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The Vermiculated Ashlar
Hand-carved plaster
1125w x 715d x 1320h
Commissioned by HSBC Private Bank & the London Design Festival

I was invited by HSBC Private Bank in conjunction with the London Design Festival to submit a proposal for a piece of work that would come under the umbrella term ‘The Connection Collection’ which is a project that HSBC Private Bank set up last year. The design that I create is going to be first presented in the Victoria & Albert Museum, but then later would be housed permanently in the headquarters of HSBC Private Bank.

They were my two locations to consider when designing my concept. Actually I began with both simultaneously, but really focussed my attention on where my design would be presented in the Victoria & Albert Museum. I decided to focus my attention on the Cast Courts. The thing that I really like about the Cast Courts is firstly the scale and the impact and the size of the work. Also the fact that when you walk in you don’t immediately know that everything is created in plaster.

Plaster is used as a modelling material to replicate masters from around the world – marble statues and sandstone buildings and bronzes. Having selected the Cast Courts, plaster was the obvious choice of material to focus on. What can I do with plaster? How has plaster been used traditionally by artists and sculptors? How do I make it significant and relevant to HSBC Private Bank?

I began with their headquarters, this building that we’re sitting in now. The building was designed in 1840 by Sydney Smirke, a British architect. I identified a few different locations within the building that could potentially be a good spot for me to take a cast from or take a mould from to then cast in plaster. I started in the foyer, the lobby area, the main entrance as you walk into the building which will actually be the final home for my piece of work. But actually what I decided to do in the end was take a section of the exterior of the building. All the stone blocks originally are called ashlar. This type of block is a different type of ashlar and was commonly used in the 18th and the 19th centuries for the ground level of a building. This process of carving a texture into it is called vermiculation. And that actually goes on to provide the title for my piece of work. The title I came up with is ‘Vermiculated Ashlar’.

Every single object that has been cast in the Victoria & Albert Museum, all of which are replicas, every single one is presented on a plinth. I decided to use the vermiculated ashlar as that plinth. So my carved work will be sat upon a cast section of the building. So I just need to very careful how I peel it and don’t be too anxious. But can you can see how it’s really picked up the detail very, very well.

So once I have the four rubber moulds and I’ve built my box mould, the cavity mould, I will start the casting process.

So this whole block of plaster was surrounded by MDF blocks with these lining the inside, so as I filled the block with plaster it filled up and the plaster, being a liquid, runs into all the detail. So after an hour I removed the four sides. It was very, very hot, there was steam coming up into the air and I was able to peel back these rubber panels. There was one on each of the four sides so we get one entire ashlar block recreated in plaster with this large and very plain monolithic plaster block on top. So I’m going to start removing the material now by hammer and chisel.

I’ve got a variety of different chisels. Every hit with the hammer and every knock with the chisel needs to be in the right place and at the right angle. As I got deeper into the block of plaster, I slowed down significantly. I had to be more controlled in the material that I was removing. It’s very difficult to know exactly where you’ re going until you’re there. And then once you’re there it can be too late if you’ve gone too far.

I’ve been working on it the last three weeks, carving, and I’ve been working on it pretty much every day. The last four or five days I’ve been working 14-15 hour days on it.

We installed the piece last night. The whole time I was making the piece, I just couldn’t get over how big it was, how grand and overpowering the size of the block of plaster was until we brought it in here last night. So for the last two months I’ve thought that this thing was going to be absolutely huge, but then we bring it in here into the Cast Courts and all of a sudden it’s dwarfed by everything else. It was a conscious decision to reveal the process by which it’s been carved, that is, using hammer and chisel. I haven’ t honed it, I haven’t sanded it or anything like that. I wanted that process of removing material to be really present and really apparent. Although it is a block of plaster, it is still a block of stone. It’s stone turned to powder and then when mixed with water becomes stone again. It’s very, very hard plaster, so it has far more resemblance to sandstone actually, very similar to the stone that was used to build 78 St James’s. In this particular case I’ve actually made my own stone rather than finding a natural block of stone. I removed one ashlar from the HSBC building and it’ s here now in the V&A. It’s a very graphic, bold object. And on top is this very organic, hand-carved piece of furniture for sitting on and it’s sitting here in the east wing of the Cast Courts in the V&A.