A family history carved in stone

Stephen Blackwell runs Blackwell’s Stonecraft, one of Monument Meadow’s trusted suppliers. He celebrates the traditional skills of the artisan mason and believes the art of storytelling remains set in stone. This is his story:

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“I fell in love with working with stone as a boy. I was around ten when I started helping my grandfather, Thomas Edwin Blackwell, and by 14 I was already hand-cutting letters. I then left school and worked with him for five years before he retired. I spent a lot of time in churchyards, working in all weathers, in those early days — but I was hooked.

“I’m now the 12th generation of stonemasons in the Blackwell family. It’s a tradition dating back to the 17th century when Henry Blackwell, a lead miner born 1641, left a Derbyshire village to set up a lead-mining village near Ysceifiog in Flintshire. After Henry’s death, his grandson, Gabriel set up a masonry yard in North Wales. We’ve been crafting stone ever since.

“I still enjoy the creativity of starting with a blank piece of stone and forming a long-lasting piece of art that will endure for future generations. But I always feel a great sense of responsibility when crafting a stone. There’s no sense in rushing it. I’m still always sweating as I apply that last full stop, using my favourite 1.75lb hammer and a tungsten-tipped chisel.

“I also strive to find the best materials. My brother, Michael, and I have been around the world, searching for materials in Brazil, China and Italy. I love working with Indian granite for its durability and high polish. The Welsh slate we use at Monument Meadow is also a beautiful material to work with for its sharp contrast of letters and durability.

“I’d say around 90 per cent of our work is memorial-based monuments. I firmly believe in the need for a memorial after bereavement. It provides a focal point for quiet reflection. My role, therefore, is to craft something beautiful and in-keeping with the surroundings. The words I chisel into the stone are deeply personal to each family. They must convey the sense of dignity and respect befitting every unique life.

“We’re approaching the 300-year anniversary of Blackwell’s Stonecraft, having produced at least one stonemason for each generation. My son, Jack, is now learning the unique skill of hand-cutting letters, which has been passed down through the generations. He is learning the three key areas of training: fixing masonry, banker masonry (carving) and letter writing.

“The way we have taught Jack is based around the same techniques that our ancestor, Gabriel Blackwell, first used in the 1700s. We’re still creating shapes through complex geometry, using set square and compasses.

“Technological innovation may have changed the industry over the last 20 years but it’s important to me that we still do some of the work by hand. The skill of masonry going forward is about combining the old ways with the new.”

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Grandad tom blackwell