20 Minutes with Peter Benson

Monday 9 July 2018

When did you start to carve?

I drifted into it as a small boy. As a wartime kid and an evacuee, any toys I might have had were usually homemade. Someone gave me a penknife and it was well used producing bows and arrows, wooden guns and knives, airplanes, doodlebugs and so on. The first conscious woodcarving I made was a rather crude rearing horse, which I still have, done when I was around 12 or 13.

What made you continue carving?

Like all young boys I was somewhat butterfly minded and drifted from one thing to another but by the age of 16 or 17, I realised that it was something I could do that no one else I knew could. It was still an on-off thing for many years until I was asked to run an Adult Education class in 1964. Once this class was established, I had little choice but to keep carving. I think teaching is the best thing for this sort of discipline. What keeps me going now is the search for perfection. I feel that I am learning more now than I have ever done. I firmly believe that there is no such thing as an expert carver as you never stop learning and hopefully improving. If you feel you know it all you might as well give up because you are going nowhere.

What is it that inspires you when you carve?

The need to prove to myself that I can do it. I am very competitive, particularly versus myself. I need to achieve and need the proof that I have done so. I have dozens of carvings that I still want to do. The biggest inspiration is when one of my students produces a good piece and this really fires me to start something else. I have no desire to compete with them but seeing any really nice piece from whatever source renews my enthusiasm.

What projects are you currently working on?

I think about ten pieces of varying urgency. My team are producing a 3ft wren for the National Memorial Arboretum, I have two Arab horses and a kingfisher under way as commissions, and four netsukes in different materials at various stages, and two relief carvings of a cheetah pursuing an antelope and the other of a young woman. These latter two get put to one side when something important or urgent turns up. They are just for pleasure and will be finished one day.

Which tool would you not be without and why?

Probably a pencil! Otherwise I think I would put three tools equal first. A 1/4in No.9, a 5/16in No.54 x3, and a 1/4in No.39 V-tool. I find these the most versatile.

Which is your preferred style of carving and why?

I love carving figures and animals in the round, and love relief for the challenge but I think my real passion is carving small: netsuke and other miniature carvings. I like being able to create life and action in miniature. I can let my imagination run wild and create my own little world in a small piece of exotic wood.

What do you think has been your biggest achievement?

The most impressive and difficult was the 2.5-ton full-sized Polar Bear for the memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum. This was magic and changed so many lives. It also brought together the carving team that has continued to work for the Arboretum for the last 12 years. As a complete contrast, my best and most valued piece is a netsuke of an old man sleeping over his book, carved from an old snooker ball.

Whose work do you most admire?

Great modern carvers like Ian Norbury, Chris Pye, Ray Gonzalez and Mike Painter have all had a tremendous influence over the years, as well as classical carvers like Grinling Gibbons and Tilman Riemenschneider. Stan Kimm has been someone to beat in miniature carving competitions for around 40 years.

I greatly admire the work of Fred Zavadil from Canada; his figure work is amazing. Lastly in the world of netsuke I would be delighted if I could carve like Sue Wraight in Australia or Clive Hallam in the UK. I have learnt so much from all of these people.

If you were not a carver what would you be?

Probably a musician. I feel equally passionate about music but would need to spend an equal amount of time to be even competent and there is not that time in the day. I think that there are far more musicians around and do not think I could ever be good enough to make any sort of impression.

Describe the view from your workbench and the area where you live

I have a netsuke carving station in my lounge not too far from the TV. I have always been an armchair carver so do as much as I can indoors. My workshop is in an old stable block in a corner of the garden, which is surrounded by trees and farmland.

Do you like to listen to music when you carve?

Sometimes if I am on my own but I am usually carving with others and singing along to Chas and Dave is not always popular!

Who or where would you most like to carve for?

I get the most fun out of carving for children. I do not really like commissions as there are too many constraints. I get a great deal of pleasure carving with the team for the Arboretum. It would be a heck of a buzz to carve something for Royalty or a really famous person.

Are you a self-critic of your work?

Definitely. I have never carved anything with which I am satisfied. I think if I reached a point where I was completely happy with a carving I would probably give up and do something else.