Antiques: On the Slate; CHRISTOPHER PROUDLOVE IS IN BLUE HEAVEN AS HE LOOKS AHEAD TO A SALE OF WORKS BY FFESTINIOG STONE ARTIST BILL RICE

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Byline: CHRISTOPHER PROUDLOVE

LIVING as we do in North Wales, we're surrounded by slate. Admittedly, we have none on the roof - it's not the right kind of house - but being what basically amounts to a lazy gardener, with entire flowerbeds having disappeared under the weeds-uppressing mantel of chippings of the steely bluey green grey stuff, I can claim to be a great fan.

An idea currently on the long finger is to create a slate "garden", the focal point of which will be one or more massive standing slate stones - that would set the neighbours talking.

So what's stopping me? Well, for one thing, money. I dread to think what it would cost to haul a 10-ton chunk of stone down the mountain and around to mine, to say nothing of the crane that would be needed to lift it over the garden wall.

I thought finding the right piece of stone might be a problem, but clearly the quarriers have embraced the internet. I learned this week not only is it possible to buy and pay for chippings, rockery stone, flagstones and even slate kitchen worktops online, the men at Berwyn Slate Quarry - you drive past it on the Horseshoe Pass near Llangollen - will also find you the right standing stone from a drawing you e-mail to them.

That's what I call progress. I'll be speaking to the Business Manager (Mrs P), although as an ice-breaker I'll be showing her the catalogue for an auction at Rogers Jones Co in Colwyn Bay later this month.

Auctioneer David Rogers Jones has been instructed to sell about 70 pieces of works of art created by the late Bill Rice, a man who was not just surrounded by slate but who immersed himself in the stuff.

Not surprisingly, an entire industry grew up around North Wales' slate quarries just to supply tourists with souvenirs. Most of it is pure kitsch, but not so Bill's work.

"Very few of the items made by Mr Rice would be described as 'touristy'," said David Rogers Jones. "Some are a bit gimmicky perhaps, but the great majority illustrate the obvious fantastic skill of the person who worked in a medium few are able to do.

"Having visited his shed - and I mean shed, corrugated sheets with holes in them and machinery and tools out of the ark - I was quite amazed such skilled work should come out of such a place."

William Joseph Rice - Bill to all who knew him - was a native of Tanygrisiau and lived up the road in Blaenau Ffestiniog. In his youth he worked in his grandfather William Hughes' garage and served his National Service in Cyprus, then spent time as a toolmaker in southern England.

He returned to Blaenau to work as a plumber with his brother Raymond, before becoming a roofing contractor with a friend - this is presumably when he first started handling slate.

Not content with simply nailing the stuff on to roofing battens, he dedicated his spare time to designing a machine capable of turning slate into bowls and plates. …