'Art Workers': Education and Professional Advancement in Sculpture and the Stone Trades C.1850-1900

By Compton, Ann | The Sculpture Journal, December 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

'Art Workers': Education and Professional Advancement in Sculpture and the Stone Trades C.1850-1900


Compton, Ann, The Sculpture Journal


A comparison of nineteenth-century images and texts yields varied and sometimes contradictory messages about the relationship between sculpture and the stone trades. For example, in Frederic George Stephens and J. P. Mayall's handsomely illustrated volume Artists at Home (1884), sculptors and painters are presented as men of ideas sitting in their studios surrounded by the conventional comforts of middle-class life.1 These images create a clear division of labour from the stone carver who appeared in the illustrated press dressed in the hat and coat of his trade, and sometimes hewing stone in a dusty workshop (fig. 1). However, intersections between the two professions are clearly articulated elsewhere in the literature, particularly in the pedagogical discourse. In one publication, a youthful audience deliberating possible careers were advised that diligent study would allow a stonemason to advance through the grades of his craftto become an 'Art Worker' or even cross the threshold into the fine arts.2 Later texts indicate that aspiring young sculptors, including those who had started out in trades such as metalwork or wood carving, were expected to learn essential carving skills in a mason's yard.3 Fiction is another area in which the overlap between trade and fine art sometimes surfaced. For example, one of the central characters in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Marble Faun (1860) is a sculptor called Kenyon. A description of Kenyon's atelier in Rome prompts the author to opine: 'The studio of a sculptor is generally but a rough and dreary-looking place, with a good deal the aspect, indeed, of a stone-mason's workshop.'4

Broader evidence that the professions of sculpture and stonemasonry were closely interlinked and that changes of career were commonplace has emerged from the Mapping Sculpture project.5 Initial analysis of the research findings suggests that out of about 1,405 sculptors active between 1851 and 1900, at least a third pursued other professional activity and a minimum of 200 worked in the stone trades. To put this in the context of a familiar marker of professional standing, sculptors were at least 14 times more likely to work in the stone trades than to be a member of the Royal Academy.6 A similar situation existed among stonemasonry businesses. Out of the 600 firms investigated so far about half also styled themselves as sculptors, modellers, architectural sculptors or statuaries at some stage. The research to date strongly suggests that true levels of interchange between the professions will be significantly higher once all records are analysed and the number of sculptors who started as apprentice stonemasons is fully assessed. However, even these preliminary estimates indicate the need for a detailed investigation of the stone trades to redress their marginal place in the art historical discourse, and to allow us to understand the relationship between sculpturally related businesses and fine art.

This article contributes to a wider re-evaluation by addressing one of the principal methods of career advancement and accepted markers of professional status: educational achievement. Since the study of fine art has always been a recognized aspect of a sculptor's career, this article focuses on the previously neglected topic of how the stonemason learned his craftbetween about 1850 and 1900. It examines workshop learning, self-education and art school teaching with the object of uncovering the professional identity of the stonemason and the impact of study on career development. The article asks how did a stonemason make the transition to fine artist? And how does exploring the stonemason's craftenlarge our understanding of stone carving in sculptural practice? The investigation begins by revisiting the gap between the two professions and reconsidering the assumption that the stonemason occupied a lowly educational and social status.

Contrary to the idea conjured by images of dusty workshops, apprentice masons were actually joining a highly skilled and respected trade. …

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