FIREPLACE THAT LIT A PASSION FOR SCULPTURE
This month Elestr Lee meets long-time Caversham resident Roger Smalley, who discovered a talent for working in stone through one of those classic 80s DIY projects…
OUR ARTIST grew up in Earley, Reading. Having moved to Gosbrook Road during the 1980s, he was faced with the familiar 80s horror story – a boarded-up fireplace. Having freed up the fireplace, Roger decided it would be good to replace the stone surround that would originally have been a feature of the room, so he visited the stonemason AF Jones – many of us will have passed their outlet on the A4074 near Ipsden.
“I bought some stone and started cutting it to fit the fireplace, and I really got into working with it. So when I’d finished, I went back, and asked if I could look through their skip!” Roger, a former civil servant, remembers.
Initially he was entirely self-taught, using chisels and tools from local DIY stores. Roger quickly became absorbed in his new interest in sculpting stone, reading up on techniques, and acquiring specialist tools. Having joined Reading Guild of Artists in the early 2000s, he was thrilled to be invited to become sculptor Eric Stanford’s part-time assistant. “My family is not at all artistic, and I had no training. I used to travel to Eric’s home in Devizes every Friday, then work with Eric at the weekend. This was the most artistic environment I had ever been in,” he recalls.
The garage at Roger’s Caversham home has been converted into a studio. Now retired, creating his sculptures (as well as collages, which he prefers to concentrate on in the chilly winter months) has become Roger’s passion. His materials of choice are limestone or polyphant, a form of soapstone, which can be polished to create a beautiful shiny surface. Roger makes a range of pieces suitable for gardens, and also smaller indoor sculptures. As well as using newly quarried stone, he is very interested in re-using unwanted pieces of pre-worked material.
“Sometimes I get in touch with a verger and ask if I can take away any broken stonework from graveyards. I visit demolition sites, or even find things locally – I spotted a damaged decorative balustrade being removed from Reading Bridge, which they told me was being thrown away. So I have re-used that as part of a sculpture,” Roger explains. He also acquires broken bits and pieces from junk shops – old lamps for example – and incorporates various quirky parts into his designs.
“I am always drawing and doodling, it’s something I have done since my teenage years,” he says. “Sometimes, when I sit down with a piece of stone, I have a definite idea, which I draw on to the stone. But on other occasions, I just start chipping – and see where it goes!”
As well as being a member of the RGA, Roger is proud to be a longstanding member of the Caversham Arts Trail – “I was a trailblazer,” he laughs, and believes he has only ever missed one year since the event started (though of course, the event has been ‘on hold’ since the pandemic). “I miss the trail and the ‘open studios’. It’s the nearest I get to being able to sell my work direct to the public, as there’s no independent art gallery in Reading nowadays. Usually I show my work at both the Reading and Henley Guilds – it’s good to have these events to work towards. Without them, it’s easy to drift.”
Roger is now using Instagram to show his work; otherwise, the pandemic has not affected his creative output. “I work on my own, in any case, and it is quite solitary at the best of times,” he explains. “I can’t work with anyone else, as I don’t like to use goggles or a mask. So in many respects I have been quite insulated from the pandemic. I can get on with things without any interruption.
“I was never very career-orientated. Now I have retired, art has become an end in itself. I’m not under any pressure, and I have the freedom to do what I want to do!”