Art from the Shore - Geoffrey Bickley, a self taught wood carver from Tremelling Farm, Cornwall

PUBLISHED: 18:02 06 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:36 20 February 2013

A pair of terns

A pair of terns

In this December issue we feature Geoffrey Bickley, a self-taught wood carver who specialises in making birds

Art from the Shore

Geoffrey Bickley is a self-taught wood carver who specialises in making birds

Geoffrey Bickley has worked with wood most of his life. A trained carpenter, he then spent a few years at sea as a crayfish diver as well as doing salvage diving. It was while salvaging a ship's cargo of wood that he found a particularly interesting piece of driftwood - it resembled a fish. From the wood he had salvaged, which happened to be pine, he thought he would carve a fish and this was how his career in carving wood began.

Geoffrey is entirely self-taught and has been carving since 1993. He now specialises in carving birds, his work ranging from sparrows to cormorants, godwits, curlews, oystercatchers and many other wading birds, which he particularly enjoys making. He lives at Tremelling Farm in St Erth near Hayle. He says: "Reclaimed pine is the wood I like to use. It is a difficult wood to work with but it does have beautiful grain. I start with a sketch of a bird, then transfer this to the wooden block. I find most of my bases for the birds on the beach."

"My favourite time of year is winter, when we go to the deserted Cornish coves and beaches looking for driftwood. My wife, Lesley, and I listen to the forecast and when there is a gale on the way, we plan which coves we will search for anything interesting. We put our wet-weather gear on, arm ourselves with bags and a saw and set off with our dog, Holly. Lesley takes her camera, if we find anything of interest we put it on our website diary page. For example, last year we found a long straight tree trunk that was 16 metres in length. It would have made a lovely mast for someone's boat. I didn't have the heart to saw it up. We found a Dan Marker all the way from Newfoundland and also lobster tags from Maine in America, and a gig oar; these are just some of the interesting things we come across," he adds.

Geoffrey says that if he is really lucky he may sometimes find timber from deck cargoes - even an old basket washed off the deck of a fishing boat is handy to carry all the pieces of wood home. "Some driftwood is so gnarled and gribbled I think it must have been around the world a couple of times!" he says.

While collecting driftwood, Geoffrey also looks at the birds and notes their behaviour. "I like to carve the birds in flocks and I get a feel for their movement when they are in groups."

From the top of the lane where he lives, he can see the Hayle Bar and also the top of St Michael's Mount. He says that he is fortunate to be located near both the north and south coasts and is quite spoilt for choice in terms of wildlife. He is also a short walk from the Hayle Estuary where there is always something of interest to see.

Geoffrey is inspired by nature. "I was born in Devon but spent many holidays on the Isles of Scilly. I have also worked with the Lighthouse Service on the islands and this has had a lasting impression on me; it is here, I am sure, I gather most of my inspiration for new work. Gallery Tresco on the Isles of Scilly has shown my work for a number of years now and, as anyone who is familiar with Tresco will know, the gallery is practically situated on the beach so it's very suited to my bird carvings."

He is returning to the islands again in 2009 courtesy of the gallery, where he will be sketching, painting and planning for the new year's work ahead. Lesley will take her paints and canvases too, while Geoffrey will be searching for driftwood and birdwatching. "I find you can get quite close to the birds on the island, so this is an ideal opportunity for me to make drawings and observe them feeding," he says.

Geoffrey describes how he begins to carve. "Being confronted with a plain block of wood can be quite daunting, but I usually have in my mind what I want to carve. I refer to my sketchbook and transfer my drawing onto the wood. This is when I might use artistic licence. Occasionally I accentuate their shape, maybe give them slightly longer legs and flowing necks. My aim is to let the carving speak for itself, using the natural grain in the wood combined with flowing lines. I like to think I can capture the birds as they are in their natural environment."

He says that sometimes he prefers to carve a 'shoreline picture' of a flock of birds, since this shows how they are often seen on the edge of the water. He cuts out the bird's basic form with a bandsaw, then shapes the carving with a mallet and chisels and finishes it with different grades of sandpaper.

Geoffrey continues: "Depending on the shape of the bird, sometimes I have to join the head and beak. This is to give the bird strength and avoid a straight grain where there are weak points in the wood. Then the bird is mounted, either on driftwood or on oak roots. The mounting of a bird, I feel, is extremely important: this has to complement the carving but not overpower it so a lot of careful consideration is needed, and having a large store of driftwood is vital for me. I sometimes write the name of the cove where I found the driftwood on the finished piece. Occasionally, the shape and colour of the driftwood itself can suggest a particular bird."

The birds are painted using water-based paints and some are finished with a clear wax polish. This gives the carvings a subtle sheen and also enriches the wood.

"My birds are sent across the world and I often wonder if any of the pieces of driftwood I have found are ever returned to their country of origin. Finding the art in nature is one of my biggest pleasures," he adds.

Geoffrey Bickley 01736 75290

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