When my husband Phil and I were deciding if he should accept a posting in Brunei we discussed at length the implications/opportunities it would provide for me and my work. Leaving London so soon after finishing my diploma wasn’t ideal timing; I was starting to build up a network of clients and employers and there was a lot of excellent of publicity around the time of the graduation final show.
Whilst discussing the positive things about moving away, like the space for my own workshop, the time for me to experiment with ideas, develop skills and establish my own identity as a carver/artist, Phil almost jokingly said “and you never know you might end up making something for the Sultan!”
Little did either of us think that four months into our stay here the Sultan would own a piece of my work, or that we would both meet him.
Well, that’s what happened this week.
1st Battalion the Royal Gurkha Rifles (1RGR) have been positioned in Brunei for the last four years and in August this year the whole battalion will return to Folkston in the UK and 2RGR will replace them.
His Majesty The Sultan of Brunei arranged to visit the base giving 1RGR the opportunity to show his Majesty the work they do here, introduce him to some of the families and present him with a gift to show their thanks for his ongoing support for the British Military presence in Brunei.
I was approached to make the gift for The Commander of British Forces Brunei to present to the Sultan.
It was a fairly short timescale before the presentation so I got to work straight away with an informal discussion about the type of piece they would like. Using the imagery they gave me, I researched and planned a few outlines of ideas, then I met with the Commanding Officer, and a design was decided upon.
It consisted of the 1RGR cap badge design, which is two crossed Kukri knives under the British crown. The regimental motto is ‘better to die, than to be a coward’ which is normally written in Hindi. To show the link between the Battalion and Brunei it was translated into Malay. The arrival and leaving dates were then added to mark 1RGR’s time here in Brunei.
Once the design was drawn up, I made a rather speedy trip across the border into Malaysia to buy a piece of marble from a company I had thankfully recently discovered that stocked Italian marble. Then I proceeded to transfer the design onto the stone, and get final approval from the CO.
The gravity of whom this piece of work was for made the first few hits rather tentative! Soon, I was listening to music and happily carving my letters.
I used just two tungsten Al-Orr Chisels and one small mallet to carve the piece. Al-Orr chisels are well known in carving circles and as usual they were my first choice, beautifully sharp and such a comfortable weight sitting in your hand.
Carving is my favorite part of any project. The designing is fun initially but then it can get a little tiresome when lots of changes are made, it’s also the stage where you’re making all of the design decisions: should I make the lettering larger?; is that t too close to that e?; have I got the shape of the kukri’s right?
There is also the added pressure of having to be just that little bit more patient and really be very sure of your design because obviously once it’s carved in stone you can’t change it!
However once the design is on the stone and I’ve started carving, it’s the same familiar process I’ve done so many times now, and I love it. Hours and days fly by and before I really know it I’m carving the last bit of the crown.
The decision was made earlier that this piece was going to be painted and gilded. It will be photographed from a lot of different angles and in different lighting and the only problem with carving white marble lettering is that you are very reliant on the lighting to create strong enough shadows for the work to show up. Heaven forbid someone should take a photo with a flash and nothing would be seen!
I chose a black and grey enamel paint to mix together for the knives and crown, which is in line with the 1RGR colours and I also felt black would be too harsh not allowing the lovely v-cut to be seen. The range of available colours in Brunei isn’t great, but thankfully I managed to mix just the thing I had in mind. I also chose gloss paint, the reflections in the light made it look a little more metallic, which complimented the gilding.
Two coats later with some surprisingly fumy paint and the dark colours were done. Now onto the gilding.
This bit I found rather nerve wracking! I’ve done relatively little gilding, but enough to know that it doesn’t always behave quite how you expect it to! I also had no idea how long the size (glue) would take to go off in this climate. With a few experiments over the previous days I decided that my 12hr seize would take between 9-10 hours to get the correct tackiness for the gold to be applied, so I set to it. First step was to paint the letters with yellow sign writers enamel and once that was completely dry I painted on the clear seize, hoping that I didn’t miss any bits!
9 hours and 15mins later I decided it was time to get the loose leaf 23 ½ carat gold out and start applying.
Once all done and dried I burnish the surface to remove any loose bit of gold and it was finished. Thankfully I got the timing right and my training at college came flooding back and the gold lettering glimmered away beautifully with an excellent luster.
1RGR asked if Phil and I would stand next to the piece whilst it was being presented to the Sultan so we could be introduced. It was such an honor to meet His Majesty. We had a short discussion about how long I had trained for and how long this piece had taken. He was also interested in the tools I’d used and where the stone had come from. After a few photographs his visit came to an end and he left the base with my plaque being loading into a car to follow on behind. I wonder where it is now?!
If you’d like to have a look at the process of making this piece please go to my facebook page www.facebook.com/ZoeBarnettStone