Fran Dawkins caught up recently with Stone Letter Carver, Fergus Wessel at his Oxfordshire studio. With over 19 years experience and an outstanding reputation, Fergus shared how being raised in a household, where typography and design were prime topics of conversation, led to a childhood fascination with logos and lettering. A period of study at Falmouth Art School was followed by 7 years of ceramic experience at Winchcombe Pottery where he became an accomplished thrower. But it was during his three year apprenticeship for Lida Kindersley as a letter carver that he honed his skills before establishing his own studio in 2003. Fergus gave Crafted Vancouver a fresh perspective on what it means to be a creative letter cutter in the twenty-first century.
Why would you want us to consider what you do as ‘craft’ ?
Even though there is artistic integrity and need, I am not using very much self-expression. I start with clear instructions from the clients and I have to follow clear guidelines. I am turning their instructions into something nicely made, therefore I consider my work a craft not an art. That does not in any way make the work less important. Turning someone’s vision into something they are happy with is a real honour.
Do you differentiate your work from that of a stonemason?
Lettering is “masonry on a small scale”or “mini-masonry”. A monumental mason will use a computer and machinery whereas we will draw and cut by hand only. It is not technique that is most important, it is the typography and layout. For most stonemasons they use technical skills with far less room to input their sense of design, tending on the whole to mass produce their work.
Our work is always unique. No two pieces are ever the same. When drawing out by hand you do not use a ruler, you depend on your eye, and in doing so you can make the tiniest adjustments to letter-spacing and layout.
Your home studio is in a beautiful pastoral setting. How important is your location? Does this help inspire your work?
It gives me an enormous sense of peace and calm where I can then zone in and concentrate.
Is your work always carved in British stone. How important is that to you and your clients?
I use British stone whenever possible but sometimes we need to import a stone, for example white Nabresina. We used Hopton Wood limestone in its place previously but sadly this is no longer available, so we have to adapt when there is no British alternative. We use lots of British slate from Cumbria and limestone from Portland.
Do you choose a specific stone for specific types of work ?
The stones I never use are imported granite and marble. These are much favoured by monumental masons because they are so hard and don’t weather. However, they do not lend themselves well to hand carved lettering and they are both very cold to the touch.
What is your favourite stone to carve and does it differ with relief work?
The client’s wishes will dictate which is more important; the inscription or the material. Invariably the inscription is more important than the material and therefore for a long inscription which would need smaller lettering thus we would need to choose a harder stone. Portland limestone for example needs large bold letterforms, whereas slate can take small, detailed lettering. We also need to take the surroundings into consideration as well as the regulations of the churchyard or cemetery.
With your business growing you have brought in other stone letter carvers and assistants. Do you teach others your skills?
Yes, we take on apprentices and it is important to pass the skills down. Many self-taught letter carvers lack some deep understanding which can only be instilled as part of the apprenticeship system. You can train someone to a minimum standard in four years but really it takes at least seven years to train someone to our standard as they need to develop a sense of design which only comes with experience. Even after twenty years I am still learning.
Are there techniques or motifs that you employ to connect you and your staff to your studio?
No but we do have a workshop style- I could not describe or name it but others would definitely say “That is a piece of work by Stoneletters”. We don’t sign our work; being craftsmen not artists, the piece should stand on its own, and a piece might be made by more than one person, and yet you won’t be able to tell as we are all working to the same standard. Also, putting a stamp on a headstone seems in some way disrespectful.
Do you have a project past or present that you are particularly proud of having completed?
We are proud of everything; it is the most important part of our work to take pride in all that we do. It does not have to be a great grand piece. Sometimes some of the smallest commissions can give me the most pride.
If we make someone happy or give someone who has lost a loved one a great deal of comfort, then I come away with a smile on my face- that is just as important as the grand projects.
Carving stone letters is a record of our past and present. Is this your legacy for the future?
There is a great comfort in knowing the letters will be there long after we have gone. However it is not our work, but the people who we pass the knowledge onto that is our greatest legacy. We are lucky to have been trained by some of the greatest letter carvers- I was trained by Lida Kindersley who in turn was trained by David Kindersley who was taught by Eric Gill. So we have a great responsibility to keep the tradition going.
Fergus and his wife Hannah have a personal project and aim to raise over £12,000 for Maggie’s cancer care charity in Oxford, England. They have taken two years to write and publish a book called “Headstones- advice and inspiration” which shares their knowledge of choosing a headstone and at the same time raise money for Maggie. For your copy of the book, please order through their website.