They were the offcuts no one else wanted, but Phil Penfold meets the former motor mechanic who is turning Yorkshire stone into works of art
Some of the best ideas occur on the spur of the moment. Think of Percy Shaw, of Halifax, driving home one night in 1933, seeing his car headlights reflected from the eyes of a passing moggie on the road. Percy subsequently made a fortune from cat’s eyes. Or ponder the humble paper-clip. That one was thought up by Norwegian Johan Vaaler in 1899.
John Harris wouldn’t claim to be up there with those inventors, but he did have his own Eureka! moment.
Now 45, and based in Barnby Dun in South Yorkshire, John started out as a motor mechanic, working on cars in garages, and then turned his energies to joinery. Born in nearby Intake, he “muddled along,” making a living and paying the bills.
“I wasn’t unhappy, but I wasn’t full of the joys of spring,” he says. “I was like a lot of folk, just getting by and getting through. I’d given up the car work because, well, it’s all really rather boring these days, cars are so mass produced that it is all very much of a muchness. It was like trainspotting diesel units after steam locomotives.”
Let’s cut to the day when John was visiting the farm run by the uncle of his wife Jane, over the border in Derbyshire.
“He’s a bit of a Jack of all trades,” smiles John. “He told me that he’d been making a lot of very large stone troughs for people. Troughs need drainage, so he had to drill through the stone to create the hole. I picked up one of the redundant stone circles and I said to him, ‘Well, that’s just waste – what are you going to do with it?’ He said it would be either landfill or used as cobbles. Something just clicked in my head. I knew that they had to have a use. My wife Jane loves candles and tealights, and she suggested sinking a little dip into the top of them. Our business was born.”
For a while, John kept his day job, working part of the week as a joiner, but the rest of the time he spent learning the business of stone carving.
“I started out by showing and selling stuff to friends and relations,” he admits. “But you can only give and sell so much to that circle of people. But then others began to see what I did, and the orders started coming in. I realised that yes, there was a commercial market. Things are still very much a work in progress, but I learn something new every day.”
John uses Yorkshire stone from quarries at Woodkirk, nearly Morley, and Graham’s Quarry at Holmfirth. He goes out, picks out what he needs, and runs it back in his own van to his stonecutter’s studio at Whitehouse Farm in the village.
“How the suspension copes, heaven only knows. The lads at the quarries know me pretty well by now, and they often look out stabs and lumps of stone that I might be interested in. They know that it won’t be suitable for some of their bigger projects, but the colour, the structure, the texture and the shapes might just suit me. It nearly always does.”
Nothing goes to waste in John’s workshop, which is in an ancient barn (next to thriving livery stables) and which has a cold breeze ripping through it in the winter.
“You know, I’ve never worked anywhere that’s warm. In cold garages when I was younger, in cold houses when I was a joiner, and now in a converted barn open to the winds and weather….I wonder what that says about me?”
His objects range from featherlight coasters to items around 22st water features and in between there’s everything from wine racks to Picasso-inspired lamp bases.
“I think that people realise that they are all true one-offs,” he says. “Everything is different. The stone is millions of years old – how can you ever possibly repeat a pattern on it?”
John reckons that he always had an eye for the unusual and the beautiful.
“I did, and do, enjoy drawing and art,” he says. “But if you’d have told me, even eight years ago, that I’d be running my own business, in a completely new field, and creating works in stone, I’d have thought you’d either had one too many, or that you were completely barmy. If customers ask, or make suggestions, I’ll have a go at anything. Do I ever get frustrated or annoyed? Well, yes – stone can fracture and chip, and sometimes you just have to sigh and move on.”
So what did Jane think when her husband suggested that he take a totally different fork in the road?
“He’s an amazing man,” she says proudly. “It’s been five years now, and he and the business go from strength to strength. He started in tough economic times, and he’s made a success of it. He’s proof that if you have a good idea, and the will to make it work, it will happen.”
And next? “Well”, he says, “I’d like to get some sort of design studio up and running at the farm during this year, so that potential customers can come along, and see what I make, in an environment that might inspire them.”
Further details from: www.yorkshirestonedesigns.co.uk