Marble mountains

Words: James Alexander-Sinclair

Pictures: Allan Pollok Morris

High up in the Apuan Alps the mountains are made of marble. Not just any old marble but the finest sort of sedimentary carbonate rocks – Carrara marble. It is the sort of stuff that has made sculptors since the Renaissance drool with pleasure.

Michelangelo coaxed David from a huge lump of purest white marble, prised from the cliff face and carted miles across bumpy roads to his studio in Florence. Further afield one of London’s most famous landmarks, Marble Arch, was constructed from Carrara marble. The arch was part of the original design, by John Nash, of Buckingham Palace but was moved in 1850 to the North End of Hyde Park. It now sits rather forlornly on a large traffic island close to the tawdry bustle of Oxford Street.

The hills, though scarred by centuries of extraction, still provide a living for families of quarrymen and a fertile hunting ground for sculptors from across the world. One of these is Matt Simmonds a British sculptor who has been coming to this quarry in the Frattiti basin for many years.

“The Carrara quarries offer one of the most memorable and breathtaking landscapes that I have seen anywhere, an almost lunar, other-worldly feel. At the same time it is heavily industrial. Trucks carry enormous cut blocks of marble down precarious dirt roads, and the crashes of falling blocks or scree echo off the mountains in a very distinctive way. Seeing the marble in this raw state has given me a new perspective on the material, and many of my pieces are influenced by this very special place.”

The photographer’s story

I have been seeing this small group of mountains from all distances and angles for a quite a number of years. After a while the long distance familiarity was too much and I started to properly explore.

I soon discovered the town of Pietrasanta with its big artistic heritage. My first guide, John, enchanted me with his wonderful way of describing the many layers and centuries of history behind the role of this town and its quarries. “Italians don’t want to know about their history,” he said. “It’s too much for them to take in”.

I had met Matt Simmonds a few years before coming to do this article and had stayed in touch. I’d seen his works in different contexts (the Medici Gallery on Cork Street in Mayfair), however the space he works in here feels very basic, dusty and exposed. Yet it is home to a very well respected collective of marble carvers. As I walked through the studio I got a preview of a group of new, Damien Hirst marble works in progress. In contrast to all this excitement I found Matt carving away in a quiet corner.

It was very kind of Matt to open up his world to my camera, the process of sourcing stone, making works and installing them not far from where I live in England.

It was a very exciting, having been looking at the white tops of these mountains for so long, to be standing there on the high point of the quarries looking over an incredible view down to the town of Carrara and out to the Ligurian Sea. What an extraordinary location. We were not the first to think this as one of the car chases from the James Bond film, Quantum of Solace, was filmed here and, on the way up the mountain, we met a film crew from Bollywood.

If you look really hard you might be able to see the Bollywood stars filming a dance scene by the big bridge on the way to Carrara.

Stone me

Matthew trained as a stonemason after graduating in 1984. “I specialised in medieval art and architecture at university, and throughout my life I have felt a strong connection to such buildings. In 1990 I had something like an epiphany in Chichester Cathedral after seeing photos of the stonemasons at work. I knew instantly that that was the career I was to embark on for the rest of my life.”

Stone masonry is the perfect mixture between art and hard manual graft, an ancient craft that traces its history right back to Stone Age man chipping intricate fish spears from nuggets of flint.

In his most prestigious project, Henry VII’s Chapel at Westminster Abbey, Matt was employed as a stone carver by Rattee and Kett of Cambridge. “The exterior of the building is heavily decorated with heraldic beasts and other symbols, and I was one of a group of carvers carrying out replacements of those that had disappeared due to weathering.”

Since 1990 Matthew has worked on restoration projects across the country (including spells at Ely Cathedral and Westminster Abbey) before going to Italy in 1997. That initial interest in architecture has not worn off. “Architecture is too important to me for me to be able to choose any single building. My favourite are certainly historical stone buildings, although I can also find inspiration in some modern architecture.”

The hard stuff

Even the most beautiful and perfect stone sculpture has to begin as a lump of raw material: and that is down to geology. As Matt explains, “Marble is limestone, calcium carbonate, crystallised by heat produced by extreme pressure over millions of years. In its purest state it is white. The colours are formed by impurities; other rocks and minerals that mix with the limestone during the crystallisation process. Globally, marble can come in just about any colour, although in Carrara it generally varies from white to dark grey.

