Today I am interviewing Stone Carver, Lucy Churchill, whom I got in touch with on Instagram over our love for Queen Anne Boleyn and Tudor History. Now, I don’t talk about this passion of mine on this blog, but I am an avid historian and I think Lucy’s work as a woman in the stone carving industry is fascinating. Consider this article a way to get to know about different career paths you may want to pursue!
Lucy is a wonderful and kind soul who has created some of the most stunning carvings and memorials. She also has done a great amount of restoration work in cathedrals and other important historical places. One of her best known projects was in collaboration with the British Museum in reconstructing the Anne Boleyn ‘Most Happy’ Pendant, believed to show a portrait of Queen Anne Boleyn, As you’ll read, this was made in Anne’s lifetime (could have belonged to her, even) and I was lucky enough to be kindly gifted a recreated pendant by Lucy herself!
Read more about it below, but if you are a Tudor fanatic like myself (or have a general love of British history) then you’ll love this pendant. You can purchase it from Lucy here.
Hope you enjoy this interview. Leave any questions you have for Lucy in the comments below! Check out her website here.
Q: Lucy, how did you get started with stone carving? Would love to hear about your background!
Lucy: My first career was in museum administration (I did an internship at the Metropolitan Museum in NY, and worked for the British Museum and the V&A. But it was when I was working at the Crafts Council I witnessed a stonecarving demonstration and right away, I knew I’d found my calling.. I started to type in rhythm to the tapping of the mallet and chisel, and the very next day went to the City & Guilds Art School and begged them to take me in. At the time they only taught stonecarving as a module of their Sculpture or Conservation courses but they set up the Historic Carving course just for me!
Q: What was your first sculpture/carving? What inspired it?
Lucy: When I was young I used to carve bars of soap with a pocket knife, then blocks of plaster. I recently found a box of these in my parent’s garage. They were mostly wistful little figures.. Angels and wide-hipped Madonnas…Simple, but friendly and earnest. After many years of doing intricate commissioned work, I find I’m returning to the themes and style of these early attempts.
Q: What have been the most memorable projects you’ve worked on?
Lucy: I’m often asked to make commemorative sculpture in honour of a loved one, and each of these commissions is an intensely memorable journey. Unlike a gravestone they are kept close at hand within the family home, and so they can be highly individual artworks. It’s an honour to have so much of someone’s life shared with me, and I love the task of trying to express their essence in sculptural form. Seeing the comfort and pleasure it brings to the family and friends is just the best feeling in the world.
Q: I love Time Team and have been getting some readers to tune in (on Youtube). You were on one of the most interesting episodes I had watched. What was your experience like filming with them? Can you tell us more about the artifact you worked with on there?
Lucy: I loved being on Time Team, surrounded by experts from so many varied fields – the conversations over dinner were fascinating. My task was to teach the highly skilful Alex Langlands to carve alabaster stone, and to recreate a detail from one of the priory’s medieval tombs. A huge challenge in just 3 days, but great fun!
Q: What kind of commissions do you receive? What was your most recent one?
Lucy: My commissions are as varied as my clients! Recently I created a figure for the garden of a newly built hospice. It posed a very different challenge to my commissions honouring specific people; I had to be sensitive to the fact that a wide variety of people would view this sculpture – in different states of health, hope or grief, and with a full spectrum of faiths. I wanted to carve a reassuring figure, but didn’t want to make anyone feel left out with a philosophic standpoint they didn’t feel comfortable with. My solution was to make a calm, peaceful figure, abstract rather than detailed, using a warm red sandstone and solid, rounded forms that are comforting to touch. You can watch a short film on YouTube in which I sculpt the figure and install her in situ: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RGO_YhrbxUw&sns=tw
Q: I know you’ve done quite a few projects in places such as Ely Cathedral, St. George’s Chapel, etc. What has been your favorite place of restoration so far? Can you tell us more about your favorite project?
Lucy: One of my most memorable experiences is standing alone on the roof of St George’s Chapel in Windsor, measuring and sketching the grotesques in order to restore the pinnacles – it was a misty autumn day and the sun was setting on the flame coloured trees of Windsor Great Park as I heard the sound of the Evensong choir wafting up from below. It was magic! But each job has it’s own story, it’s own excitement.
Q: Lucy, what is the most challenging part of being a stone carver?
Lucy: In stonecarving there is no margin for error, especially when working to commission, and of course when making faithful reconstructions of historic objects. When recreating the elaborate marble fireplaces of Lord Rothchild’s Spencer House, London, we worked as a team, working to a quarter of a millimetre margin of accuracy (less than the thickness of a pencil line). It was an incredible project to work on as an apprentice… an incredible grounding in precision!
