On succession

Talk by Ian Marr to the Regional Botanic Gardens Conference, 15 May 2004


I want to speak to you about my work in stone inscriptions, and in doing that I want to look at succession for artists, in two senses.

Succession in the botanical world

directional, non-seasonal cumulative change in the types of plant species that occupy a given area through time'.

Begun by disturbance, this process can end with the equilibrium of a climax community.

Is this a helpful way to look at artists?

We certainly see in artists' biographies the expression ‘flourished, 1720s', and we are ‘nourished' by patronage, good scholarship, or habitat.

In the same way that a fruit tree can be forced to produce abundantly by a severe pruning, or a walnut tree by beating, artists sometimes respond to a severe illness or shock by producing an unexpectedly strong and fine series of works. Most real artists have an instinctive program, and will not be put off, and will express the whole of their life in their art.

I recently spent 5 weeks on an artist's residency at Hill End, and, in reading Donald Friend's diaries and living in his cottage, was struck by the ‘flowering' of work amongst the group of younger artists – Friend, Olley, Drysdale, Smart, Strachan in the late 1940s – and the stimulation of a simple shelter and a romantic landscape, particularly in the sense that the ghost town was a beautiful chaos of abandoned gardens and orchards.

When Friend sent his new drawings from Hill End to REA Wilson, his dealer in London, in 1947, Wilson instantly recognized their meaning -- he wrote back to Friend:

Do you know the Shoreham watercolours of Samuel Palmer? A bare apple tree in winter, a garden wall, all with such nostalgic perfection.

Heide, too, the country home and artists' menagerie of John and Sunday Reid, was a garden, a habitat, with fierce competition for resource and recognition, symbiotic alliances, ultimately a history.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska declined to work as Rodin's assistant with the words: ‘Nothing grows under a mighty oak tree'.

The other succession, that of artists in their vocation,

is not widely recognized in secular and modern art. It doesn't sit comfortably with the love of novelty.

In a simple form, it is an experience most of us have had: a mentor, usually a teacher, seeing in us an aptitude, an interest or a vocation. Sometimes it happens that we find some skill or occupation at just the right time, in just the right way, that it seems a perfect fit, perhaps ‘providential'.

It was providential good fortune that I was able to do lettercutting. I managed to hit on something which no-one else was doing and which quite a lot of people wanted.

Eric Gill, London, 1903

Perhaps you then sense your place in your particular craft or profession, and how there is a continuity between your predecessors, yourself, and your successors.

At school in Sydney, my ever-enthusiastic art teacher was Gordon McAuslan, ceramicist, painter, surrealist; a constant point of reference in our talks and lessons was the year he spent with the English surrealist Edward Wadsworth in 1946.

On a visit to the Scottish poet and gardener Ian Hamilton Finlay in 1997, talking on this theme, Finlay said with considerable force ‘Yes! This is what I call the Apostolic Succession!'

While this is compelling, a laying-on of hands, a linear succession, the truth is probably somewhere in between this and botanical succession. Many teachers and friends, many opportunities for growth -- meadow, woodland, grove – we all have our place. Some of us will prove to be stately forest trees, others woodland shrubs and grasses, and some just mosses and lichens.

When Eric Gill began as a lettercutter in London in 1903, he was acutely conscious of the special nature of the art of cutting letters in stone. Today, nearly everyone in the field who I know – and it is not a very large field – can trace their lineage of stone back to Gill, yet few, if any, actually knew him. (Ken Thompson in Ireland was friends as a boy with Joanna and René Hague; David Kindersley was an assistant.)

So how did I come to stone?

I have worked in pencil, pen and ink, and watercolour since the 1970s, with a particular interest in book illustration. Then I began to enjoy creating large-scale watercolours, say 1 metre by 1.5 metres, working in the open landscape.

Until recently, I have also worked with sheep and cattle on a family property at Wilcannia, where as you travel over the red country you are always looking at beautifully exquisitely made Aboriginal stone objects: axeheads, tulas, spear points, grinding stones, and cylcons: mysterious, ceremonial stones with linear incisions, emu and bird tracks, circles. Some of the ‘karta' stone axes are more like Brancusi's forms in space than anything else.

In the 1990s, I had some stone blocks from an old path, and cut my first series, fragments from Yeats, carved laboriously with mild steel chisels from the hardware store.

The second series was more personal: Virgil; found phrases; and, taken from a sign near Cobar, protesting a toxic waste incinerator, ‘ONE FLASH YOUR TOXIC ASH'; in big crude but expressive sans serif letters.

In 1997, when I was in Adelaide for a two-week drawing marathon with New York teacher Graham Nickson, I found, in a salvage yard, all the chemistry benches from Adelaide University --- I assume they still teach chemistry, but on different benches. I think that these beautiful benches can be associated with some great names in Australian science: Sir William and Sir Lawrence Bragg, Sir Marcus Oliphant.

