A heart for stone
PUBLISHED: 12:09 13 October 2015 | UPDATED: 12:10 13 October 2015
Lucy Etherington meets stone carver and conservationist Antonia Hockton in her Ipswich home. Pictures: Lucy Taylor
There is something so still and quiet about the work of Antonia Hockton, I almost expected her to be as serene as one of her stone statues – head-to-toe white with a beatific smile.
In fact she is funny and lively and down to earth: a girl from Coventry who simply fell in love with stone.
“I’m not serene at all,” she laughs. “My head is always whizzing and I need a way to slow myself down. Stone carving is a way of grounding me I suppose. It’s a slow, painstaking process and sometimes that drives people mad, but for some reason it keeps me sane.
“They always say that you find the material that makes you happy or whole, and perhaps that’s why I’m so attached to stone. I just wish it was a little lighter!”
I meet Antonia in her Ipswich home, an unassuming semi on the edge of town. Her studio is a shed at the end of an eccentric and beautiful garden, full of birds and sculptures and unusual plants and trees.
In the middle of the shed, which is coated in ethereal dust, stands a beautiful boy angel, his hands slipped into his jeans, his smoothly carved chest seemingly sprouting a few adolescent hairs, although these are anomalies in the marble itself. It’s called ‘Waiting’ and captures that moment of being on the brink of adulthood. He looks like he could take flight any second.
On the shelves are more figures, some notably inspired by her conservation work in churches and cathedrals. She recently completed her first church commission of her own work, an altarpiece in Great Bromley church in Essex. I ask if she’s religious.
She thinks about it, then says, “No.” And then. “I don’t really know if I’m honest. There is something I try to communicate in my own work, I have no idea what, but I feel it often in sacred spaces. Maybe it’s just the silence.
“For the altarpiece, I had to go and read the bible. I wasn’t brought up to be religious, and I know most of the biblical stories from cathedrals, which is how most people knew the bible back then. They couldn’t read or write so they learned through pictures on stones. Now I’m carving my own narratives it feels like I’m connected to the past, that my work is part of a journey.”
Antonia’s own journey has hardly been set in stone. Growing up in Coventry, she remembers a garden so perfect she and her brother were forbidden to play in it, and yet her over-protective parents wouldn’t let them go to the park either. “I couldn’t wait to leave,” she says, with a laugh.
She went to art school in Sheffield, which she loved.
“People were so friendly, I couldn’t believe it, especially after Coventry which was so miserable.”
During her BA, she managed to get a placement at Lincoln Cathedral, which led to a paid apprenticeship as soon as she left college.
“It was amazing,” she says. “I got to travel all over the country learning the trade.”
But, she says, not everyone who studies conservation sticks at it.
“It’s not very glamorous. It’s dirty, heavy and hard work. You’re on the road a lot in B&Bs, in really cold churches, squeezing into awkward positions on scaffolding. You have to have a head for heights and patience is an absolute prerequisite. I love being out an about: I couldn’t imagine working in a studio.”
Ever restless for change and adventure, she worked in Notre Dame in Poitiers, France for eight years, then came back and worked at the V&A, where she met her husband, mostly repairing casts that overenthusiastic visitors had tried to climb. She moved to Suffolk in 1998, because her brother lives in Ipswich and it’s near London. Since 2006 she has been hired by New College, Oxford, to redeem ten 9ft statues from their cloisters to their former glory.
“Although I love conservation, I found that I begin to deteriorate when I don’t make my own stuff,” she says. “When I was a youngster I found it quite difficult to articulate and I find my work enabled me to say what I wanted to say. If I don’t express it, it builds up and becomes really unhealthy.”
Her job with New College was flexible, so she could begin work on her own sculptures. She joined The Suffolk Craft Society in 2006 which enabled her to exhibit and sell her work through their shop, Gallery 2, in Ipswich Town Square, as well as meet other artists. Now she feels she has found a perfect work/art/life balance.
“It’s too precarious trying to make a living from art alone,” she says. “So the conservation work sustains me as well as feeding my own creativity. Looking at all this ancient stuff is literally a feast for the eyes.” n
See Antonia’s altarpiece at Great Bromley Church in Essex. Her work is available to buy at Gallery 2, The Suffolk Craft Society, Ipswich Town Hall or contact her through www.antoniahockton.co.uk