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)