Crafts: Sculptor Masons and Sculptors

Within the stone masonry trade there are several divisions of labour based on the operation being performed (banker-masons, fixers, carvers, etc) and of these the most skilled, and usually highest paid, will be the sculptor masons who carve figures, foliage and the like. The question is when does a sculptor-mason become a sculptor? This can best be answered by considering the prominence given to the final product. Sculptor masons are likely to produce work that will fixed to the outside of buildings, sculptors will see their creations displayed in art galleries or as prominent examples of sculpture in public squares, the foyers of large office blocks and so on, often on top of plinths.

Typical examples of sculptor masons are the O'Shea brothers, John and James, who along with their nephew Edward Whelan, worked on many important commissions in 19th century Britain. The O'Sheas and Whelan hailed from the tiny village of Ballhooly in County Cork, Ireland, and worked on carvings for Trinity College in Dublin and the Natural History Museum in Oxford. Championed by the art critic John Ruskin they were expected to make the transition from sculptor-mason artisans to fully-fledged sculptor artists however Ruskin became 'disappointed' with their progress.

The Renaissance sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini was, by any standard, one of the most adroit and skilled sculptors in history, trained to the craft from a young age, and following his father Pietro Bernini into the trade. Whilst for Gian Bernini the artisan-artist question is surely beyond doubt for his father Pietro it is still perhaps more of an open debate. A level of craft proficiency is certainly a pre-requisite for any sculptor and sculptor-mason, including the ability to carve accurately with minute elements and delicate detailing. However, by themselves such skills and abilities are not enough for the artisan sculptor-mason to ascend to the lofty heights of an artist sculptor.   The question may not always revolve around the quality of the work produced so much as the importance, and financial rewards or prestige, of the commissions given. The ancient Egyptian sculptor Thutmose became master of works to the pharaohs and carved various (extant) representations of the queen Nefertiti. As his work and his name has lived on through history it is perhaps fair to describe him as one of the first 'artists', who enjoyed the patronage of the Egyptian royal family and thus was accorded a role in history that many possibly equally skilled artisan masons would not have.