A Life Carved In Wood

A Life Carved In Wood

by Peter d’Aguilar

Peter d’Aguilar met up with 93-year-old wood carver Greta Chatterley to talk about her long and extraordinary career

Around the age of ten, Greta Chatterley found an old penknife and began to whittle shapes out of odd pieces of wood and even the ends of broom handles. “We ended up with some very short brooms!” Greta confesses. Born in Warwickshire in 1924, Greta moved home constantly during her childhood, attending eight different schools and missing one academic year altogether. Her teenage years were swallowed up by the Second World War. Despite this disruption, Greta continued to develop her carving skills; giving one of her early creations as a present to an uncle living in Lincoln. A professional carver working in Lincoln Cathedral confirmed that Greta had real talent, so her uncle bought her a set of proper carving chisels.

After school Greta learned shorthand and typing, but wood carving remained her greatest passion. By now her family had moved to Sussex and she met her mentor, master carver George Swaysland, at an evening class in Newhaven. He soon asked Greta to take on one of his classes. One of her students was the governor of Lewes Prison. For the next two years she gave carving lessons to his long-term inmates. “They couldn’t have been nicer, and several were very talented. When one began a particularly elaborate project, I questioned whether he would finish it in time. ‘Don’t worry, Miss C’, he replied. ‘I’m doing life’. Some of them were in for murder, but I never felt afraid – even with sharp tools around.”

Greta spent the next fifty years teaching. Today, aged 93, she runs Chatterley Carvers – a group of local enthusiasts who meet on Wednesday evenings at Bells Yew Green village hall. “It’s been such a pleasure to watch my students developing their skills.”

Alongside her teaching, Greta has created some incredibly beautiful and intricate carving, letter cutting and pyrography – literally ‘writing with fire’. Early in her career she was the only female carver in a furniture factory. Later, she set up a business called ‘Fakes’ with two partners, converting reclaimed oak into high quality reproductions. A Sotheby’s expert dated one of their pieces as ‘genuine Sixteenth Century’.

Greta has also worked in many churches and chapels. Amongst her many restoration projects, Greta recreated cherubs for a Decalogue in Ashburnham Church vandalised by Cromwell’s troops. Her commissions include numerous coats of arms, plaques and statues – ranging from John the Baptist to a buffalo for the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes. Greta was accepted into the Women’s Guild of Arts in recognition of her outstanding craftsmanship. While cutting names into a door frame at Battle Abbey, a large chunk of plaster fell from the ceiling, narrowly missing her head.

“I hope that wasn’t a comment on my work!” She called out to whoever was up above. Greta’s love of animals and birds has always been a source of inspiration. Once, while hammering away at a large piece in her workshop, her pet parrot Gussie was bouncing up and down on the end of her bench. After one mighty blow, Gussie landed on her back on the floor, “oh golly!” She exclaimed.