“I’m not a stone buff. No, really I’m not,” emphasises sculptor Ross Danby slightly apologetically as he tells me at least the third fascinating fact about Derbyshire quarrying I would never have known if I wasn’t interviewing him.
He might not think himself an expert but he is definitely an aficionado who loves nothing more than to be researching his subject – or chipping away at it.
As I pulled up in the car on the road outside his studio in the centre of Hartington I could hear the distinctive chip, chip, chip of a chisel against stone and I instantly knew I was in the right place.
Ross, 51, is a garden designer by trade and spares himself just one day a week at the studio he shares with a collective of other sculptors. He clearly didn’t want to waste a minute of that precious time so carried on working until I arrived.
As we sit down with coffee and chocolate biscuits the self-taught artist tells me that he has only been at the studio for a little over eight months and until he discovered its existence at last year’s Melbourne Festival he had worked from his home in the South Derbyshire market town.
“I have been a garden designer for 20 years and incorporated stone in many of my designs. I was drawn to the medium and just enjoy carving. So I created some pieces for clients, and as people recognised some value in what I could do, it kind of evolved,” he explained.
One of his clients who had converted a former pub in Melbourne into a home opened up their garden for the annual festival and Ross went along to demonstrate his skills.
A broad smile crosses his face as he says: “I really enjoyed the whole experience. People appreciated my work and I sold some pieces. I gained confidence from knowing people valued what I did.
“A last September’s art trail someone told me about the sculpture of Rosemary Barnett and when I went to see her I found about the collective in Hartington and knew at once I wanted to join them.
“Meeting Rosemary has enabled me to push myself and my boundaries, and in a very subtle way she is influencing what I am doing and has become something of a mentor for me.”
He said over the past year he had started to concentrate more on his work and is spending more time on research.
“Here at the studio everyone bounces ideas of one another and I am learning so much more. There are so many triggers which can take you in a different direction – not least the library of books packed into the stock cupboard.
“I have started doing figurative work, which really is a test for me as I am definitely broadening my scope. I believe I am finding my inner self.”
Ross says he has also taken inspiration from Bridget McCrum, an artist who took to sculpture relatively late in life, like himself, and who is also drawn to shapes of simplicity.
“I love the way you can create movement and capture the essence of something. I am just a newbie at the end of the day and just finding my feet, but I am enjoying what I do and I love working with the stone and knowing where it has come from. I especially like the connection with the quarrying in this county,” he said.
He shows me a beautiful grey limestone, jewelled with ivory fossils, which he says is his favourite (although he has to think about it).
It is supplied by Natural Stone Sales Ltd at Rowsley and cut from the wonderfully named Once A Week Quarry that the firm leases from the Chatsworth Estate. The name was given to the quarry between Monyash and Sheldon because the 19th century workers were paid once a week instead of fortnightly like at other quarries.
The limestone polishes up so well that locally it is known as Sheldon Marble and you can see exactly why it would appeal to a sculptor.
Ross lovingly strokes the piece in front of him and says: “What I do is as much about the stone as anything else. It is such a lovely medium. So tactile. I like to have the finished pieces at home and be able to cast my hand over them as I pass by.”
His work can be seen at both Melbourne and Wirksworth Festival art trails this month.
At Melbourne he is creating something special to fit in with the For The Love of Lettuce theme and using his garden design skills to help out with one of the main attractions.