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Finding the art of brick - with a tungsten chisel

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VIEWPOINT: Richard Kindersley - Sculptor

Richard Kindersley studied painting and sculpture at Cambridge School of Art and later lettering and inscriptional letter-cutting in stone with his father, David. Through his general interest in materials and architecture, he re-discovered the skills of direct brick carving. For his work he has won the RSA Art for Architecture award. He has carved over 12 major brick carvings, many of them as national Public Art competitions

Brick carving is both compelling and intimidating for the sculptor. Compelling because of the opportunity to carve on a large scale. Intimidating because failure is very public and potentially extremely expensive. The size and sheer physicality of the work, coupled with the consequences of making serious mistakes, concentrates the mind. In failure the painter can reach for a new canvas, the sculptor can obtain a new block of stone. The brick carver, working on a building costing many millions of pounds, is faced with a dilemma of a different magnitude if a serious mistake is made.

The history of brick carving goes back a long way; either working directly in fired brick or fashioning the design in 'green' brick prior to firing. Most readers will be familiar with the wonderful glazed brick reliefs from Mesopotamia in the British Museum or the extravagant detail on Tudor chimneys. More recent examples can be found in many places. There was an interesting period of brick carving in the 1930s. Examples from this period can be found in carvings by Ledwood on the Stratford Memorial Theatre, panels by Ayers on Highbury Town Hall and a rather splendid crocodile by Gill on the Cavendish Laboratories in Cambridge. The general condition of these carvings will allay any concerns about weathering of carved brickwork.

My own experience of brick carving started in the 1970s and because the earlier pre-war tradition had been lost I had to make a new start in discovering the best way to carve and finish bricks for reliefs. Unlike stone carving there are a number of limitations, not least the depth of carving due to the frog in the brick. The measurement between the edge of the brick and the beginning of the indentation of a frog is 18-20mm. This gives the carver his maximum depth of relief; to go deeper the chisel would burst through into the cavity made by the frog. A skilful carver gives the illusion of depth by constantly coming back to the original surface in the carving so that at any one point the maximum relief is available. All relief carving is a combination of drawing and carving to give the illusion of depth and the combination is even more important with brick sculpture. A good example was commissioned for the nineteenth century railway town of Wolverton. The railway has long departed but this carving, on a new shopping mall, celebrates the town's early history built around steam locomotives. The relief shows the classic configuration of the main drive wheels and connecting rods for steam locomotives. Wolverton shows how successful strong, bold images are in brick carving, the content, as in this case, becoming abstract (figure 5).

Although fired from natural clays, a brick is essentially a man-made object. It therefore lacks the predictable grain, hardness and cleavage of natural stones. Stone has a character that arises from its earlier geological history that a skilful carver understands and uses, exploiting it to the advantage of the chisel. With brick's unpredictability, there is a need when carving to be ever watchful for sudden changes of hardness and softness, for flaws such as gas blowholes caused during firing. And yet these technical difficulties yield a carving that has its own special qualities. The rich play of colour is discovered by the chisel when the outer skin of the brick is removed. The brick jointing, cutting through the carving, acts like a stave in musical notation, giving a repetitive tension in which the work is held. The textural quality of brick carving is subtle, resting quietly within the brickwork and it is this unique quality of being an integral part of the architecture that makes brick carving so attractive.

After the commission has been agreed, the first step is to produce a scale drawing in conjunction with tests on the proposed brick. This is important as some bricks, particularly the high-fired engineering bricks, are not easily carvable, while others, particularly multis, may contain a lot of black friable material below the surface. If the proposed brick proves suitable for carving the next stage is drawing up the full size design on the wall of my studio. I have a special wall lined with white board 5m wide by 4m high to enable the drawing of full size cartoons. The final stage before venturing out to site, is to convert the drawing into card templates. What seems an elaborate and time-consuming method of transferring the design from scale drawing concept to the wall is necessary. A drawing can be sketched with charcoal or soft pencils onto stone, but try sketching a smooth line onto brick and you find that the line is illegible and that the pencil breaks at the first brick joint!

After transferring the design to the brickwork the drawing is carefully edged in with small chisels to make it permanent. All the hand tools we use are traditional sculptors' and masons' tools but with the additional bonus of tungsten tips. These tools are extremely sharp and far removed from the builder's cold chisel. The sharpness is necessary because bricks by their nature are brittle and can crack in the carving process. Sharp tools allow the safe paring of the brick to produce the carving.

The process, after edging in, is to use traditional sculpture tools and methods. A small electric diamond cutter is sometimes used to initially rough out parts of the carving.

On completion of the carving a brick dye is applied. This is either applied over the whole carving to give a general colour or applied to highlight aspects of the work. These dyes have always to be used with restraint as the work can be easily spoilt with too harsh a treatment.

Brick carving returns architectural sculpture to its right and natural place in a building as part of the fabric and not something that is just applied. It is that which makes the work so satisfying.

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