After 30 years in business, Duncan Bell retrained as a sculptor in stone. His most ambitious project, a two-ton sculpture in Purbeck limestone, was unveiled this month at St Peter’s Hospital, near Chertsey. You’d never know it by the impressive results, but with Lightwaves Duncan found himself working “way out of his comfort zone and experience”.
At first, Lightwaves was just a working title.
My brief in December 2008 was very broad: to create an “organic” sculpture as the focal point for a new garden at the front of St Peter’s Hospital. It was part of a 20-year masterplan. The site was ideal for sculpture, highly visible, on a grassy south-facing bank. But I’d never done anything this big before.
I had a vision of a vertical sculpture with a curving central spine; something growing and spiraling up from the ground, with two faces that interlock and support each other. I wanted the sculpture to be uplifting.
I also wanted the form to be somewhat ambiguous, so that it might hold a variety of meanings for people, suggesting for example nature and our evolutionary past.
I’m fascinated by the evolution of life, and was intrigued to discover later on that Lightwaves had a resemblance to Charnia, an important early life form from the Precambrian period.
It was an ancient marine organism with a frond-like form that anchored itself to the sea floor. I had also been carving smaller sculptures with curving abstract forms inspired by chalk landscapes like the South Downs.
The sketches for the design were very rough. I don’t create scale models, but prefer to carve directly into the stone. It’s a natural material. Each piece has its own unique characteristics that are revealed as the stone is worked, and I like to adapt the design as I go.
The stone for Lightwaves came from St Aldhelm’s Quarry in Dorset. Most of the stone I have used over the past seven or eight years has come from this quarry. I chose a large slab of Purbeck Spangle, a crystalline limestone full of oyster shell fossils that was formed during the Jurassic Period 150 million years ago.
I had it delivered to my workshop in Winkfield. I then spent quite a few months feeling way out of my comfort zone.
I started working on Lightwaves as it lay flat, marking and carving the vertical spine. The geometry of the spine is based on the golden ratio. I drew the first curve at the base, then divided its dimensions by 1.62 to determine the size of the next curve, and repeated that for each succeeding curve. It’s like the Fibonacci series, which occurs in nature, for example in the uncurling of a fern or the branching of a tree.
The waves, or leaf-like forms, along the spine gradually diminish in size from the base to the top of the sculpture. The sculpture was going to stand on a south-facing slope, so I designed the waves with sharply defined lines that would show contrasts of light and shadow.
I wanted the stone to have a light colour similar to chalk. To get this effect the finish would need to be fairly rough, because a smooth finish gives the stone a darker colour.I sanded the vertical curve to a very smooth finish, making it darker and revealing the oyster shell fossils. For the rough finish I used a large file.
It took me nearly a year to complete the sculpture.
The actual working time was about eight months, partly because I had other work to complete, and because it was sometimes difficult to work outside during the winter. It was finished by the end of April 2010, but installation was delayed for ten months as we waited for planning permission and for the landscaping and construction work of the site.
In February 2011 Lightwaves was finally installed. It was nervewracking. Unseen fractures or weaknesses in the stone could have been exposed at any stage. The sculpture was loaded by forklift onto a trailer at my workshop and transported to the hospital, where it was unloaded in a car park below the site.
Then it was strapped up and lifted into the air by a huge crane and slowly lowered into place. Six stainless steel rods in the base of the sculpture had to fit precisely into holes that had been drilled in the foundation and filled with a specialist adhesive. But all went according to plan, and Lightwaves was unveiled on April 11th 2011 by the Mayor of Runneymede and the Chairman of St Peter’s Hospital.
Stone carving is a completely new direction for me. With Lightwaves there were many highs and lows, but the project reminded me why I love it so much.
I am very grateful to everyone at St Peter’s Hospital for their support and faith in me, particularly Peter Curtis, who is a member of the Arts Committee and was responsible for all the construction work, and Dr Peter Wilkinson, who is head of the Arts Committee.
And I could not have done without the invaluable advice and support of my fellow Windsor sculptor Dave Middleton throughout the project. Many thanks also to my workshop landlord Brian Hunter for all his help in moving and lifting the sculpture.
Duncan is passionate about sculpting in stone. After retiring early from business, he retrained as a sculptor and worked for the renowned sculptress Emily Young, helping her prepare for her 2004 St Pancras Crypt exhibition. His work is both figurative and abstract, and emphasises the contrast between surface textures, from high polish to roughly worked stone. He has also taken foundry casts from selected stone carvings. Duncan has carried out a number of private commissions. Lightwaves is his first public commission.
Find more about Duncan Bell here
St. Peter’s Hospital, Chertsey is situated in greenbelt parkland between Woking and Chertsey near junction 11 of the M25. www.ashfordstpeters.nhs.uk/press-releases-2011/538/1626
Surrey Sculpture Society www.surreysculpture.org.uk