The Bridge Interviews

Martin Cash

May 2019

The story goes that Michelangelo was asked the difficulties he encountered in sculpting his masterpiece, David.  “It’s very easy”, he is said to have replied.  “You just chip away any of the stone that doesn’t look like David”.

Well, there is a lot more to it than this probably apocryphal story indicates.  This month’s interviewee is someone who could provide an answer since he has developed a parallel career as a successful sculptor.  A pivotal moment was visiting the on form sculpture exhibition at Asthall in 2014.  “After 20 years of wood carving I went round several times utterly absorbed and have barely sculpted in anything but stone since.”


More of his artistic career shortly but first his earlier life.  Martin Cash was born and brought up in Salisbury.  His father, who trained as a carpenter, “gave me a childhood apprenticeship of woodworking skills”.  His mother, now a spritely 94, was a primary school teacher.


He left Bishop Wordsworth School after what in those days was called the fifth form, intending to start a (real) apprenticeship but obtained good O level results and was persuaded to go back into the sixth form.  He sometimes wonders where life would have led him had he stuck to his original intention.  He took degrees in Science and Education at Birmingham and a masters at Keele and became a science teacher working in the West Midlands.  During this time he met his wife, Jan, also a teacher.  They have two children, Jill, who is currently Manchester-based and Dan who works in London.


Throughout Martin’s formal career he devoted much of his spare time to developing skills in wood carving and lettercutting in wood and slate – always there was the desire and dream to fulfil his creative ambitions… “sadly dreams don’t pay the mortgage”.  


After 10 years of teaching he was appointed as a schools’ adviser with Hereford & Worcester council.  “It was very liberating, no longer controlled by the school bell but instead I was travelling around a beautiful county supporting school science and environmental education.”  Gradually his role changed from advising to inspecting and Martin moved to work with Ofsted. After several years of school inspections he was invited by the Department for Education to become a Senior Education Adviser to the Labour government of Tony Blair. He was one of a small team charged with ensuring that the investments of ‘Education Education Education’ were targeted in the most challenged areas and schools.  “My area was the North West so we moved to Stafford to be on the main rail route and M6 from where I could commute between a London office and  Manchester/ Liverpool.”        As a civil servant he worked with Estelle Morris (Minister of State for schools 1998 to 2001) and David Miliband (2002-2004).  “These were great days of huge investments in schools and in those early days of inspection and national assessments we were able for the first time to get a clearer measure of school and Local Authority achievement and progress. Inevitably, I spent much time in the most challenged and socially deprived parts of Liverpool and Manchester.  In these early days we were starting to explore  the ‘value-added’ by schools and Local Authorities: for the first time we were able to track the outcomes of individual children as they travelled through each Key Stage.  This helped to identify comparative under-and over-achieving schools irrespective of the community’s level of wealth, support or deprivation: for the first time we could identify schools making huge strides in the most challenging of circumstances and those coasting. ”


As well as trying to satisfy his creative desire through carving and letter cutting he was, and still is, very committed to sport.  “I was a keen fell runner and rock climber [he shows us photographs from his runs across the Cuillin Ridge in Skye and climb of the vertiginous 449 foot Old Man of Hoy in Orkney - perhaps rock climbing was a stimulus to sculpture?]. Like many I also became a MAMIL (middle aged man in Lycra) cycling in events all over Europe including the most beautiful Pyrenean Raid, where you start with one foot in the Atlantic, climb 18 Pyrenean cols over 714km (you see them in the Tour de France) and finish at the Mediterranean…  It took me 82 hours including sleep.”


In 2010 the coalition government took power and Michael Gove became Education Secretary.  “The emphasis shifted to giving schools a much greater degree of independence... including from me.– All inspectors were placed on ‘garden leave’.  So, finally, this was my moment to commit myself full time to sculpture.  With no more commuting and our children leaving home we moved to Burford.”  Why Burford?  “We wanted to move south to the Cotswolds: be accessible to our children; able to walk into town; have parking; small garden and a workshop. We looked at Tetbury, Nailsworth and Malmesbury but Burford ticked the boxes best – plus we met a lot of nice people and were made very welcome.”


After his epiphany at on form in 2014 he focused almost solely on stone - working in British limestones and slate; a recent favourite material is Kilkenny limestone because of its texture, hardness and colour. He describes early years in Burford as an intense apprenticeship in stone. “In some ways it’s easier to carve than wood, whilst it’s heavier and dustier it tends to be more consistent, it doesn’t twist or have grain and knots in it”. Whilst largely self-taught, Martin often shares a workshop near Witney with another sculptor, Piotr Gargas, who trained as an architectural mason and came over to England to repair and replace statues and gargoyles on Oxford colleges. Seeing each other’s work led to studio visits and opportunities to share skills, ideas and support.


Once established in Burford, Martin was invited to join the Oxfordshire Craft Guild, Oxford Sculptors Group and Oxford Art Society. “To be acknowledged as able to demonstrate craftsmanship and to be recognised by peers in your field is always an artist’s goal.”


Whilst a contemporary artist, Martin maintains a passion for the traditional process of stone sculpture – each idea usually starts with a sketch or photograph and a design evolves, stone is selected, carving progresses and the form slowly emerges… hopefully.  Stone can be very unforgiving - unlike clay - mistakes are sometimes impossible to rectify so constant redrawing, measuring and checking are lessons learned quickly. Martin described his sculpting ‘rite of passage’ in meeting the challenge of carving hands and faces that show the correct structure and morphology – a workshop sign reminds him that ‘if it doesn’t feel right then it probably isn’t’. Irrespective of the piece he aims to inspire consideration and the desire to touch the stone. We are sure Michelangelo would approve.


In addition to the Burford Garden Centre Gallery Martin is a regular participant in Oxfordshire Artweeks (see separate article) and this year will be exhibiting with Sally Wyatt (a previous Bridge interviewee) in Fulbrook Church and in her nearby garden from 18 to 27 May inclusive from 11am to 6pm.  He and Piotr have an exhibition called “Hidden in the Stone” at the Turrill Sculpture Garden at Summertown, Oxford, from 20 July to 28 September.   Sadly, we do not have space to show more than a few examples of Martin’s work.


Further pictures and information can be seen on his website and on Instagram sculpture.martincash.

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