'Maybe," hazards Ghislaine, tactfully, "there was a slight fragilité?" Then again, maybe not. One minute, I am tapping at my alabaster block, massette in hand, the next: two half-blocks, split like the Red Sea.
Albâtre is a notoriously crackable stone, but Olivier, an engineer and my fellow student, hasn't broken his. Ghislaine shoots me an encouraging smile and pats my shoulder. "Never mind, eh?" she says, or French words to that effect. "I can glue it together in five minutes." I try not to cry.
As art critic of this paper, I spend my days passing judgement on other people's work. You don't have to be an artist to do this – it's probably better if you aren't, in fact – but the chance to make art rather than ponder it has an obvious appeal. Ghislaine Vernaujoux is a well-known French sculptor, the kind who can set hammer to chisel and likes to pass her knowledge on. When not teaching in Paris, she offers two-day classes to all comers in her studio in Normandy. Since this is in a pretty stone manoir on the Cotentin Peninsula – that Devon-like finger of France running up from St Malo to Cherbourg – the idea is irresistible.
The first surprise is the alabaster: not breaking it, but being allowed near it in the first place. Ghislaine's course is aimed at chisel-virgins. I'd pictured something in the modelling-clay line and, sure enough, the first morning is spent making clay maquettes. Olivier, shy and intent, goes for a wrap-around tree effect; Mr Oh-So-Clever-Art-Critic plumps for triangles. After hours of furious modelling, my work looks like a stack of pie. Ghislaine ponders it wordlessly, then, to widespread alarm, hands me a chisel.
Have you ever been glared at by a lump of stone? I square up to the alabaster and attack: my first blow glances off it as though it were armour. Ghislaine cocks her head and takes the toothed gradine – "Like this," she says, doing something quick and deft, "petite couche par petite couche": little layer by little layer. And then – gasp! – I am sculpting myself, slips of alabaster flaking into the washing-up bowl in which my future masterpiece stands.
What can I say? It's arm-aching and lovely. Olivier and I chip away side by side as Ghislaine works on a piece of her own, stopping every quarter of an hour or so to offer her students a gentle critique: "This arête," – a point on the stone's surface matching an equivalent one on the maquette – "should be over here," say, or: "Work from the inside out."
In my case, there's something wrong with the sound I'm making. It goes plinkplinkplink instead of plink, plink, plink. "Ç'est pas bon, ce son," says Ghislaine, with a shake of the head. I slow down my plinking, then forget, and speed up again.
The hours tick by. Francine, Ghislaine's fellow-artist and partner, sets a table with lunch, which we eat under a hot sun and skylarks. Francine is a good cook, Ghislaine an excellent teacher, critical without being destructive, encouraging without buttering one up.
I feel I'm learning all kinds of things, including: (a) the French for rasps large and small (rape and riffloir, respectively), as well as for a cruel-looking object called a gouge-pierre; (b) that I lack all patience; and (c) how annoying it must be to spend years as a sculptor only to have some newspaper critic come along and diss your work. As I leave the studio at the end of Day One, Ghislaine calls me back and silently hands me a broom. Real sculpture students sweep up after themselves. I fight the urge to whistle.
The gals offer their course with accommodation thrown in, provided by a hotelier friend five minutes away in Barneville-Carteret. You'll have seen Barneville, or something just like it, in the films of Jacques Tati. From your balcony at the Hôtel des Isles, you look down on miles of mirrored sand stretching, at low tide, halfway to Jersey. French children, possibly in knitted bathing costumes, hunt for crabs and squeal Maman! Regarde! Degas horses gallop on the beach, there is a mini-market called, sweetly, Utile. The Des Isles is the kind of hotel I love: no gym, no free sewing kits, just simple, Cape-Cod-ish good taste and excellent food. I drink Colombelle wine and smile.
And then, it is Day Two. My sculpture – I've decided, in all modesty, to call it Hommage à Tatlin – is uglier than I remember; uglier than anything I've ever seen, clumsy and tasteless and badly made. I love it. I set to rapid tapping, prompting Ghislaine to raise one eyebrow and make a French tut-tut sound. I slow down and then speed up again and then: crack! or perhaps, in the circumstances, craque!
There is the frozen pause, the smile, the consoling pat on the shoulder. "You know," Ghislaine says, "all the best art comes from accidents." Not true, perhaps, but not a bad line for a critic. I must remember to use it.
How to get there
Charles Darwent travelled from Portsmouth to Cherbourg with Brittany Ferries (0871 244 0744; britannyferries.com). Three sailings a day, from £56 return.
Ghislaine Vernaujoux's two-day course, including room and half-board at the Hôtel des Isles (hoteldesisles.com) and daily lunch at the studio, costs €532 (£461) per person, or €914 (£791) for two. Dates available monthly, May to October. For bookings: 00-33 233 049076, or firstname.lastname@example.org.