Martin and Oliver Webb Fine Stone Miniatures. Museum quality handmade miniatures of stone carvings for the collector and connoisseur.
No. 85

The Cathedral Builders
A stonemason's photograph album
Page 1 of 8

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The following photographs are a selection of our snap shots taken at work on various sites. We gratefully acknowledge Capps and Capps Limited, Repair Of Old Buildings, on whose sites many of these pictures were taken during work. 

The ancient craft of stonemasonry continues virtually unchanged since medieval times. Even tools left by the Egyptians at the time of the Pyramids are fundamentally similar to their modern counterparts. Here Martin Webb dresses parapet stones for Great Malvern Priory.

These two beautiful pictures were taken somewhere around the begining of the twentieth century and show Hopcraft and Son's stone masonry yard which was in Worcester. With the exception of the horse drawn transport and the clothing styles the scene in some modern yards isn't all that different. These photos were generously loaned to us by Malcom Hopcraft whose grandfather, I believe, is the formidable looking gent seated in the centre of the top picture. Considering how tough the trade was in the pre-health and safety era in which these pictures were taken - grit and sand stone masons (to quote the words of Henry, the stone mason with whom I did my apprenticeship) had "had it by thirty", it is worth noting that the men's attire was dignified nonetheless; an all together more elegant era. Continuing the family tradition Malcolm now works as a freelance sculptor, designer and furniture maker. He worked as a stone mason with Martin in the late 1970s.

 

The Cathedral Builders
by John Ormond

They climbed on sketchy ladders towards God,

with winch and pulley hoisted hewn rock into heaven,

inhabited the sky with hammers,

defied gravity,

deified stone,

took up God's house to meet him,

and came down to their suppers

and small beer,

every night slept, lay with their smelly wives,

quarrelled and cuffed the children,

lied, spat, sang, were happy, or unhappy,

and every day took to the ladders again,

impeded the rights of way of another summer's swallows,

grew greyer, shakier,

became less inclined to fix a neighbour's roof of a fine evening,

saw naves sprout arches, clerestories soar,

cursed the loud fancy glaziers for their luck,

somehow escaped the plague,

got rheumatism,

decided it was time to give it up,

to leave the spire to others,

stood in the crowd, well back from the vestments at the consecration,

envied the fat bishop his warm boots,

cocked a squint eye aloft,

and said, "I bloody did that."

*****************************

Life Sculpture (excerpt)
by George Washington Doane

Chisel in hand stood a sculptor boy

With his marble block before him,

And his eyes lit up with a smile of joy,

As an angel-dream passed o'er him

 

He carved the dream on that shapeless stone,

With many a sharp incision:

With heaven's own light the sculpture shone -

He'd caught that angel-vision.

 

A typical workplace for a stonemason. This is Pershore Abbey in Worcestershire. In the summer nothing compares to working amongst the birds and sunshine high up on one of our magnificent ancient treasures. But in January your hands freeze to the scaffolding. 

Bold and simple modern form is actually not all that new! How many architects would be proud to pen a design as stunning as the medieval Albi Cathedral in France? 
Photo: Alastair Bruce

 

We are so used to seeing our ancient cathedrals and churches in their present form; mellowed and bleached with age, weather and lichen, that we forget that once these buildings were crisp and new. Not only that, but frequently brightly coloured too. Traces of the original pigments can often be detected in sheltered nooks and crannies, even today. Pershore Abbey's tower, for example, was once limewashed a sparkling white, quite a shock to modern eyes. The incredible and enormous west front of Amiens Cathedral in northern France (above) was found, during recent cleaning, to have originally been brightly painted. With the use of clever lighting the statues and carvings were repainted in coloured light to exactly recreate the vibrant spectacle that the cathedral presented in its youth. 
Photo: B. Lewis

Few trades can claim to work with older materials than stone! I find it quite poignant that the stone which is mined today and the weathered and worn stone it replaces on our ancient buildings, are actually the same age as each other. Shown on the left is a lime stone mine near Bath. The tunnels extend for miles and miles, over a hundred in total. Much of the workings are now deserted, as here, but some still work. There is no darkness, or silence as intense as that down a deserted mine! 
Once the stone is extracted from the ground as a quarry block, usually upward of two tons, the process of turning it into pieces of dressed stone masonry begins. Here a block is being sawn on a stone saw. The blade is tungsten/diamond tipped and is water cooled to prevent the whole thing destroying itself in a fabulously expensive fire show! A blade like this will probably cost about 2,000, and it will, depending upon the type of stone it cuts, withstand re-tipping a couple of times before it is worn out. The machine itself, however, is a wonderful piece of turn of the century engineering. This particular example, made by the Anderson Grice Company of Carnoustie, was bought second hand from Prinknash Abbey, it was made somewhere around 1900. Modern computer controlled saws are consigning many of the old manually operated saws like this one to the scrap heap.
A sunny afternoon in the saw shop. The saw shop itself is usually a damp and cold place, everything gets coated in a layer of clay-like stone dust which settles as dust laden spray. A sunny day can make even the saw shop seem like not such a bad place. The saw bed is on the left and a gantry runs above, notice the lifting hook. Some off-cuts of stone lie stacked temporarily waiting to be cut up further into small pieces, or trundled off down the yard to be stacked for some future project.
A stack of slabbed quarry blocks awaiting secondary cutting into cube form. A fork lift truck or crane are an absolute prerequisite in a mason's yard, even buckets of spinach or Shredded Wheat are no substitute!
This photograph shows a slab being split into pieces using Plug and Feathers. Holes are drilled along the line of the intended fracture, then steel wedges called feathers are inserted and then the steel plug (similar to a tapered, flat chisel) is driven in. Positioning a fulcrum beneath the fracture helps the operation, which is surprisingly effortless and extremely satisfying when it goes just right!
And from such ponderous and seemingly intractable lumps can be wrought delicacy and beauty.

 

 

                             ..................hopefully!


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