This particular quarry is known for producing a high quality marble, but as with all stone natural factors, such as faults in the mountainside and subtle variations, mean that the quality varies considerably. This makes marble selection a very difficult process, requiring the buyer to assess each individual block. You cannot just ring up and ask them to send you a tonne of their finest!”

In the studio

Matt’s studio is not exactly comfortable. Not for him the chaise longue, cravat rack and fully stocked bar. Instead he occupies a small corner of a large shed, hot in summer, cold in winter where he works on his exquisite architectural pieces.

When we think of stone sculpture we are expecting something monumental. Matt’s work is the opposite – intricate and detailed.

“I have always been fascinated with very fine work and working at a small scale. The use of miniature in my work helps to create the sense of a separate internal world, drawing the viewer into an imaginary reality.”

It all starts with a big lump of marble: surely a very intimidating prospect. What if you hit the wrong bit? You cannot exactly tape it back on again. This is not just the layman panicking unduly, Matt also worries.

“In fact,” he says, “generally I prefer a rough boulder as this gives me more inspiration than a squared block, which certainly can be intimidating. The irreversibility of stone in the event of a mistake is always quite scary, particularly when you are working on a piece for a long time. As part of the philosophy of my work is to carve the spaces out of a single block, mistakes really are irreversible. I prefer to reject a piece rather than repair it. However, it is also part of what is attractive about working with stone: the carving out from a solid mass of hard material. Most of the worst mistakes are the result of miscalculations or faults in the stone rather than chipping the wrong piece off. Luckily these are mostly made early on in the process, so there is less work to redo in the event of an irrevocable error.”

Carved by hand

The whole craft and graft of sculpting is fascinating – little chips of flying marble and something wonderful emerging from the stone. Nowadays the physical process of making marble sculpture is a bit easier than it was in the Renaissance when the whole process was man, muscle and mallet. Sculptors can use pneumatic and electric chisels.

There are big stone saws and other machines but Matt steers clear of these.

“I work only with hand held tools. These are a mixture of traditional tools – for example hammers and chisels – combined with modern cutting and grinding tools – both electrical and pneumatic. Generally, to excavate many of the spaces it is convenient to use the latter, using the traditional hand tools for the finer finishing, where control is more important than speed.

“I have met some masons and carvers who are against power tools and pneumatic hammers on principle, although I maintain that it is the skill and sensitivity of the person using the tools that really counts.”

The importance of installation

Most artists will insist that it is the process of creation that is the most important but, when all the painting or chipping is over the finished work wants a home. It needs a patron to buy it so that the artist can eat and get ready to produce the next work. Boiled down, art is about production and consumption.

Most of Matt’s work ends up in private collections. “The sculptures find homes in both garden and interior settings. The taller pieces usually ending up in a garden.” Position is always important and Matt likes to inspect the final resting place of his work.

Matthew Simmonds’s next show will be at the Medici Gallery in Cork Street in Summer 2013 where he will be participating in a new exhibition Modern Baroques. For details check Matt’s website.

Home coming

This sculpture ended up, as Cararra Marble often has, miles away from the mountains where it was formed over millions of years. It found a temporary home in a very English Oxfordshire garden.

You don’t get much more English than Asthall Manor on the banks of the casually meandering Windrush River in Oxfordshire. This was the childhood home of the Mitford sisters. It was here that Nancy, Jessica, Debo, Unity, Pamela and Diana frolicked in the “Hons” cupboard. The house is now owned by Rosie Pearson and hosts a biennial sculpture exhibition called On Form as a showcase for work in stone. The next exhibition will take place in 2014.

A garden to visit

The gardens at Asthall Manor were redesigned in 1998 by Julian and Isabel Bannerman. They are designers of great reputation with a very distinguished client list ranging from the Prince of Wales (their Stumpery at Highgrove is a thing of majesty: appropriately) to Arundel Castle, Waddesdon and the British 9/11 Memorial Garden in New York.

The gardens are open during the exhibition and once a year for the National Gardens Scheme.