Eureka! This was the real thing: letters carved in this stone really spoke with clarity and authority.

Next, to go to the source.

So I drove, shattered by the drawing marathon (I wouldn't draw for a year) to Clare and the village of Mintaro. This was clearly the Jerusalem of stone in Australia. The stone village of Mintaro, and the quarry, worked since 1856, surrounded by cascades and scree slopes of discarded slate, the old workings filled with blue-green water.

Deep down, you can see the current workings, the strata all on a 20 degree tilt: the shelter shed, everything, at 20 degrees.

The stone is 900 million years old, perhaps formed when atmospheric ash or silt settled into an ancient sea: it varies from a pure warm grey, to ‘brownback' (stone with iron and pyretic gleams).

So to London in 1997, to another source:

  • to Kindersley's workshop, where I was so surprised: ‘You Australians – so raw, untutored, elemental': I had actually thought my work was quite genteel;
  • to quarries like the Caithness Stone Quarry at which Jurassic sandstone holds up their work: they turn up a dinosaur, they quickly put it out of sight in the back lot;
  • the Hopeman, or ‘Clashach', quarry near Elgin, formed when Scotland was rolling desert sand dunes, something like present-day Chad or Niger; and
  • most of all, the tool suppliers: Tiranti in central London, and Pisani, from whom I still source the wonderful French-made Univers chisels, which are made near Grenoble.

My work has taken several forms of expression: the most obvious is the hand-made memorial, a revival of the poetic, expressive memorial simply set up for a loved one.

Seeing film this week of the desecration of World War I servicemen's graves in Gaza is a reminder of how we feel deeply for even a standardized form -- strong, well-cut letters – in the powerful setting of conflict and our shared feelings about war.

The process of finding the right form for a memorial, of discovering perhaps a text or a botanical image, with a client, can take perhaps a year and is very rewarding.

A more secular form for poetry is a garden bench, perhaps monumental in scale, using a fragment of poetry to speak to people, a site or a landscape. Some poets shine in this medium: Shakespeare, Cavafy, Frost, Heaney, Homer. Friends offer me quotations, saying, ‘Now, that's lapidary!'

I have used Cavafy's ‘Come back often' poem several times:

Come back often
Take hold of me in the night
When lips and skin remember

It is an example of the test of a work being whether it gives people goosebumps.

Large slate outdoor dining tables are another class of work. Some of the perimeter texts have included a passage from Shakespeare's Henry VIII, where, in ‘her [Elizabeth's] days, every man shall eat in safety, under his own vine, what he plants; and sing the merry songs of peace to all his neighbours'.

One of the earlier works was a table from Catullus, to commemorate a divorce:

Odi et amo. quare id faciam, fortasse requiris? nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.

I hate and I love. Perhaps you ask, why is it so? I don't know, but I feel it happening, and I am in agony.

The World Wide Web has made checking quotations for stone much simpler, from ‘Go Fish' (200 thousand citations) to ‘Virgil Reality'.

Recently I was checking for any citations for a 16th century garden themed poem, anonymous, but set to music by Philip Rosseter:

And would you see my mistress' face,
It is a flowery garden place
Where knots of beauties have such grace
That all is work and nowhere space.

This brought me immediately to a site called Mistress Julie's Dungeon -- not the site I was looking for, full of surprising ideas – which I don't think you should bother with – and quite Elizabethan in its own way!

Standing stones, or menhirs, are a powerful form for which the Mintaro slate is specially suited. A major piece in a garden near Cootamundra, about 2.4 metres out of the ground, has a quotation from Gerard Manly Hopkins


The family have told me how in the warm weather, when they walk to this great pillar stone in the evening, it generates a zone of radiant heat.

A subclass of menhirs is nilometers: set beside a river or stream, like the more complex enclosed towers of the ancient Egyptians. On the banks of the Darling River at Wilcannia, I have used the Aboriginal name for the Darling – BARKA, and marked on it all the floods since 1864.

I like the idea that these works can explain themselves to future people, without mediation.

Tree plaques: these are imaginary, mythic and often real trees, drawn, carved, gilded

Some recent works have adapted the alphabet and Arabic numerals, editorial symbols or other characters as foliage. I use simple stainless steel plates to hang these on trees or garden walks. Slate discs are also very suitable for small text fragments, or whimsical texts.

A gilded tree plaque by Ian Marr

Why is lettercutting so appealing?

When our whole lives are saturated with text – film, advertising, everything we do each day – it can still be a personal discovery to see the beauty of letters. They are like (and actually are) an inheritance: think of a storybook letter from a distant land, telling you of something that was always yours, but you didn't know, or you had forgotten.

