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Emma Dexter 003 A

Emma Dexter, Lecturer of Stonemasonry

Can you tell us a little bit about what stonemasonry actually is?

The art of stonemasonry has existed for centuries. Using stone as the fundamental material, masons all over the world have created buildings, structures and monumental sculpture. The Eqyptian Pyramids, Stonehenge and the Parthenon in Greece are just a few examples. Quite simply, the job of a stonemason is to shape/prepare and fix stone for building.

What sorts of things do you get up to on the Stonemasonry course at Moulton?

At Moulton College we teach three levels of the City & Guilds Diploma in Stonemasonry, with practical and theory lessons. Much of the practical training is banker work experience, with units on fixing and technical drawing, and there are opportunities to take extra classes in letter-cutting and stone-carving.

Students create their own ‘mason’s mark’ which they will use throughout their life. They also develop their portfolios with visual evidence of their work to show prospective employers and to retain for their own satisfaction.

We are fortunate to have fantastic sponsors who show great interest in our students, support them with some essential costs and their own tools, as well as awarding them prizes.

Work experience…

Work experience at local companies and at the 15th century Exeter Cathedral, offer our students experience with different stone and period styles. Visits to events such as the Natural Stone Exhibition, stone-carving festivals and participation in SkillBuild competitions regularly take place. Talks from master masons and others in related fields, as well as from the Worshipful Company of Masons, plus site visits, are all extensions of the course.

What is so important about the stonemasonry craft?

When you talk about stonemasonry as a craft it is an acknowledgement that this is not simply about learning a skill in order to get a job. It is a lifelong journey of being involved in the craft and advancing in its practice and precision. Connecting through traditional ways of working to the ancestral masons, appeals to many and this can be appreciated when doing restoration work and examining or replacing work made previously. There is a link between the past and the present and looking to the future.

Why do we need to encourage the next generation to take this on?

Without training the next generation of craftspeople, we are at risk of losing some of our most important built heritage, and many of our traditional skills. Learning a technical and vocational skill such as stonemasonry is not a quick process. Through training, students are taught and supported by crafts-persons who, in spite of their years, are also constantly learning. This helps learners to be patient, knowing they cannot fully master the craft in a short timeframe.

Has there been any reduction in stonemasons in the last few decades and if so, are some buildings suffering due to less skilled workers?

Absolutely. Twenty-five years ago when I began my apprenticeship there was a skills gap, and even today, this still exists. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) has warned of risk from a growing shortage in specialist skills in construction. Despite YouGov survey (2017) results showing how 89% of 18-24[1] year olds appreciate the importance of historic buildings, responses found that they have a low understanding of core craft roles.

Sadly many buildings have suffered or even been damaged by inadequately skilled workers carrying out repairs or restoration, often with methods or materials unsuitable for the building. The fabric of older buildings does not breathe in the same way as modern ones and requires different treatment to maintain and repair them.

What is the UK/international picture regarding stonemasonry as a taught skill?

Across the world there has always been a call for building restoration following times of war or fire, for example in Paris now, with work required on the Notre Dame. The Cultural Protection Fund, set up by the British government, aims to support people and heritage in war-torn areas of the world. Rather than bringing in specialists to do the work, as is usual, refugees train with the skills of stonemasonry to become crafts people and conservators. The ancient souk of Aleppo and the Al-Hadba’ minaret in Mosul are just two examples of architecture that could benefit from this localised skill. Internationally, more and more countries are recognising the need of stonemasonry in restoring and maintaining their architectural history.

And can you tell us a little bit about your background in stonemasonry?

Initially I approached a stonemason to undertake a two-week work experience to see if working with stone was what I really wanted to do. This was in Germany, where I had grown up. I was handed an old, disused block of a gravestone, a pointed chisel and a hammer and told to make a sphere. I went every day at 6.30am, and worked on creating a stone ball. After two weeks, the stonemason in charge said that I had indeed created a sphere, and that I had a natural talent. He then informed me that he could not offer me a training programme since I was a woman.

I decided to return to the UK and attend York College to study a stonemasonry level 1 course. Shortly after I had started, I asked York Minster if they would let me have work experience for a three month period to advance my skills. They agreed and I was since offered a traditional four year apprenticeship as a stonemason and carver. Shortly after, I set up my own workshop, supported by the Princes Trust, where I did contracting work and took on private commissions.

Later, I took on sculpture-based commissions and exhibited my work nationally and internationally. I went on to do post-graduate studies at West Dean, where I was awarded an artist residency in Las Pozas. I lived and worked in a fantastic, mystical jungle ‘garden’ with the most surreal concrete structures that had been built within the Mexican rainforest between 1960 and 1980. The creator was the eccentric Edward James and benefactor to Salvador Dali as well as other influential artists. I have never been so inspired in my life. Following a couple of years as associate tutor at West Dean, I went to Leeds to do my M.A. Here I had the intention of taking up the offer to set up an art department in a new university in Kurdistan, which I had been assured was a safe area in Iraq. By the time I had completed though, things had changed - the risk was too great. As so often happens, an alternative path opened in front of me. Moulton College was looking for a stonemasonry lecturer, so I was able to go back full circle and share my learning with others.

Why is stonemasonry important to you?

Stonemasonry is important to me because of my love for historical architecture and for the craft. I believe that it is vital to restore and preserve historical value as well as the stories that the buildings tell. For authentic restoration it is vital that architectural buildings are restored with craftsmanship and quality of work and a sympathetic accuracy to their period.

[1] ihbconline.co.uk, 2017

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