Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Article 2013

It's a bright but chilly morning when I reach Stephen Critchleys East Anglian workshop after a 90 minute drive from London. I find my way the last few metres by following the tap tap tap of the masons carving. With introductions over and cup of tea in hand I am shown an amazing collection of carved urns, parts of fire surrounds and curios, all use as a resource to aid training his apprentices and the design process.

After training in London and working on Inigo Jones, James Gibbs and William Chambers buildings Stephen moved to Norfolk in 1990 and then on to the Cotswold's 5years later. He is now back in Norfolk in his new workshop. “we are keeping our Cotswold workshop going but rather than expand it. I have set up this new workshop back in Norfolk, that way we stay close to the best limestone quarries in the country and also more easily cover the eastern side of the country and London.”

Stephen workshop is all you would expect from a true craftsman, wonderfully strange looking tools and devices, jars and tins of powders, books of gold leaf, corks, lead shot and many things I couldn't even guess at. He shows me the range of marbles, limestone's, sandstone's and slates from across the world from which he and his team hand carve the exquisite fire surrounds and ornaments. “I've also built up a store of high quality stone that is no longer quarried which I use mainly for inlay work and the higher end projects such as Athelstan stone and Oxford coral marble.”

“ We mainly produce fire surrounds these day but also garden ornaments, water features and the occasional coat of arms” Stephen explains. “We also make window sills etc. If people like us keep turning down this sort of work we'll all end up with concrete and cast stone details on our properties”

To get an idea of the process Stephen gives me a short demonstration of carving on a Limestone Corinthian Capital he is presently working on. I'm amazed to see the detail forming before my eyes while Stephen explains how the design is governed by a set of rules laid down in classical times. “This and the finished one already wrapped on a pallet is for a project in Oxfordshire” he explains.

Through years of practical experience and a knowledge that only comes from a love of a subject Stephen makes works of art (actually Stephen has corrected me) works of craft from materials millions of years in the forming look, if not easy at least natural.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my visit today, expecting to find age old craft dwindling to extinction I have in fact found a vibrant craft carried out by people who although using heritage skill are confidently looking to a healthy future.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

An Ageless Scene (article 2012)

Based in Rural Norfolk a modest building with the muffled sound of tapping emanating from it houses the legacy of thousands of years of accumulated knowledge and techniques.

Once inside the visitor sees amongst an array of carved lions heads, acanthus leaves and Greek ornaments one of the present practitioners of the master masons art working at his banker (a stonemasons bench) forming intricate designs in an ancient block of marble with nothing more than a mallet and a chisels.

Stephen Critchley has been a stonemason for over 30 years and when listening to him talk of his craft you get a sense of the pride and privilege he feels. Whilst talking to me of the tools he used he explained how the chisel he was using was given to him by some past master and is over 100 years old. “We never dismiss the old tools or techniques purely in the name of progress.”

He has produced carved work for many of London's historic and important buildings over his varied career including Somerset House, The Queen's House, Greenwich and The Palace of Westminster. “ I have been lucky enough to have worked on some amazing projects but it's the thought of the ones ahead that excite me.”

I asked how he could continue working as we spoke. “ a lot of the skill behind carving is muscle memory linked with feel and the sound of the chisel striking the marble, this is why it takes so long to become really proficient”

Stephen has worked in and run modern workshops over the years but has decided to concentrate now on the traditional ways of working and hand skills. “Producing individual pieces as I do, there is very little benefit from working with the latest machinery, the use of which causes a loss of skill and quality.”

His main business today consists of high quality hand carved bespoke fire surrounds but he still produces garden ornaments, coats of arms and dressed stone for architectural projects.

A large part of the ethos of this business is training the next generation “I feel a great pressure to pass on as many of my skills as possible and keep my craft alive. I was lucky to have a connected training, which means my apprentice master started his training in 1948, his master 1920's and his 1890's and so on. This type of connected experience produces a passed down knowledge and visual tips such as ocular rectification little known today. This is what I have to pass on.” Stephen has trained 11 apprentices to date with one currently just entering into this fascinating field.

At the end or my visit I felt I was leaving another world, a scene from another age I hadn't known still existed but I was happier knowing it did.

(Article from 2012)

Friday, 26 April 2013

Great Fire Surrounds & Chimney Pieces

The great fire surrounds and chimney pieces we so admire were originally made for a specific room or space, hence high quality antique fireplaces rarely look as good in their new settings as they did in their original home.

We hand carve our bespoke pieces using the appropriate harmonic proportions and ratios; either classic or Gothic, whilst taking into account the size and height of the room they are to furnish. Correct proportions are more important now as we are generally living in smaller rooms.

