‘My approach isn’t to have a stuffy, precious, museum-like reverence of the masters of the past,’ says Teucer Wilson, stone carver, letter cutter and LP sleeve-art connoisseur, as he takes a battered old cafetière and brews coffee in his workshop in a remote, windswept corner of north Norfolk. ‘Although I’m indebted to their skills, a lot of stone carvers believe in strictly adhering to classical forms and tradition, but I like to stretch things stylistically. As a kid I used to doodle a lot, and that included copying the logos and artwork of albums I was into, be it covers of Two Tone records, or lettering from Iron Maiden, Dio, AC/DC, Scorpions, or Motörhead. Anything with cool lettering, really. Marillion and Asia were favourites – until I moved onto breakdancing and graffiti anyway.’
Perhaps because of British stonemasonry’s strong associations with memorials and churches, Marillion logos, graffiti and pop culture are not necessarily the first things that come to mind when one imagines its practitioners. Forty-four-year-old Wilson, however, is an original whose work somehow makes perfect sense right now, having a peculiar sort of continuousness with contemporary culture – in direct contrast to the deliberate, sombre separateness of classical stone-carved lettering.
That’s not to say he’s engraving ironic heavy metal lightning bolts and drop-shadows to his lettering or anything like that; it’s just that he has that modern, pop instinct to combine disparate influences, and to value mood and feeling over formal correctness. Or to put it in simple advertising-type language; to experiment and have fun.
Wilson – Teucer is the Greek name of a mythological Trojan archer, although this one grew up in High Wycombe – makes sculpture, public art, garden pieces, signs and memorials. He also creates carvings to please himself, and in May and June a series of these will make up an exhibition called Engrained Voices in the church of St Nicholas, Salthouse, near Cromer.
Engrained Voices is a collection of text carvings based on Norfolk folk stories compiled by the writer and storyteller Hugh Lupton. The texts read like fragments of history, legend and rural oral history; a bit The Waste Land, a bit 1970s folk. Wilson uses his eclectic approach to suit font and design to particular pieces; he creates objects that are art objects in their own right, not just renderings of someone’s words. Most of the carvings were carefully designed in his usual way, using computers and scale drawing. But in order to get the inconsistencies of spacing he notes in the 18th-century memorial inscriptions he likes, he carved some with no prior design or drawings, as 18th-century masons would have done. He will also be working on carvings in the church throughout the exhibition.
‘I hope the exhibition pieces will be more poetic and thought-provoking,’ he says. ‘Words in stone can be so powerful, but you have to be sensitive to the materials and respectful of them. The tricky part is getting the right tone. It’s easy to get too respectful, so the words get preachy and almost biblical – which can be alienating – and equally easy to go too far the other way, and be too flippant.’
Wilson, who runs a ten-month waiting list, has a manner and appearance that combines the academic, serious hip-hop fan with that of a thoughtful, skilled plasterer or electrician. He has run his own workshop in Norfolk since 2000, having worked for five years at the London studio of the celebrated British typeface designer, letter carver and sculptor Richard Kindersley. Kindersley’s father, David, was an apprentice under Eric Gill, who in turn was taught by the font designer Edward Johnston.
It was this combination of graphics, images and carving
that interested him, Wilson says, first on his art foundation course and then on his two-year stone masonry course at Weymouth College.
He explains that he likes ‘to experiment with the texture, rhythm and spacing, and with seeing the letters themselves as real characters that interact with each other’. Half jokingly, I ask if he has a favourite letter to carve? ‘Well, they all have their own character, and the fact that they’re all different makes it more interesting. Some letters are definitely more difficult – to carve a good, well-balanced O can be a challenge. I really like carving Rs as they combine straight-ish lines with the curved bowl and elegant diagonal.’ As for influences, the list is eclectic, ranging from Aboriginal art, classical Indian carving and African masks to Eric Gill, 17th- and 18th-century memorials from Europe and the US – ‘a bit of an obsession for me at the moment’– and some of the folkier, Pagan-looking stonework on English churches.
His premises, with small lock-up storage rooms and a yard outside stacked with stone, are among several artists’ workshops in a converted former intensive pig-rearing unit. He lives with his wife, Sarah – an art therapist, who creates etchings in the next shed – and their three children in a house eight miles away. They moved there from St Albans because they knew the area, they needed space and it was relatively inexpensive, and it’s a good place to be, he says. East Anglia now has so many artists and craftspeople that it has developed a supportive creative community – something you find more and more of in Britain’s rural areas.
The job has its drawbacks of course – mainly the organisation/business side and the back pain – but Wilson obviously loves it, and couldn’t imagine himself following his contemporaries who went into cathedral workshops and restoration companies. ‘I like designing new things rather than replacing old stuff.’ Although an increasing amount of masonry and letter-carving work – especially memorials and headstones – is done by machines on cheap material, and this isn’t exactly great news for practitioners, it has in some ways lead to a greater appreciation of good, bespoke hand-done work and beautiful stone. Wilson has found ways to work in this area that gives him qualities that are unachievable by machine. ‘I enjoy playing around,’ he says. ‘I think rules are there to be broken/challenged in designs, and not clung onto like sacred texts.’
Photographs Luke Stephenson, Words Richard Benson