A Lost Craft? Rediscovering The Art of Stonemasonry

Stonemasonry is a craft that can be traced back to the beginning of civilisation. Its usage spans from architecture to sculpture. It is more than a craft, one which comprises of construction as sculpture – stonemasonry has a rich heritage. However, in contemporary society, it is easy to regard stonemasonry as a dying art form and one that we associate with a past before industrialisation. However, in the last few years, there has been a resurgence in both York and Norwich in restoring this noble craft. I visited the Guild of St. Stephen and St. George, based in Norwich, to see how they have breathed new life back into the craft.

Example piece of Apprentice’s work after a year of training.

Sculptors we think of nowadays like Michelangelo began as time-served craftsman who completed apprenticeships like the apprentices at the Guild of St Stephen and St George. The guild was formally constituted in 2016 and has since undertaken eleven craft apprentices. On top of this, they have also taken on two academic apprentices, who must be studying towards a PhD in Fine Art to qualify. The apprentices are trained by Master Stephen; an international Guild Master, one of only twelve in the world. His geographical area of responsibility covers England, Normandy, Southern Italy, North Africa and part of present-day Turkey and Syria. To be a Guild Master one must have a PhD/ThD as well as a minimum of thirty years of top-level experience and continuous work as a stonemason (for instance, Master Stephen was Master Mason at Windsor Castle and is a Blue Riband winner). He is widely regarded as the finest English Baroque carver in the world and has a waiting list of several years for top clients. His guild, the European Guild of Master Masons (EGMM), was founded in 1096 and the Master's expertise is therefore partly based on the accumulated knowledge of a continuous line of Masters he can name back to the founding Master, Robert de Bessie, in 1080.

Guild procession – a tradition of craft guilds where all members walk in a procession around Norwich displaying their craft.

Upon admission into the Guild, a lifelong relationship between Master and apprentice is forged. Master Stephen is a Master of his craft, not a ‘master’ over the apprentice. He is obligated to share with them the mysteries of the craft and his only motivation is to equip them with the knowledge to become a better stonemason in their time than he has been in his. The apprentices are the beneficiaries of a line of continuity through time stretching back continuously to founding Master, Robert de Bessie and including, for instance, Michel Villedo, the Master who built Versailles. The tradition of this type of stonemasonry apprenticeship is that of the elite level ‘court’ Masters and the current custodian of this tradition, Master Stephen, is the living embodiment of this intangible heritage.

An example of Master Stephen’s work in the Baroque Style.

The process of working with stone is laborious and perilous. In the traditional training, apprentices have to learn a plethora of skills. As well as the stonemasonry itself, they must learn to sketch, to do geometry, to mould plaster castings, etc. On top of this, what was surprising to learn is that apprentices partake in dance to further their understanding of spatial awareness. All of these contribute to the quality of their work. Yet although this training is hard work, it is arguably the most rewarding craft. The fascinating element with working with stone is that it is unyielding. Unlike other mediums, such as clay – or even wood – it is unmalleable. Working with stone can break your heart, as days of work shatter before your eyes by one wrong move. Guild master Stephen can hear – even smell – faults in stone and work around them. This is what makes the work that the apprentices and Master Stephen produce all the more impressive.


Alicia Arnold

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