Or a story in Osbert Sitwell's Left hand, right hand, of a key, on a ribbon in a drawer, and the instruction to go to Venice: and what should the key open there, but the door to a beautiful marble palazzo -- yours

We all have this royal inheritance.

It is not uncommon to hear stories of people seeing an inscription in stone by Eric Gill, by Michael Harvey, by Laurie Cribb, David Kindersley, and the moment being an epiphany – and the stone too, being tactile, sensual.

Beyond this, a site-specific work can speak to the landscape, to the history of a place, a befitting understanding between the crafted and the environment: cultural and natural forms.

It is specially appealing to me that these lettercut forms can range widely, draw on what people have written and said throughout our history: Virgil and St Augustine, Marcus Aurelius and Epicurus, Cavafy and David Campbell, are all old friends in a lettercutter's workshop.

Many artists think a great deal about posterity: how their efforts will be seen in the future: Marcus Aurelius – you may remember his unpleasant son from the film Gladiator) had some interesting things to say about this:

‘The way people behave. They refuse to admire their contemporaries, the people whose lives they share. NO, but to be admired by Posterity – people they've never met and never will – that's what they set their hearts on. You might as well be upset at not being a hero to your great-grandfather.'

There are 3 gardens with inscription that posterity might treat kindly:

[The first garden,] the garden of William Shenstone, ‘The Leasowes', was a phenomenon in 18th century England. His garden and his many inscriptions, on which he spent his entire fortune, have largely disappeared in favour of a golf course, but his poetry and his Unconnected Thoughts on Gardening, are still with us.

All trees have a character analogous to that of men.

A large branching oak is perhaps the most memorable of inanimate objects.

And, on winter, he wrote

‘To see one's urns, obelisks and waterfalls laid open; the nakedness of our beloved mistresses, the naiads and the dryads, exposed by that ruffian winter to universal observation is a severity scarcely to be supported by the help of blazing hearths, cheerful companion and a bottle of the most grateful burgundy.'

And on lawns

Thus a series of lawns, though ever so beautiful, may satiate and cloy, unless the eye passes to them from wilder scenes, and then they acquire the grace of novelty.

At Derek Jarman's house

Prospect Cottage

[The second garden:] In our day, Derek Jarman's garden at Prospect Cottage in Kent is in the shadow of a nuclear power station, on the huge Dungeness shingle bank. Spare, Spartan, the driest place in Britain, the cottage wall is covered with John Donne's The Sonne Rising, each weatherboard a line of verse. Derek Jarman has written on lawns, also,

It seems to me that lawns are against nature. Worn and often threadbare, the enemy of a good garden.

[The third garden:] Ian Hamilton Finlay's ‘Little Sparta' is a wonderful garden of letters in the Pentland Hills south of Edinburgh. Complex, beautiful, difficult, it also raises questions of what becomes of a garden, after the gardener is gone. In this case, the answer seems to be an enduring Foundation which will protect and manage the garden after Finlay, who is in his eighties.

Little Sparta landscape
In Ian Hamilton Finlay's garden 'Little Sparta'

Finlay's ‘Unconnected Sentences on Gardening' respond to Shenstone's, with lapidary sayings such as:

Some gardens are described as retreats
When they are really attacks

The creation of every great garden was accompanied by the rustling of innumerable bills

Following a visit in 1997 I sent to Finlay a volume of Les Murray's ‘Subhuman Redneck Poems'. In reply, Finlay sent a little book, Three Gates, about his struggle with ‘The Authority'. His letter read

Thank you so much for your present which came in the post today. In return, here is a wee present for you. It has its sad side too.

(Since Finlay was awarded an honorary doctorate some years ago, I can foresee a survey of his work entitled ‘Dr Finlay's Casebook'.)

What does the future hold for this work?

I will continue making text-based stone works, from the tiny to the monumental. I will share some craft secrets with others, and, irrationally, keep one or two secrets from everyone.

I will keep talking about stone and text to anyone who will listen, with or without a glass or bottle of wine, tools, or stone.

I will use my entanglement with stone to guide my world travels even at the cost of not paying attention to other good things – we can only do so much.

Curiously, while you think that you are shaping stone, actually it is stone that is shaping you.

I will teach stone lettercutting, and need assistants and apprentices from time to time.

A project for the next few years is to establish an Australian group called ‘Memorials by Artists', an offshoot /transplant of a British organization that brings together clients and artists to develop hand-made garden and memorial works in the tradition I have been discussing tonight.

Stone lettercutting doesn't leave much time for gardening – I have to leave that to more responsible people – but at best I can try to make concise, powerful, I hope beautiful objects to grace the landscapes and gardens of others, things that focus, make links, surprise, mystify.

I will leave you with a stone verse from William Massey, a question:

Whence did the wondrous art arise
Of drawing speech, and speaking to the eyes?
That by cutting deep lines, we're taught
To embody mind and colour thought.