John Roberts: Carver Extraordinary
The professional life of the Sculptor John Roberts coincided with a long period of cultural uncertainty as to the status and purpose of art. At least, that would be the orthodox view of pre-eminent critics and philosophers on the subject. John’s creative project would inevitably have been shaped by that circumstance and by the challenge it represented to his ideals. The condition of uncertainty still persists, perhaps the inevitable consequence of consumer capitalism in a largely secular society.
Looking back, it seems that a digression occurred, somewhere in the mid-20th century, between the aims that would come to define the art-object and those which represented the virtues of craft skill. Art and craft obviously had things in common, not least their recourse to a similar range of media, but their cultural purposes were beginning to be different in kind, even to the extent that when traditional craft skills were particularly evident in the would-be art object, they were as likely to be seen as obscuring its main purpose as of being a vehicle for its expression, and the more virtuosic the skill, the greater the suspicion that it concealed, or was attempting to compensate for, the absence of what really mattered. What that might be is perhaps harder to define now than ever but it presupposes, presumably, some form of self-evident truth, perhaps the divine spark that Salieri found in the music of Mozart but could not find in his own, nor acquire by any amount of devotion to his craft or his God.
Art began to be a ‘conceptual’ practice in the minds of many of its participants during the 1960s and ‘70s. Spontaneity began to take precedence over the slower paced applications of craft-skill, and meaning became increasingly dependent on verbal exposition. Post-Modernism and the by-product of Cultural relativism complicated things further by proposing that in matters of comparative value one object, or opinion, is not better than another but only different – a position which effectively destroys the legacy of a Modernist or any other inherited canon. As it is, the now almost infinite extension of Art’s ontology permits gestures in its name which need produce no aesthetic object at all.
I did not know John very well, but my impression was that he struggled to find his place in a cultural epoch whose zeitgeist he could not feel and whose values he did not condone. Like many artists, he had to survive outside the mainstream and since he was passionate in his commitment, he did more than just survive. His special gifts assured him of a role within the scope of architectural heritage which may have been a more exclusive niche than ideally he would have chosen, but within which his extraordinary skill and powers of empathy would conjure the spirit of medieval forms into contemporary life. His carvings of 20th century martyrs for Westminster Abbey and his interventions at Lincoln Cathedral among many other examples, are the work of a true artist, albeit one whose tradition has become divided against itself and which is frequently unable to recognise its most devoted servants. John was certainly one of those and should rest assured that he did full justice to the talents he was born with.
John Roberts left his mark where perhaps it most belonged, in the fabric of great historic buildings and, of course, on the lives of students who continue to practice the skills he taught; he represented these at City & Guilds of London Art School with both grace and conviction and he will be remembered and respected by all there who knew him.
Principal, City & Guilds of London Art School. November 2007
He hardly knew his own good
John was stubbornly extraordinary. He loved the quality of medieval stone sculpture from the inside, being one of the very few artists in the country equipped to emulate it.
In my mind’s eye he is a child gazing in awe at the west front of a cathedral, absorbing the form of the stones and the aspiration of the anonymous carvers.
Form is a branch of love.
He lived this love he had discovered without sparing himself, and learnt from it things that can never be found in books. His draughtsmanship was a joy to see.
His dedication disturbed the authorities. He shared his knowledge hesitantly and shyly with his students. He hardly knew his own good. He was, in turn, respected more than he realised.
He sensed the unity of art and craft within a spiritual culture, and suffered deeply for its absence in our time.
Ross Fuller, November 2002
Sculptor and Teacher
Although he is perhaps best known for his works in replacement carving John Roberts was an original sculptor. From the 1960s he was developing creative ideas but the need to earn an income meant that he had to work on the carving of figures and ornament in cathedrals as well as teaching stone carving. Because of his enormous integrity and skill he did these other things brilliantly but his heart was always in his search for sculptural ideas.
He was drawing constantly from an early age and reading extensively around all areas of sculpture so that he must have had as profound a knowledge of styles and techniques as any art historian but he could also make things superlatively well. It was not only his knowledge and skill but also his deep spirituality and feeling for the earlier carvers that enabled him to put so much life into his carvings, so that whether reproducing an historic style or making his own sculptures he could infuse them with passion to a rare degree.
“Search” is a key to his approach to sculpture. His drawings show how he strove to get to the heart of the forms. His constant working over ideas on paper, in stone and in clay was part of the same process. “Given a choice and relative freedom from the constraints of earning a living, I would continue on this path towards finding a creative language”.
The general public will have seen his work in various cathedrals and churches but will probably not know his name. His replacement carvings include work at Lincoln Cathedral where he carved an angel in local limestone based on and replacing a 13th Century original. Some years later John, despite the doubts of experts, undertook to carve the first replacement panel of a Romanesque frieze on the west front of the cathedral which had become almost unintelligible through erosion. He was so successful that the doubters were won over by his convincing and sensitive capturing of the style. His modest reply to those who were amazed was that all he needed “was a blunt chisel and a pint of Guinness”. In fact he called upon his vast knowledge and experience.
