Halifax-born Jennifer Tetlow became a stone sculptor after working part-time in a quarry. Chris Bond paid her a visit in her converted North Yorkshire workshop.
Most artists will tell you that their line of work can be a solitary existence.
Jennifer Tetlow, though, is never alone when she’s chiselling away at one of her sculptures or carvings.
She has Yan, Wotteth and Digit who loiter around her workshop and keep an eye on it when she’s not around. The only downside, or perhaps it’s a blessing, is they aren’t great conversationalists. But then again they are geese.
“They actually chat to me a lot! And me to them. They’re my companions,” says Jennifer, smiling. “When I took over the shed from the farmer here the geese were in the shed. So I rang him up and said ‘there are some geese here, what do you want me to do with them?’ and he said, ‘oh, they come with the shed.’
“They were very hissy to begin with but they’ve calmed down quite a lot now and they’re lovely. They’re great characters to have around.”
The shed in question is now her workshop, a brisk five minute walk from her home in the tiny, scenic village of Lastingham, in Ryedale, tucked away from the busy tourist trail of the North York Moors.
Jennifer moved here with her partner in 2000, converting the shed into a workshop. “When I took it over it was pretty dilapidated so I rebuilt it. I put the roof on and did the block work, it was very satisfying when it was all done.”
From here she makes everything from garden ornaments, such as sun dials and bird baths, to detailed figurative sculptures. She gets the majority of her stone from Yorkshire which she brings back from the quarry. “My favourite material is Yorkshire sandstone. It’s a durable stone, it’s a beautiful colour and it weathers well. It also has a fine grain so you can get some really sharp carving details.”
She also works in marble, alabaster and limestone and has been a full-time artist and carver for nearly 20 years now. “It seems a long time when you say it but when it comes to learning about stone and carving it’s such a short space of time really.”
What makes her story all the more impressive is the fact she’s self-taught. “If I’d been switched on when I was younger I probably would have got an apprenticeship or masonry training somewhere but I didn’t and I went down a different route. Which is fine. It just took me longer in terms of learning about stone.’”
Jennifer grew up in Halifax and after leaving school she spent several years doing secretarial work before discovering an affinity for stone. “I used to walk my dog along a path which led round an old disused quarry, and one day they must have reopened it for a time because there were some men working and the sound of the hammer and the chisel on the stone and the rhythm of the work fascinated me, and I thought ‘I’d love to have a go at that.’”
Having watched the men at the quarry dressing stone she tried to replicate what they did and bought a hammer and chisel and began practising in her cellar at home. “What I was making was very much in the West Yorkshire style of dressing and facing stone, I was making things like sundials and doing lettering, that kind of thing.”
By this time she had set her heart on become a stone sculptor. “I had a part-time job in a quarry and I worked in a pie factory and a tumble dryer factory just to supplement what I was doing, because it takes time to get going when you first start out making a living from sculpture.”
Jennifer says she was fortunate to receive some invaluable help when she started out. “A retired mason heard about me and one day he came round and said ‘I just thought I’d come and check and make sure you’re doing it right.’ He brought me a book called Modern Practical Masonry written in the 1920s, which became my bible. It had the names of tools and explained how masons fixed stone. It was a wonderful gift and from time to time he would pop in and give me the odd tip.”
She took some of her work to the Harrogate Spring Flower Show back in 2002. “I didn’t know what people would think of my work but it was a fantastic few days. I sold pieces and got several orders and it made me realise that this was really what I wanted to do.”
On the back of this success she took her work to other RHS flower shows at places like Chelsea and Hampton Court and travelled all over the country, hauling her work to craft shows and outdoor sculpture events. “When I first started I couldn’t afford lifting equipment so I only made sculptures and carvings I could carry, and then I got more ambitious as commissions started coming in.”
This led to her buying a small forklift truck. “It’s physically demanding work but I think there must be something in my personality that enjoys that physical aspect of carving stone. It’s hard work and sometimes my knuckles are raw, but at the same time it’s exhilarating and you feel like you’ve done a day’s work.”
Jennifer, 58, spends much of her time in her workshop, irrespective of the weather. “There were a couple of days last winter that were very short because there’s no power here and it can get very cold, but if I’m not here I quickly miss it.”
It’s not hard to see why. With a woodland in one direction and fields in another, it’s a landscape you can’t help but be inspired by. “In the winter it becomes really open, with a line of silhouetted trees, but the cupping contour of the land makes it feel a bit like a nest and I like that, it’s quite comforting.”
Nature is an integral part of her work and she feels at home here. “I know where the buzzards fly, where the blue tits nest, and watch the farming patterns and it makes me feel connected to this landscape. If I see a hedgehog or a vole I get excited watching the wildness of it and it makes me feel a bit wild as well and immediately I want to express that in stone.”
Jennifer gives talks about stone carving to various art societies and groups and has enjoyed exhibitions up and down the country. She’s also taken part in North Yorkshire Open Studios – an annual event where artists and sculptors open their studios for the public to visit.
Her passion for her craft is obvious. “There’s mystery in it,” she says. “There’s a sensation that comes from putting the chisel into the stone which is sublime to me.
“I love the smell and sound of stone, it has a whole character and personality which I become completely lost in, and I’m glad of every single thing it teaches me. It’s teaches me about geology and patience, it teaches me about the planet and it teaches me about shape and form.
“I’m extremely fortunate to be able to earn a living from my work. People seem to like my carvings... touch wood.” Or stone, even.