2015 ‘Genesis’ stone carving by Jonathan Sells, Plymouth, Devon
Background to the Genesis Project
In July 2015, Corfe Castle-based stone carver and sculptor Jonathan Sells was commissioned to carve four large wall panels for one of his most most challenging stone carvings to date. This was for a major project, named ‘Genesis’, in the Stonehouse area of Plymouth. Genesis was to be the name of a new £5 million block, housing affordable offices and storage units.
Jonathan is a highly acclaimed, award-winning, stone carver and sculptor with over 45 years’ experience in both figurative and abstract work. He is also well-known for teaching at various schools and institutions around Dorset, in addition to running his own stone carving lessons. Living in Corfe Castle since 1985, he is part of the Boilerhouse Gallery, which used to be called the Old Milk Factory, just across the line from the Town’s railway station.
Well-known for his humorous, often quirky, figurative sculpture, Jonathan’s work ranges from small pieces, such as Purbeck marble leaves which are lovingly polished to bring out their natural beauty to reveal shells and fossils, to off-the-wall-quirky figurines, and large public sculptures.
Among his stone carvings are the 900th anniversary piece at Christchurch Priory Gardens, the Tregonwell/Creeke statue outside the Bournemouth International Centre, and the 700th Wareham Market anniversary piece, now sited at Cottees Auctioneers in Poole.
Another of his works is the 6-foot Primordial Sculpture outside the Heritage Centre at West Lulworth, depicting life that evolved during the Cretaceous, Jurassic and Triassic periods 250 million years ago.
The Genesis panels had to depict the historic trades of Stonehouse, such as stone quarrying and boatbuilding. Each of the four panels would be around 6ft by 3ft, which would be challenging enough, except that each large panel would comprise four smaller quarter panels, all interconnecting. The design would actually run across the quarter panels so, in addition to everything else, the carving had to be pinpoint accurate.
The panels had been designed by Stonehouse historian and artist Richard Fisher. Jonathan’s role was to turn Richard’s design into a relief (a type of carving or sculpture in which the figures are raised a few inches from a flat background, to give a three-dimensional effect) using Portland stone.
12-hour days in freezing conditions
The Genesis project meant non-stop work for Jonathan for almost five months. He often worked for twelve hours a day, including working outdoors to midnight on the coldest nights of the year, and only taking and a handful of days off over Christmas.
The work schedule was daunting; Jonathan had just four months to complete the actual carving. “Before even seeing any of the plans,” he recalls, “I knew that 16 weeks for effectively 16 stones was a tall order.”
There was also the problem of weight and size. Each smaller quarter stone measured approximately 3ft by 18 inches by 5 inches thick, and weighed just under two hundredweight.
The first task was using artist Richard’s designs to create 100-odd templates, then transfer the images on to the flat surface of the stones themselves.
To meet the deadline, Jonathan would regularly not put down his tools until midnight. Because of the dust he worked outside under a marquee, with Plymouth Stonehouse quarrymen working with and loading stone onto horses.
The panels take shape…
Jonathan didn’t actually begin carving until early September and finished the first panel on 20th October, keeping a daily diary of his progress. The good news was that the clients had seen photos of the panels – and liked them.
“I breathed a sigh of relief at this stage,” he says, “but there was still a lot of work to do before I would see the light at the end of the tunnel and the finished result.”
Mid-November the second panel was taken away, but the weather had changed and Jonathan was already wearing thermals.
Incredibly, he finished the third panel on 16th December, so was able to take a week off for Christmas to be with his family.
When he returned to work on the 2nd January 2016 the cold was extreme and he had to double up on coats. The good news was that the construction work was slightly behind schedule and he was given a two-week extension.
The final panel was taken away on 26th January; incredibly, Jonathan had met the deadline.
Read more about this project here