This portrait of the well-respected poet and botanist Libby Houston was carved into a large oak bench that I designed and made. which is now sited on the Clifton Downs in Bristol.
The leaves that she is holding are from a Houston’s Whitebeam, a sub-species of Whitebeam tree (Sorbus spp.) which is only known from a single specimen growing in the Avon Gorge near Bristol. Libby discovered the tree and it has been named after her.
When Libby visited, she brought the leaves with her for me to copy in carvings on the bench and also very kindly explained what made them distinct from similar trees. Whitebeams are deciduous, meaning that the leaves are shed by the tree every autumn (fall). Therefore obtaining these leaves hadn’t damaged the tree at all.
After she had left I realised that, since there is only one specimen of this tree known to exist, they must be leaves from the world’s rarest tree.
This bench is the largest single project that I have taken on to date, being 2.5 metres (8 feet) long and weighing well over half a ton. It was commissioned by the Clifton and Hotwells Improvement Society in Bristol and was installed in June 2015. The wood is oak that originally grew on a farm outside the village of Backwell, about seven miles from where the playground where the bench has been situated.
The bench is quite unusual, as the site that it has been placed on is part of Clifton Down in Bristol. The Downs Committee, who oversee the running of the area, hardly ever give permission for permanent works of art to be installed there and I feel very privileged to have been given this opportunity.
The bench was almost two years in the making and shows notable people, creatures and structures to do with the area. Researching it myself was fascinating. One carving is a portrait of renowned poet and botanist Libby Houston, who visited my studio a couple of times. Showing her the portrait for the first time was a little nervewracking! Fortunately, she liked it.
Amongst many other subjects, the bench also shows Thecodontosaurus, the ‘Bristol Dinosaur’, which was discovered not far from the playground.
The bench rests on three large oak carvings showing creatures that lived in the seas that covered the area millions of years ago; a crinoid, a coral colony and a brachiopod (a shellfish a bit like a modern clam).
There is also a ‘treasure trail’ of ten spider carvings hidden all over the bench for visitors to try and find if they can!
This bench was installed on Stokeleigh Camp Iron Age hill fort, at Leigh Woods near Bristol. It was commissioned by the National Trust to commemorate the centenary of the land being given to the Trust by the Wills family.
The oak used came from trees felled in the same woods and the timber was milled, carved and the bench constructed on site during the summer of 2009.
The bench is 2.75 metres (9 feet) long. As the site is heavily protected, the design had to be sturdy enough not to require fixing to the ground and it could not be raised up on slabs or similar.
The carvings show aspects of the natural history and ancient history of the area. Researching them was really enjoyable – including holding locally-found artefacts such as a Celtic bronze torc, which was around two thousand years old, at Bristol Museum.
Here are some examples of the carvings on the bench. This dormouse is hibernating with its tail wrapped around it. Dormice live in the surrounding woods and are quite rare.
This beautiful triskele design came from the end of a Celtic torc that was discovered in the River Avon at nearby Clevedon. The original is gold and can now be seen in the British Museum.