Designing a personal memorial artwork with an artist

The expressive power of hand-carved lettering cannot be overstated. Letters that have been drawn and then carved by hand give the chosen words weight and meaning.

“It is perfect: modest, gentle and enduring, like our memories of Nicholas.”  Libby Purves, client and patron of the Lettering Arts Trust, of the memorial to her son, Nicholas Heiney, pictured, by John Das Gupta.

“It is perfect: modest, gentle and enduring, like our memories of Nicholas.”
Libby Purves, client and patron of the Lettering Arts Trust, of the memorial to her son, Nicholas Heiney, pictured, by John Das Gupta.

Their sculptural  forms have a presence and a humanity that can’t be matched by a machine-made memorial. When an artist carves these letters, whether for a gravestone or a private sculpture, their spacing, depth and shape all contrive to create movement within meaning and give life and character to the letters. There is a solemn comfort in knowing that the carved words will enter the landscape, where they will remain for centuries.

The best headstones or gravestones express the character of the lost in a remarkable way. Whether highly decorative or restrained and simple, memorials made by artists are testaments to our love for a lost person. It is this act, the creation of a personal, individual tribute that can be immensely healing to the bereaved. Many of our clients find that the process of working with an artist is enormously comforting. Visiting their studio and discussing design ideas, you are comforted knowing that you’re creating something beautiful to honour their memory.

One client writes of the benefit of this collaborative process: “The first visit to the artist’s workshop was a revelation, and I was able to take my time. I was immediately aware of the great quality of the artist’s work and his wide range of approaches, his knowledge of materials and lettering. Every time I visit my husband’s grave I feel happy to have made him a headstone I love and that he would have loved. I have happy memories of the whole experience that took place at the lowest time in my life.”

Working together

Wherever possible, we recommend a visit to the artist’s studio.  You will be able to discuss the design, see examples of their work and look at samples of different materials available to understand how they affect the finished result.

Headstone by Stuart Buckle

Headstone by Stuart Buckle

Some people start with a clear idea of what they want in terms of style and wording, others are only just feeling their way. It isn’t necessary to have a specific idea, just a general sense of the overall feel of what you’re looking for – traditional or contemporary, elaborate or simple. Together you work on the look, the lettering and the wording.

You collaborate closely, using mementos such as photographs, favourite texts, letters and reminiscences to help inform the design. One of the most important skills an experienced artist offers, is the ability to help the client navigate their way through the design process, to whittle down the layers of memories to find the most important elements to inspire and inform the design.  It’s important to remember that this stage should not be rushed. The best artists demonstrate enormous patience and sympathy to help you make your choices. this is true regardless of whether you are commissioning a gravestone, plaque or a private memorial sculpture for your home or garden.

Bespoke design

Every aspect of the memorial is variable.  The shape of the stone, the style and spacing of the inscription, the decoration and carving.

The memorial may be a flat surface to be written on, or a three-dimensional object, with different levels of relief. For the artist, all these design elements must work together to make a single statement, at the heart of which is the inscription itself.

The making process

After discussions, the artist will present to you their working drawings and an estimate.  The drawing will show in detail and to scale the shape of the stone and the lettering, any carved motifs or surface treatment.  

It represents the artist’s interpretation of your ideas. You can ask for any changes at this stage, it is essential that you are happy with the design. If you are creating a headstone or plaque for a churchyard or cemetery, once approved by the relevant authorities, the artist will begin to work in your chosen material.

Over the ensuing months, you may wish to visit their studio to see the making in progress. When it is completed, the finished work will be professionally installed at its chosen site – be it a churchyard, garden or public space.  This gentle and intimate process; the empathy between the artist and the client; the completion and installation, all help to bridge the emotional journey from grief to commemoration.

Abi Fawcus