Updated: Nov 12, 2020
Louis Francis is a stonemason and a master letter carver who runs a successful business from his studio at Westbury. Louis carves by hand to produce high quality artwork and is the first deaf stone mason in the United Kingdom. By employing traditional craftsmanship methods, Louis provides his customers the chance to buy truly unique products.
I was fortunate enough to catch up with Louis before this second lockdown to find out a little more about his craft and his business.
Stonemasonry is an age old craft which is still performed today by skilled craftspeople. In fact it's one of the earliest crafts in civilization’s history. Dating right back to the Neolithic Revolution, the first stonemasons learned how to use fire to create quicklime, plasters, and mortars. These materials were then used to build homes with mud, straw, and stone. And, as they say, the rest is history – the profession of stonemasonry was born.
From this point, stonemasonry has continued to play a major role throughout human civilization. The Egyptians built their pyramids, Central American civilizations built their step pyramids, the Greeks built their temples…virtually every civilization in existence has their own iconic symbols and structures, the vast majority of which were crafted by the stonemasons of the time.
During the medieval times masons tended to live nomadic lives travelling to where the work was. A mason who was at the top of his trade was a Master Mason, a highly skilled professional, many if not all masons learnt their craft through an informal apprenticeship system. The Master Mason would train an apprentice for a period of 7 years with no pay! Once the apprenticeship was completed the newly qualified mason became a "Journeyman" and they were free to travel or "journey" to where the work was.
Masons in medieval England were highly skilled, the testimony to their work stands today in the numerous cathedrals and castles that still exist.
HOW DID YOU LEARN THE ART OF STONEMASONRY AND WHY STONEMASONRY?
I was always good at art and after school went onto do a Foundation Diploma at Central St Martins Art School in London, followed by a 3 year City & Guilds Diploma in Historic Architectural Stone Carving.
Whilst doing the Foundation course I found I was good at sculpting and making things so it was at this point I developed my 3D work as well as my 2D work. I called this my "experiment" year!
I'm profoundly deaf and I would often have an interpreter with me - during my Foundation course I remember having a chat with my interpreter, who also happened to have worked in lots of art schools. He thought that my skills lay in sculpting and stone carving so encouraged me to apply for a sculpting course, which is how I ended up doing the 3 year City & Guilds Diploma in Stone Carving.
After completing the 3 year Diploma I started to look for work, however it was much more difficult than I had anticipated. I had no experience and this seemed to go against me! So I thought I would give freelancing a go - I didn't have a workshop so I had no choice but to work from home.
I started off doing small projects like wedding gifts, I would buy offcuts of stone, waste that was being thrown out! I also started doing lots of headstones, this was such a fantastic experience for me as it enabled the speed and quality of my work to improve drastically.
Friends and family kept telling me to set up on my own and start my own business. I happened across an advert for workshop space at Westbury Arts Centre and that's where I started my business.
I NOTICE THAT YOU HAD SOME BUSINESS SUPPORT FROM THE SHAW TRUST, TELL ME ABOUT THEM?
I was introduced to the Shaw Trust through the job centre. The Shaw Trust is a charity in the UK which help disabled and disadvantaged people into employment. I had visited the job centre to ask for advice on setting up my own business, It was through this initial visit that I was referred to the Shaw Trust.
I had a one to one meeting with a business advisor and interpreter, and with their guidance I drew up a business and action plan. It was here that the inception of "Louis Francis Stone Design" was thought up!
The Shaw Trust really did give me so much helpful advice not only with the business plan but with marketing too, they also assisted me in securing some funding which helped me purchase the tools I needed. This was a great turning point in my career as the Shaw Trust helped equip me with the knowledge and confidence to set up on my own and it definitely helped spearhead my business!
YOU HAVE A STUDIO AT WESTBURY, TELL ME HOW LONG YOU’VE BEEN HERE AND WHAT WESTBURY MEANS TO YOU?
I’ve been at Westbury for around 5 years – This is my world, beautiful surroundings and my happy place is in the workshop.
TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOUR BUSINEES, WHAT SORT OF COMMISSIONS ARE YOU LIKELY TO TAKE ON?
Every project is always different it depends on the client and what they're looking for. I mostly do headstones and fireplaces, they're definitely at the forefront of my business.
