A woman of letters

Sculptor Pip Hall working on a Penrhyn slate memorial  in her studio at Cowgill in Dentdale.
Sculptor Pip Hall working on a Penrhyn slate memorial in her studio at Cowgill in Dentdale.
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Yvette Huddlestone meets Pip Hall, who earns a living working in the tradition of lettercarving in stone.

It is an extraordinary tradition,” says lettercarver Pip Hall sitting in her studio in what used to be the old schoolhouse in the village of Cowgill in Dentdale.

“The skill goes back to one person a hundred years ago, Edward Johnston, the father of modern lettering, who taught Eric Gill; Gill taught David Kindersley, who taught his own son Richard, who taught Alec Peever, who was my teacher.”

Pip has recently renovated the main building of the schoolhouse where she lives – to which her studio is attached – and, in addition to her commissioned work, she has started running residential art courses.

“I am leading a three-day lettercarving course this weekend and am planning more for next year,” she says. “I will also host courses run by others such as watercolour painting, willow weaving, writing and wildflower walks. The school was closed down in the 1960s so it is good that it is becoming a place of learning again.”

Pip, who moved to Dentdale from Reading in 2005, is one of around 70 people in the UK who are earning a living from lettercarving in stone and is proud of being part of the profession’s rich heritage.

She is now passing on her knowledge to others through her residential courses, set up with funding from the Memorial Arts Charity, based in Suffolk, with which she has been associated for many years.

“The charity has been so crucial to the development of lettercarving in this country, and beyond, over the last 20 years,” says Pip. “It was set up by Harriet Frazer who started out wanting to find someone to carve a memorial for her daughter; she is a supporter.” The charity’s aim is to support and encourage memorial art and lettercarving skills and since 1998 has been running an apprenticeship scheme and lettercarving workshops throughout the UK.

Pip has herself contributed to the continuation of the skill of lettercarving by taking on an apprentice, Wayne Hart, for a two-year training period funded by the charity. “Because I learnt in a studio, I felt it was right to teach someone in mine,” says Pip. “I feel a responsibility to carry on the practice, to take pleasure in continuing the exploration of lettering as fine craft and an expressive art form.”

Pip has been a guest workshop leader at Greystoke Cycle Café in Cumbria for many years and enjoys encouraging creativity in others.

“It’s interesting because you get a whole range of ages, backgrounds and levels of skill on the courses. Some are complete beginners while others have an art or calligraphy background, but most just want to try something new.

“It’s so rewarding – quite often people surprise themselves by creating something amazing. It’s also nice to see the way the group dynamics work with people supporting each other and commenting on each other’s work.”

Pip learnt her own craft in her 30s after completing a degree in typography and graphic communication, the only one of its kind in the UK at the time, at Reading University in the 1980s. Working in a design studio for several years, when the computer age arrived it changed the nature of the work and Pip began to reassess what she wanted from her career.

“I realised what I was interested in was making things,” she says. “I was inspired by a visit to lettercarver Caroline Webb in Wiltshire and I knew then that was what I wanted to do. So, I decided to make a total change of lifestyle. I found a little space where I was living to do my lettercarving – and taught myself. Then Harriet at the Memorial Arts Charity put me in touch with Alec Peever, who ran a lettering studio in Oxfordshire, and I worked as his assistant.”

Pip didn’t look back. She took up a friend’s offer of the loan of a potting shed, successfully applied for a grant from the Crafts Council to set up her own business – which included funding for equipment, help with publicity and the opportunity to take part in exhibitions – and got to work.

“I showed my work at Chelsea Crafts Fair and got dozens of commissions: that got things going,” says Pip. “And, after a few years, I felt that my business was well established.”

Aside from private commissions, Pip has also used her expertise to create a number of large-scale public art projects. In 2010 she was commissioned by Sheffield City Council’s Arts Officer to work with poet Matt Black to create 15 stone benches around the city centre related to and celebrating the city’s markets. The markets in Sheffield began with a Royal Charter in 1296 and in their heyday at the end of the 19th-century the city centre boasted seven large markets.

“Matt created some very evocative poems for which I designed and carved many different letterforms expressing the variety and diversity of Sheffield’s markets,” says Pip. “We also created an alphabet trail, the Angels’ Alphabet, which was made up of items that you might have bought at the markets in the 1890s.” 

Pip is soon to start work on a continuation of the 2010 project in Sheffield, carving poetry on another 15 Kilkenny limestone benches in the Moor area of the city. This time the theme will be stainless steel and the poems, written by local poet and broadcaster Ray Hearne, will help to mark the centenary next year of its invention by Harry Brearley. The carving will be carried out over a period of eight weeks in shop premises near to where the seats will be installed. 

Pip’s most recent public art project, completed in May this year, was the Stanza Stones, commissioned by Ilkley Literature Festival in partnership with the poet Simon Armitage, and funded by Pennine Prospects and imove as part of Yorkshire’s Cultural Olympiad. The purpose of the project was to develop a long-distance walk from Marsden near Huddersfield, where Simon was born and still lives, to Ilkley, the home of the Literature Festival, punctuated by Simon’s poems carved into the local gritstone rock.

The 47-mile trail follows the South Pennine watershed with the Stanza Stones positioned at six locations along the way – as well as a secret seventh stone awaiting discovery by walkers.

“Because of previous projects I have been involved in, I was invited to express an interest,” says Pip.

“The prospect was irresistible – working outdoors and carving directly in the landscape appealed to me, and poetry has always been part of my interest in lettering.”

Each of Simon’s poems celebrates water in some of its various forms – snow, rain, mist, dew, puddles and becks – and Pip carved most of them out in the landscape with the help of her apprentice Wayne.

“Two of the stones I carved in a temporary studio in a friend’s barn here in Dentdale, but the rest were carved on site,” says Pip. “It was wonderful working outdoors, being part of a changing landscape, in surroundings rich in wildlife – all that feeds into the work in a subconscious way.” 

Pip had to build up a kind of relationship with each stone while she was working on it. “Every stone had its own story and character. There are aspects about each of the stones that are special to me, to do with the material or the colour or the spirit of the place,” she says.

“And I understand more now about how gritstone varies: in its texture, its hardness and density, as well as colour. Some rocks are incredibly hard and quartzy and others have a much smoother and finer-grained quality.”

Pip says that she has many wonderful memories of the project – in particular, carving the Beck Stone, on Ilkley Moor.

“I was standing in a waterfall to work,” she laughs. “I was wearing a dry suit but still managed to get soaked, carving underwater at one point.

“But it was a sociable time, with many visitors, some thoughtfully bearing flasks. The stones and poems will be there for a very long time and it is a great feeling to have been part of making that mark.”

For more details on commissions and Pip’s residential courses call 07979 473189 or visit www.piphall.co.uk. For more information on the Memorial Arts Charity go to www.memorialartscharity.org.uk