The Storyteller

Monday 9 July 2018

That fateful phrase, “Anything's possible”, spoken by Peter Benson in early 1997, started a chain of events still affecting the lives of six carvers today. The first “anything” was a full-size polar bear for the 49th Division's memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.

After the dedication of the bear, in June 1998, a small group of us continued to meet at Peter's workshop once a week and started work on a Golden Eagle, with a seven-foot wingspan. It was for the Berlin Airlift Association's memorial in the same Arboretum. Nearing the end of this project we were asked by the Director of the Arboretum, David Childs, if we could carve something for the chapel. It transpired that he had envisaged a cross for the chapel wall, but he didn't tell us that at the time.

We discussed ideas with our group members and came up with a brief. By the next meeting we had all given some thought to the points discussed and had fixed on the idea of a storyteller, evolved from memories of a picture of Jesus surrounded by children. Mindful of political correctness we thought our central figure would need to have multi-faith appeal, but we were in agreement that our children would be British and in present-day dress, because we couldn't possibly represent all races and cultures.

Having made this decision we moved to the practical side of our sculpture and wondered how we could arrange a group of figures, on different levels, where they could all be seen. One of our group, Ted Jeffery, had specialised in building staircases during his working life so the suggestion was made that he construct a quarter scale staircase, from cherry, as a backdrop for our storyteller and children.

Our next step was to make some very crude Plasticine models to decide how many figures we could accommodate. It seemed 12 would be reasonable and it was easy to imagine this number of different poses children might adopt when listening to stories.

We put our idea to David Childs, who was very enthusiastic but requested that the storyteller was Jesus in traditional dress, particularly as this chapel is the only church to be built specifically to celebrate the millennium. We were very happy to go along with this request.

Next came the task of roping in family and friends to be photographed in the chosen positions. This proved easier than expected because everyone showed enormous enthusiasm for the project, and in fact at one stage we had volunteers asking if they could be models. Each model was photographed from four angles, posing on a turntable, rotated 90 degrees at a time. Measurements were taken from the models so we could make reasonably accurate quarter-scale drawings. We each chose two figures and, at a meeting in early February, we sorted out pieces of lime, drew silhouettes, bandsawed the shapes and started carving.

It engrossed us

We had agreed early on that we would continue with other carvings, keeping our storyteller figures for our weekly meetings. This idea fell apart early on when we all became so engrossed in carving the children that we abandoned most other work. We relied on one another to attain a high standard for the finished sculpture, so we paid more attention to detail than we would have done for an individual piece. Within the group there was very diverse experience of figure carving but we tried to produce a consistent style and regularly monitored one another's work. The only part of each carving that could not be finished was the eyes, because we had not made any final decisions on the positions and all the children had to be looking at Jesus.

Things slowed down a little during March while we worked on a commission to help towards expenses involved in creating The Storyteller, but after that progress was good and the first time we were able to sit Jesus on the stairs was quite an event. Suddenly we could visualise the effect of adding the children, although it was April before we were able to put the staircase and some nearly finished figures together.

Ways to end the staircase provoked much discussion. It had to be supported and one idea was a wall that continued up past the level of the landing floor, finishing in a kind of cut-away style. The other suggestion was ending the wall at floor level, leaving the landing open, to imply it could lead anywhere the imagination took you. In the end, the second idea gained everyone's approval.

When we started this project we had no deadline and had been happy with the thought that we could finish in our own time. David Childs had taken an interest in our progress right from the start and eventually visited us in mid-June, when he mentioned, casually, that the chapel was to be dedicated in early November and, of course, The Storyteller would be one of the big attractions. We didn't panic until he had left! Peter had arranged a visit to the USA in October so this meant the sculpture had to be completed by the end of September, giving us three months to finish.

Fast work

Back to, “Anything's possible” and suddenly we were working faster than some of us had ever worked before. We also decided another two children were needed so models had to be found, photographs taken and the figures carved in record time. Ted Jeffery came up with a design for the base, constructed from reclaimed English oak, which represented a pair of hands holding the table, and David Childs gave us an inscription, “The past is the key to the future”

We did get it finished on time, proving Peter right (again!) and while he was away during October three of us took the sculpture to the Arboretum and installed it in the chapel. It was only a couple of weeks before the dedication and we were a little dismayed to find ourselves working in the middle of a building site, with no power and decorators up ladders painting the walls, but we fixed the table to the wall, pegged and glued the figures in place, covered the whole thing with a cloth and hoped for the best.

On 2 November, 2000 we attended the dedication of this beautiful chapel and felt extremely privileged to have been able to make a contribution.