Letter carving on the headstones is so important, a beautiful example of lettering will make you stop and look, with careful consideration being given to convey the sentiment through the composition, design and size of the letter with the inscribed message honouring a loved one for years to come.
IT TAKES GREAT SKILL TO CARVE LETTERING, HOW MANY YEARS DOES IT TAKE SOMEONE TO MASTER THE CRAFT?
I was lucky, when I finished my diploma and went freelance, there was a lot of work that was ongoing, it enabled me to pick up experience quickly. It does depend on the type of person and their experience and how much work they’re doing.
You need to take your time whilst carving letters and maintain a lightness of touch.
WHAT'S YOUR PROCESS WHEN PRODUCING A PIECE OF WORK FOR A CUSTOMER?
The process begins with an initial consultation in the studio, I have to ensure I have an interpreter with me. I will gather and brainstorm any ideas or requirements a client may have. The client will usually have a vision and I'll offer my ideas too. I will then guide the client through all the important details, for example if it's for a headstone I'll talk through the rules and regulations for the churchyard/cemetery. Cemetery rules dictate that only certain stone can be used, so we'll look at the different stone types as well as the lettering font and carvings. We'll discuss the message they would like on the headstone; date of death, date of birth, background of the person.
From this, I'll create a design, I usually have 2 or 3 examples for them to choose from. Once a design has been approved by the client, the stone can be ordered and the design carved out. This can be a lengthy process but it is important not to rush. All letter carving is done by hand from designing the template to the carving itself.
WHAT'S YOUR PROUDEST MOMENT?
In 2014 I worked on the project "Imaginative Sculpture: Protecting the Sacred Space", a collaboration between St Georges Chapel at Windsor Castle and the City & Guilds London Art School.
It was carving programme set up to replace heavily eroded Victorian grotesques. The replacement sculptures aimed to produce the scale and detail of the original medieval conception, however we were able to be inventive in producing new designs. Our brief was to produce something which was a little bit frightening. I chose a Cobra for my design, I was invited to the ceremony at St George’s chapel following its installation. Something I am very proud of.
My Cobra is now installed on St Georges Chapel, Windsor.
DO YOU GET CHANCE TO WORK ON YOUR OWN PROJECTS?
It's hard to find the time to spend on my own artwork, although during the first lockdown I did have a little more time to dedicate towards my own projects.
I have been working towards an exhibition which was due to take place in November at the Gallery Different in Fitzrovia , London www.gallerydifferent.co.uk
Due to Covid the exhibition is now no longer a live event but it is due to be shown online.
The exhibition is for stone work and sculpting, it's showcasing work that has been produced during lockdown. I had to apply and was successful in getting chosen to exhibit - they were very keen to have my work on show!
Any work sold will have a percentage going towards a charity for art funding and supports work for stone masons.
I have exhibited in a few smaller exhibitions, this one however is big, it's a gateway to meeting other artists it's a very exciting time.
WHO INSPIRES YOU?
I visit lots of art galleries and museums. I particular enjoy looking at work by Michelangelo, my favourite sculpture by far is "David". There's a replica of the statue in the V&A museum in London where I often go, the original is in Italy.
"David" is one of my favourite sculptures.
HOW DID YOU MANAGE WITH THE FIRST LOCKDOWN, DID YOU MANAGE TO CONTINUE WITH YOUR WORK?
At first I saw my workload significantly reduce so I had no choice but to think of new innovative ways to market my business. I mainly use social media and through a couple of promotions I've gained so many more followers. Prior to Covid it was always hard to find the time to market my business.
The extra marketing saw an increase in work, the orders just kept coming in from far and wide, I got incredibly busy. I now have a 6 month waiting list for headstone orders!
AND FINALLY TELL ME WHAT YOU LOVE ABOUT BEING A STONE MASON?
Definitely the process of carving, no one else around just me and the stone, it's very meditative!
The ancient art of carving letters into stone to create a permanent record is as old as writing itself. A precise and patient discipline, there is something quite magical about seeing words and thoughts so eternally and literally 'set in stone'..........
To view more of Louis work you can visit his website at: https://www.francisstonedesign.co.uk/