Emily Young: From rock muse to stone sculptor

Immortalised in a Pink Floyd song at 16, Emily Young has excelled in another art form. John Walsh talks to her about Syd Barrett, sculpture, and the origins of the universe

Unless someone has unearthed a vinyl record entitled "Bah–Bah-Baaah-Bah-Bar-bara Hepworth," Emily Young is surely the only British stone sculptor to have a classic Sixties pop song named after her.

It was "See Emily Play" by Pink Floyd, a whimsical piece of early psychedelia written by the band's co-founder Syd Barrett. Emily Young was 15 when she met the druggy and doomed Barrett at the London Free School in 1965. "I used to go there because there were a lot of Beat philosophers and poets around," she says. "There were fundraising concerts with The Pink Floyd Sound, as they were then called. I was more keen on poets than rockers. I was educating myself. I was a seeker. I wanted to meet everyone and take every drug."

What were her impressions of Syd? "He was absolutely delicious. He was a natural poet and artist, a creature of the forest, like Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream. He was going through hell at the time because he was taking far too much acid and he knew he was in danger."

Did she ever snog him? There was a silence. "As I said," murmured Emily, "he was delicious."

It's pleasing to reflect that the one-time teenage muse to a rock star should spend a successful career bringing out the soul of actual rocks. After years of being feted as "Britain's foremost female stone sculptor," she recently lost the F-word when the art critic of the Financial Times called her "Britain's greatest living stone sculptor." It's a little hard to imagine this short, extremely handsome, rather regal woman with black hair and sparkling blue eyes taking a hammer and chisel to a lump of granite. Her works are instantly recognisable and accessible. She deals in spectacular lumps of stone – quartzite, onyx, marble, alabaster – to which she gives an identity by carving a face but leaving the remainder of the rock displayed in its raw, craggy intensity, as if the face had grown or evolved organically.

"I'm not like 97 per cent of stone carvers," she says. "They'll choose a stone to fulfil a preconfigured design, make drawings and a maquette, and sell the idea to a family, or an army or a business who'll pay for it to be made, usually glorifying a person or a battle. What I do is, I go to the quarry and see these pieces sitting there, beautiful objects in themselves. And I'm trying to say to the viewer, 'LOOK AT THIS STONE, IT'S YOUR ANCESTOR.'"

Her new exhibition is called We Are Stone's Children. The overused word "awesome" enters your mind as you inspect the 10 stone heads on display: the neoclassical serenity of Dark Forest Head 1 & 2, carved from Dolomites limestone, the faces held in "ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep" like the Tollund Man in the turf of pre-history. Red Mountain Head, by contrast, is the face of a warrior, emerging from a fire of wild red, orange, brown and white stone that the carver has left raw and untamed.

"I've been trying to tell a truth about the origins of human life and consciousness," she says. "I'm studying the origins of life in stone – our little Big Bang, four and a half billion years ago, when we started off as dust, floating around the sun. The whole of life on earth is inside our own bodies, and stone is the solid record of the history of the earth. We're both embodiments of the history of the world."

Young talks a lot in this vein, in her cut-glass, English-rose delivery. She explains how stones aren't inanimate, but have electromagnetic forces inside them. She talks about the need for humans to stop and contemplate the universe. About angels and Gaia and "deep ecology" and how the qualities of Greek gods have counterparts in human hormones. You might be tempted to discount it as earth-mother mysticism, but she won't have it. "There's nothing mystical about our relationship with stone," she says severely. "It may be mysterious, but it's absolutely basic. I put how I feel while I'm carving into the stone, and bring out a little relationship between the stone and the person looking at it."

She finds the stone in Italian quarries. "I'll buy 20 pieces at a time because they wave at me, saying, 'Hey, I'm really beautiful,' or 'I've got lots of moss growing on me and nobody knows what's inside me.'" She transports the chosen ones to her studio in Santa Croce, Tuscany. "It's a half-ruined hillside convent, very old and only partly habitable." And there she pitches in with hammers, chisels and power tools: angle-grinders, sand-blasters, compressed-air drills to cut through stone, and smaller, dentist's-surgery-size ones for more delicate work. She has written about this unwonted physicality as if it were something close to meditation. "I try to find a place where I can be still in myself, and embrace it and say, this is what humans are – what do we have to be, to stop focusing all our desires on instant gratification, and become more conscious of how we run our societies?"

Young has a remarkable pedigree as an artist: her grandmother Kathleen Scott was a sculptor and a pupil of Rodin who later married Robert Falcon Scott, he Of The Antarctic. Did Emily know her? "No, she died too young. But she wasn't a sculptor, she was a modeller in clay. She was on the team Rodin had around him. But he was mostly a modeller too. If he wanted something done in stone, he'd have someone carve it for him." She's scathing about modern YBAs (like Marc Quinn) who design artworks for others to carve. "He's no more a carver," she says, "than I'm Napoleon's boot-boy".

Her mother remarried Wayland Young, 2nd Baron Kennet, and Emily grew up, one of six siblings, in London's Bayswater. Her education was sketchy – one term at Chelsea School of Art, followed by a period at St Martins – but she developed her ideas about art while travelling, in the 1960s and '70s, through India, Pakistan, Africa and the Middle East. "I was very young and I saw wild nature – getting lost in the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush and Afghanistan. When the rains came, you had to stay until the waters died down. It was so beautiful, so wild, and man had no place there, although there were people living in tiny valleys with some goats. But everywhere I went, there was art. And it wasn't Western art. It was human art."

So Young because a kind of mediator between humanity and nature in its most primitive geological form. Her astonishing heads have faces born from the rock but carved and burnished to a point of exquisite sophistication. If she were given the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square to fill, what would she put on it?

"Probably I'd put one of the great big heads, very sombre. A little piece of quietness in the middle of the hurly-burly. A reminder to people to stop and think just for a second."

'We Are Stone's Children', Fine Art Society, London W1 (faslondon.com) to 26 September

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game