Fire surrounds make up a large part of our work but as stone masons and architectural sculptors we produce all types of carved ornament and dressed stone.

I was lucky to have a connected training, which means my apprentice master started his training in 1948, his master 1920's and his 1890's and so on. This type of connected experience produces a passed down knowledge and visual tips such as ocular rectification little known today. I also work daily with chisels passed down to me which originally belonged to all the people above.

We carry on the tradition of the great London companies of craftsmen such as F. G. Anstey, John Daymond, Gilbert Searle, William Aumonier and Falmer & Brindley. Never dismissing the old tools or techniques purely for the sake of  "progress".

A Biography of a Master Mason


Early life

I was born in Royal Free Hospital, Islington 1965 and lived in The Angel until moving to St. Luke's in 1968 within 1 Mile of St. Paul's Cathedral, the dome of which could then be seen from my bedroom window.

My early education was at Moreland Street School, Finsbury where we were often shown cine films of aproned craftsmen at work. Many of us had dads, granddads or other relatives who worked locally in one craft or another. I later attended Sir Philip Magnus comprehensive school.

As children we were surrounded by craftsmen and tradesmen and we thought it the norm; Wood turners and furniture leg makers in Haggerston, Clock and watch makers in Clerkenwell, Glass engravers in Shoreditch, Wood carvers in Islington, Stone Masons in Moorgate, Stained Glass makers also in Shoreditch, Bell founders in Aldgate, Blacksmiths/ Farriers in Whitecross Street and many Tailors and Typesetters, many of whom where happy for children to watch them work.

In addition to being surrounded by these skilled people my Granddad worked for the Ministry of Works (later the Department of the Environment) at The Tower of London. All this lead to my growing interest in Crafts, Architecture and History.


In the last 4 decades I have worked on all aspect of stone masonry and at all levels. I have worked under, and learnt from, some very experienced Masters and in turn instructed many trainees and been apprentice master to 11 apprentices up to this point. I entered my apprenticeship in the early 1980's with the City of London Company, Ashby and Horner who could trace their origins back to Aldgate in the 1690's and attended Vauxhall College.

While with Ashby and Horner I was involved in the working of the new Seven Dial's Monument, Covent Garden. Upon finishing my apprenticeship and becoming a journeyman, I cut my teeth on the restoration of Somerset House designed by William Chambers, St Paul's Church, Covent Garden and The Queen's House, Greenwich designed by Inigo Jones, St. Martin's in the Field designed by James Gibbs and The Egyptian Avenue, Highgate Cemetery. As I gained experience I had the opportunity to work on the Sultan of Brunei's Palace in Knightsbridge, Grand Buildings, Trafalgar Square, The Savoy Hotel, The Strand, The Canadian Pacific Building, Cockspur Street and The Aga Khan Palace at Newmarket overlooking the gallops. In the early 1990's I had advanced to foreman for J.Bysouth at Woburn Abbey and was in charge of the dismantling and rebuilding of Chambers Bridge and while working on the South Stable Block I was involved in the Consolidation of Clunch trials carried out by John Ashurst and published in the Practical Building Conservation

English Heritage Technical Handbook Volume 1 Stone Masonry.

As Master Mason I ran projects in and around Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire including Heythrop House, Wheatley Park, The YMCA Cheltenham and a variety of Regency Houses in Cheltenham. While working at Stoneleigh Abbey in 1999 I supervised the masonry and conservation packages of both phase I and phase II to their successful completion. The work consisted of the conservation and restoration of the 14th century Gate House, Garden Balustrade, Charlesworthy Bridge and Victorian conservatory. Different degrees of intervention were used for each of the works packages, recognising the individual historic properties of each structure.

Whilst working for a number of specialist conservation companies as a freelance Master Mason and contracts manager in the early 2000's, I ran projects such as the Conservation of the Piers Cloakroom and Westminster Hall at The Palace of Westminster, Windsor Castle, Lancing College Chapel and worked on the Great Court project at The British Museum. Bertholey House was built by George Maddox a pupil of John Soane. In the early 1900's it was razed to the ground over a family dispute and stood completely ruined and with no front elevation until 2000. I was asked to form and lead a small team of craftsmen and with only two drawings and a few very early photographs rebuild it to its former glory. To comply with the clients wishes all replacement stone was worked onsite including entire front elevation cornice, portico columns and Ionic capitals.

Over the course of the last few years, I have personally worked with E.G.M.M in a consultative capacity advising on conservation projects and giving talks and demonstrations and still work at least 3 days a week carving.