Dennis, yes, I remember that visit to the Turrill Library. Will look forward to Artweeks - hope Kay is enjoying getting the work ready.
Linda Newbery said…
PS Julia, I kept thinking that I ought to be thinking, but wasn't conscious of using the time for anything productive.

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