Most of us assume that to commission a hand carved marble or stone fire surround, ornament or piece of statuary an over expensive and exclusive purchase. So when it comes to buying a fire surround or garden ornament we often look to the high street rather than approach one of our countries master craftsmen.
Today I am visiting Stephen Critchley one such craftsman, a master stonemason with the experience to make sure your purchase is as individual to you as the finest antique pieces now out of the reach of most was to it's original owner.
Stephen was trained by a City of London company and gained experience over a 30+ year career carving stone and marble for many of the south of England's most prestigious and historically important buildings including stately homes, Palaces and churches. Having worked at the top of the heritage and luxury design sectors for so long his list of past clients reads like a who's who of European and Asian Royalty and aristocracy with a good measure of other wealthy patrons thrown in.
Upon being asked to provide some modest fire surrounds in 2008 for a client who was unhappy with the quality he was receiving from his supplier, he says “I was totally shocked by the difference in quality between what we were producing and what the general public were being expected to accept.” Stephen decided at this time to use his and his teams experience and skill to offer top design and quality to all price ranges. As master stone mason Stephen works at the head of a small specialist team of craftspeople all of whom he has trained personally.
Stephen explains the market place is a wash with machine made items produced to the same couple of dozen designs in poor quality marbles and limestones. “There are a hand full of large companies in China churning our marble and stone ornament and through aggressive advertising they are stocking the vast majority of suppliers from the high street fireplace shop to the most expensive boutique London dealers.”
I watch him carving an acanthus motif on a piece of yellow Italian marble, while he explains “When we make a bespoke fire surround for a client we are making a piece to fit the actual room it's going into using ratios, proportional and visual techniques passed down through the master craftsman to his student. We are using the same visual tricks described by Vitruvious and used by Palladio and closer to home by Wren and Hawkesmoor.”
I think most will be pleasantly surprised by the cost of a bespoke service and the quality compared to the majority of new ornamentation and most antique pieces speaks for its self. Stephen tells me “People have the idea old is best but many of the antique fire surrounds being sold at present were never top quality in the first place but produced on the equivalent of a production line for the streets of houses springing up in the 18th and 19th century to accommodate the growing city populations. Remember in those day most fireplaces were made not a luxury item but a necessity.”
While Stephen continues to show me around his workshop he tells me how he sees the great resource of British crafts people being under used by designers and architects alike. “As in the past the designs we can produce are limitless taking note of classical designs or working with modern day designers.” With the staff on a break peace falls over the workshop and I get a chance to see the work in progress, I see plain contemporary and highly decorated Regency fire surrounds, a garden urn with goat head handles, a futuristic urn made from layers of stone and bubbly green glass, a coat of arms, two marble columns and a selection of windows and pieces of moulded architectural stone all in differing stages completion.
Just before leaving I ask Stephen how he stays so enthusiastic about his craft. “I am proud of the work we produce but proudest to be training new crafts people and helping to keep a quality craft and industry in this country.”
(Article for South East Design Blog)