Between 1992 and 1996 he carved six replacement panels and directed and taught others to carry on the work. In 1998 he was commissioned to carve three of the ten figures of 20th Century martyrs for the west front of Westminster Abbey. These were carved in French limestone. They were Archbishop Oscar Romero, The Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia and Manche Masemola, a young African girl, killed by her mother for becoming a Christian. He modelled her arms, hands and feet on those of his partner, Silvia MacRae Brown. He was particularly proud of this sculpture which is generally recognised as the most impressive of the ten.
The human figure inspired him: for instance, the carving 3/4 life size of Silvia in Portland stone, or his last piece, the unfinished life size bust of her (also in Portland), or the little marble nude he was working on during his last months.
He regularly did life drawing. Students and friends would sit for him for clay head studies, which he then translated freely into stone, such as the fine head of Francis Kells in Lincoln stone.
He was deeply inspired by the face of Christ on the Turin shroud and carved two heads of Christ, one to be found in the Workman’s Chapel at Lincoln Cathedral.
In 2000 he carved an exquisite little pietà in marble for a niche in Coleorton Church, Leicestershire and found that the size (11” high) demanded as much from him as the life size figures for Westminster.
In 1998 he was commissioned to make a 9ft abstract angel to be cast in bronze for a new development in Islington, London, at “Angel on the Green”. This he carved in direct plaster.
A photograph of Samuel Beckett inspired him to model in clay a much praised life size portrait which has been cast in bronze.
His life had not been easy. An only child, orphaned when he was about 8 years old (losing both parents within one year of each other) John was brought up in an aunt’s family in South Wales. Apparently he kept himself to himself and was always reading or drawing.
Following a Diploma in Art and Design at Gloucester College of Art, Cheltenham, where he specialised in sculpture, mostly abstract, in 1968 he was offered a place at the Royal Academy Schools. However, after a very uncomfortable first night in London lodgings, appalled at the noise of the city, he returned to Wales. There followed a long period of darkness and depression, years in which he made a living by a variety of labouring jobs, principally on the railways (digging trenches and laying lines) and in the steel industry (as well as picture framing).
This unproductive period came to an end when he returned to London in 1976 and by chance, whilst visiting Westminster Abbey, encountered the late Arthur Ayres who was engaged in carving replacement stone sculpture there and who also taught part-time at the City and Guilds of London Art School. John’s portfolio so impressed Ayres that he recommended the young man for the restoration, carving and gilding course.
On leaving the City and Guilds in 1978 John worked with Ayres at Westminster Abbey and at other cathedrals until 1981 when he was invited back to teach part-time at the City and Guilds Art School, where he remained as a much loved and influential tutor of both wood and stone carving until his death in 2002. During this period he continued to do restoration carving and to make his own sculpture. At first he was frustrated as he felt that his work was influenced by the medieval styles he loved and had carved so much but gradually he established his own identity as an original sculptor, as can be seen in the exhibition.
Before the cancer which led to his death John had begun to write a book about Carving in Stone* and about the material of stone. In the draft which he left behind he wrote, “There is little point in looking to fine art
centres in the English speaking world for instruction in the real techniques of sculpture in general or stone carving in particular, for with very few exceptions they are now dominated by an ethos that denies the value of skill, craft or even drawing. Fine art courses now often call themselves “ideas based”, but whether the ideas are profound or puerile is often difficult to detect”.
As a teacher, John had exacting standards. He did not volunteer information easily but, when asked, was generous with his knowledge and skill. If students were sometimes frustrated because he had disappeared they could always find him in the sculpture school, where his heart really belonged, or in the library enlarging his knowledge. His demonstrations on students’ work stood out because of the mastery of the forms and trueness of cut. He loved the City and Guilds and his students. He was always fair in his assessment of their performance and often revealed a dry sense of humour.
There is a saying of Meister Eckhart, which John knew well: “…man ought not to work for any why, not for God nor for his glory nor for anything at all that is outside him, but only for that which is his being, his very life within him…work as though no one existed, no one lived, no one had ever come upon earth”.
John’s last commission was the carving of a life size baby nestling in a hand for ‘Sands’, a charity for the still-born child. Although weak with cancer which had suddenly made itself felt, he struggled daily with a heavy angle grinder beyond the call of duty to complete the fixing of the sculpture in Sheen Cemetery, Richmond.
John lived his work and carved with profound sincerity and feeling. He was not materialistic. He had a deep interest in religion, especially Christianity and Buddhism. He was quietly ambitious. He would have liked to be more noticed for his work. However, his monument will be not only his sculptures, but also his legacy in his students’ minds and hands.
Senior Carving Tutor, City & Guilds of London Art School, November 2002
* John’s book, Stonecarving, is being completed by Dick Onians and will eventually be published by The Crowood Press (www.crowood.com)