Q: Tell us about journey in reconstructing the Anne Boleyn pendant. How did this start and what steps did you take in collaboration with the British Museum?
Lucy: It was a labour of love that I felt compelled to do. I knew that few people would have the skills to faithfully recreate the Tudor original – not just the manual skills to work at such a small scale, but the professional discipline – avoiding the temptation of tidying up the design and prettifying her features to suit our modern tastes). I cared passionately about getting as close to Anne’s appearance as possible, slavishly reading all contemporary accounts in order to assess the portrait as depicted on her medal. Unlike the other portraits we have of Anne, this was made during her lifetime. The Hever / National Gallery paintings were made during Elizabeth’s reign and are more likely to depict a flattering dark-haired version of Elizabeth. As the Moost Happi medal could only have been made at the Royal Mint with Henry and Anne’s approval – this is Anne as she wished people to see her! You can read more about the process and my discoveries here.
Q: How did Tudor historians or enthusiasts of the period respond to your work?
Lucy: The reaction from Tudor historians was fantastic – Eric Ives (my hero) got in touch with me on the very day it was announced, asking to learn more. He was delighted that there was so much information to be gleaned by looking at it under magnification. Alison Weir and David Starkey have also been very enthusiastic – you can read their responses here
Q: How do you think people have misunderstood the historical importance of Anne Boleyn?
Lucy: Anne was very influenced by her time on the continent and the new thinking that she encountered there, regarding religious reform and the role of kings. This clearly was of huge importance, encouraging Henry to create the Church of England with himself as it’s head. I also think Anne’s sense of style, attention to detail and her use of symbolism set the tone for the artistic flowering of the Elizabethan era. A great example of this is the ornately carved choirscreen at King’s College Chapel, commissioned by Henry and Anne to celebrate their marriage. It is full of potent imagery, including a menacing threat to anyone who opposed their religious reforms and right to rule (which given the beheadings of key figures during this period was not an empty threat). You can read my paper decoding the iconography via a link on my website.
Q: What do you think of Anne as a character? What do you connect to the most?
Lucy: I’m delighted that Anne Boleyn is increasing seen as a real person not merely the vampy arm-candy depicted in films and novels. She wasn’t considered a beauty by her contemporaries, and the medal (which could only have been made with her approval) confirms this. It seems clear that Henry wasn’t attracted to her because of her beauty but her intelligence, wit and learning. It was her many skills and personal charm that so entranced Henry, and I think it does Anne a disservice not to recognise this. She worked hard to be equal to men in her understanding and discourse on political matters and religion, and I think this is why she’s such an iconic figure for women nowadays. Some people will always prefer to think of her as the beautiful ‘other woman’ famous for luring Henry to bed, but source material rather than poetic speculation, paints a more interesting picture.
Q: What inspired you to start your own business?
Lucy: Having children! The long hours required in architectural restoration did not fit well with school pick-ups so I left the trade and took on private commemorative commissions. Increasingly I’m working on my own sculptures and relishing that. I miss working as part of a team, but I do love the stylistic freedom
Q: Is there a project you would love to do in the future?
Lucy: Yes. I’m working on a series of therapeutic sculptures….Through making memorials, I found so many people find it reassuring to have something solid to hold on to during a stressful time in their lives. So this is the what I am exploring now – small, comforting, tactile sculptures.
Q: What advice do you have for someone wanting to start their own journey into stone carving and sculpture?
Lucy: Come on one of my Stone Carving Workshops! 🙂 With my background in both the carving and masonry trade I’m able to teach you real stonecarving skills, step by step. 3-days of almost one-to-one tuition allows students to leave with a sculpture of their own devising and a new skill that will bring them a life-time of pleasure! See: www.sculptureinstone.co.uk
Q: What are the easiest materials to work with? What are the most difficult materials to work with?
Lucy: I’ve worked in all kinds of materials, not just stone – I also love modelling in wax or clay for casting, and in recent years I’ve worked with scans, computer manipulation and 3-D printing. It’s all sculpture, and each discipline is just a tool to master. The less yielding the material, the more chances to change your mind as you go along. Ultimately the hardest part is daring to throw yourself into the creation and staying alert to what works or doesn’t. I guess that holds true for life too!
So if you’re in the UK and interested in stone carving, sign up for one of Lucy’s workshops! I would love to if I’m ever across the pond! But no matter where you are, if you love Tudor history, don’t forget to get your very own Anne Boleyn ‘Most Happi’ pendant in a variety of metals. It’s quite beautiful and a wonderful way to wear history close to your heart. I love mine!
A big thank you to Lucy for allowing me to interview her! I am truly inspired and I know many people are as well.
Leave your questions for Lucy (any questions) below!