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News > Alumnae > Old Queens Series: Clunie Fretton

Old Queens Series: Clunie Fretton

Clunie Fretton OQ 2000-2007 is a classically trained sculptor, artist and gilder who has worked on critical restoration projects at the V&A Museum, as well as Guildford and Rochester Cathedrals.
18 Dec 2020

What did you study at Queen’s and how did you start your journey into the Art world, especially into conservation? 

I studied Art, English Literature, Geography and Biology at A-Level and considered a number of university courses, none of which felt right. There was a big push at the time to transition straight into a degree, but it seemed to me to be a better idea to get a job and return to study when I knew what it was I really wanted to do and when I would be able to invest my time and energy wholeheartedly. I wanted to make things, but my impression of the art world and the courses available at the time was that they all seemed to be very conceptual and of a "draw what you feel" ethos, which didn't appeal to me at all. I wanted something that was rigorously technical and would really push my craftsmanship and technical skills. 

I became aware of City & Guilds of London Art School in 2010 and was particularly drawn to the Carving department. All the carving students were sculpting and drawing at an exceptional level. They were taught technical drawing and there was a huge emphasis on drawing from life and learning skills properly before beginning to explore making your own designs. This was very exciting to me, because I'd despaired of finding an art school that hadn't abandoned this more traditional method of teaching. 

Clunie working on the South Chancel Window at Guildford Cathedral

What is a typical day like for a sculptor, carver and gilder? 

It really depends on what projects are in the workshop on any given day, but usually it begins with a cup of tea and checking my emails. My business partner and I both regularly work on commission which means there's a lot of admin to undertake, particularly when you're working on something that falls under the purview of the construction world. After that it's straight to work! 

A carving begins life as a drawing, which might take several days to a week to finalise depending on the size. I then make a model in three dimensions from clay, which lets me work out the layout and design until I'm completely happy with it. You can add and remove clay easily, but in wood or stone it's much more difficult to fix if you make a mistake, so you try and make all the errors in the clay model where they're easy to correct. Then I transcribe the clay model into the wood - a process which can take several months. All the measurements are there in the model to copy from, so it's simply a matter of looking and measuring until you reach around 3mm off the finished surface. At that point you can mostly work by eye - this is my favourite part, because it's when everything begins to come to life. I work from 9.30am to around 7pm most days quite happily. It feels easier to work long hours as a carver because it's both physically and mentally demanding in a way that means much of your day is spent in the coveted "flow state" of complete immersion in the current task. 

Which is your favourite piece/place you have worked on? 

It's difficult to pick! But my partner and I had a very special time working in Guildford Cathedral (pictured below) restoring the paintwork and gilding there. It's England's most recent cathedral, and although it has a rather austere outside it's spectacularly beautiful inside. It's also incredibly well-loved. We were stopped several times a day by people who told us how much they loved the building and how much it meant to them to see it being taken care of. This was particularly moving when we were working in the Children's Chapel, as it's one of the few in the country which is dedicated specifically to children who have passed away before their time. It's a very special place. 

How have you found 2020 and how have you adapted working on your art through lockdown? 

We've been lucky. Because we work in a physical job it wasn't possible to work from home, but my partner and I have both been able to continue coming into our studios. I think we're both rather content in our own company, so lockdown ended up being quite productive for us. We're also lucky to be working in the historic sector, where demand has remained relatively stable. Carving hasn't changed much in several hundred years and there are comparatively few trained carvers, so there haven't seemed to be any large dips as a result of the pandemic. 

The Master’s Chair at the V&A must have an extraordinary story behind it, can you tell us how this came about and how you restored the eleven missing pieces? 

The Master's Chair (pictured) was a wonderful piece to work on. Its full title is the Master's Chair of the Worshipful Company of Joiners & Ceilers, and it was made by Edward Newman in 1754. For those who aren't aware, livery companies like the Joiners & Ceilers were established as trade unions around 1200, governing their respective trades, ensuring quality, and caring for families of those whose fathers passed away. Edward Newman was a master of the Joiners & Ceilers Company, and he made and donated the chair for future use. It's had a complicated history (the Joiners' Hall was lost or burned down several times and the contents moved a great deal), but it was eventually given on permanent loan to the Victoria & Albert Museum. By this time, it had lost a number of important pieces of the original carving, and it was eventually decided that it ought to be restored - particularly the missing pieces from the heraldic elements which were essential for accurately representing the Company's coat of arms. 

I'm a freeman of the Joiners & Ceilers' Company, who these days are a charity supporting the continuation of joinery and carving skills as well as other worthy causes. They have been very supportive of me both during my training and after, and I think particularly hoped to have the restoration be undertaken by a current member of the Company. It feels good to be part of that unbroken line of skill they've supported since 1571. I'm also working on the New Master's Chair they're producing for their 450th Anniversary in 2021 - both will be on display in the Guildhall next year. 

Restoring the missing pieces was good fun, but quite a challenge. It's more typical with items for the antique market to gently pare back the breaks to give a very secure join between new and old, but because this was a museum item each new piece had to be painstakingly carved so that they matched perfectly to the often uneven and jagged surface of the breaks on the original. They were very small and almost impossible to fix in a vice, so had to be carved held in the hand. The way the carvings on the chair had been undercut and the predictable layout of acanthus ornament meant it was possible to have a good idea of what ought to have been there, and references to contemporary engravings and carvings as well as to the extant carvings on the chair helped fill in any blanks. 

Do you have any words of advice for Old Queens (and current pupils) wanting to enter the Art world? 

I think the best advice is to make sure it's something you really want to do! Working in the art world as a maker of art, rather than in an ancillary position, has no guarantee of producing a fixed wage or earning you the kind of money that a more secure job in a different profession might, but I think the trade-off is that you get to go into work each day really loving what you do. I meet a lot of people who tell me they're looking forward to their retirement when they'll be able to learn woodcarving, but this is something I get to do every day and I don't have to spend my time doing things I hate in the hope of doing something I love long years down the line. 

There is a lot of funding for the arts - particularly if you want to learn a craft skill. Unlike university courses you are likely to be able to find full funding to learn a craft skill, and if you do an apprenticeship you may even be paid a wage as you do it, which means you won't emerge burdened by student debt. A lot of the organisations that fund craft also really want to support British craftspeople, so if you continue to keep in contact with them and engage in the events, they put on they're often keen to try to support and promote your work as much as they can. 
What are your memories of Queen’s? 

I've very good memories of the art department at the time under Peter Wilford and of Sarah Harrison who was not only a fantastic Latin teacher but who, it transpires, is also good friends with a master carver! The school was also a wonderful place to be just in terms of the architecture, and in having a library which seemed to have been preserved from another era. I also spent a lot of enjoyable (and probably illicit) time on the roof, which only goes to show that a four-digit combination lock can be cracked in a standard lunch hour by a determined student. 

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