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Brian Ansell working on the sceptre
Job of the century
By Linda Walker
As Suffolk based stonemason and sculptor Brian Ansell celebrates his 40th year in the business he sets to work on carving a replica of the sceptre that was discovered at Sutton Hoo 70 years ago, to form a tribute to King Raedwald.
The expression 'job of a life time' was never more relevant than in the case of stonemason and sculptor Brian Ansell, who lives and works in Bury St Edmunds.
Brian's 40 year career has seen him working in some world-renowned locations including Lincoln Cathedral and York Minster in the mid 80's, working on the Great West Door.
March 2009, and Brian is currently working on a replica of the sceptre which was discovered at Sutton Hoo in July 1939, to coincide with the 70th anniversary of its discovery.
The original sceptre is currently housed at the British Museum and now Brian has been commissioned to carve a replica so that Sutton Hoo can also display this important piece of local history.
The Anglo-Saxon sceptre was uncovered at the famous burial mound site with what was thought to be King Raedwald, the then king of East Anglia.
Once every 700 years
Brian says that great stone craft jobs, like his work at York Minster, only comes up every 700 years and that his choice of career came about as much through chance than anything else.
"In the 1960's I tried lots of different things and that took me into archaeology with one of the local sites in Bury St Edmunds," said Brian.
"The problem was there wasn't much cash about if you needed transport or something.
"Most of us that did that kind of work went off to do other jobs as well to earn a bit of money.
"I went off to the big timber company in Bury St Edmunds which stood where the Tesco store is now and then by chance I got a job at the local stone yard and that's where it all started.
"That's the chance factor and being around when these projects or phases of work happen and you can't really be thought of in advance because obviously no one knows what's going to happen.
"Going from one project to another you can build up your experience and qualifications and you become a known artist or sculptor and you are then invited to work on projects."
Brian's enthusiasm for his work comes from its variety and the fact that no two commissions will demand the use of the same tools or processes, leading to a never ending learning curve.
Though this sense of mystery is intriguing it does present challenges, particularly with the case of the Sutton Hoo sceptre.
Carving something from the 7th Century is no easy task, as there is no documentation to say how the Anglo-Saxons went about carving such items. For this reason Brian's efforts will include a piece which will remain a work in process.
Work in progress
The process of the work is something which continues to inspire Brian's creativity, and he now regularly gives lectures and talks on stone carving to help give people a better understanding of the systems involved.
"It's something I'll being doing with Sutton Hoo and with other projects because we realise that you really need to show people how things are made.
"This is because the end product really tells you nothing. It might tell you something of the time and perhaps the people involved, but absolutely nothing about the making of it."
King Raedwald replica mask
The sceptre is an emblem of power and was used for sharpening blades. It has faces carved onto each end and is crowned with a metal stag.
Brian's piece which is being formed from Greywhacke stone, the nearest to the original, is 23 inches in length and about 2 inches square.
"The commission itself came about around two years ago, we were just having a beer with some archeologists and we got onto discussing the sceptre.
"The stone has eight faces, four at the bottom and four at the top, and the significance is, as far as I know, unknown but it doesn't matter to me because I'm carving a replica from the King's workshop.
"I'm using very, very soft tempered iron and this one that I'm using now was probably made in the late 1800's, when we still had blacksmiths that understood tempering.
"The methods used are unchanged through history and I'm just explaining those methods, which are fairly simple, through the making of this project."
The Sutton Hoo sceptre
Large scale to small scale
Despite having worked on some large-scale projects such as York Minster's Great West Door, the relatively small scale of the sceptre is equally exciting for Brian, as it offers him a great way of explaining how the stone carving process works.
"I think the scale is not really important and because of the very gentle method of working (on the sceptre) it sort of assimilates a heavier working on a larger piece.
"It can never be rushed because that's the nature of the work itself but it can happen quite quickly with the right skills, tools and length of practice.
"It's often said that certainly medieval carvers could do a life size head in no more than a day and that really astonishes people when I do talks and lectures, but that's about knowing the practical systems and the ways of getting into the rock in the right order."
Revealing not modelling
Once complete the sceptre will be added to a reconstruction of the burial chamber at Sutton Hoo and as the piece continues to develop Brian will be giving regular talks about its development, and his view of stone craft.
"Stone sculpture and a lot of other work of that type is now looked upon and called modelling, but what I emphasise when I'm working and doing talks is that it's the opposite of modelling.
"The craft is revealing because what you see at the start of the process is the bare face of the rock whatever it may be, and the end result is what you reveal on the inside of that shape.
"Without wanting to sound pretentious I've often had artists come and look at my work and look at the finished piece and comment on what a nice piece of art it is and I've often picked up a shovel of the dust and said 'no that's the art'!"
last updated: 16/03/2009 at 09:56
Have Your Say
What do you make of Brian's work or Sutton Hoo generally?
David R Roper