London’s heart of stone

Irish Times

Sat, Aug 28, 2010

Craft Work: More than 700 years ago, an Irish sculptor built a cross that came to mark the heart of London. Now sculptor Stephen Burke has followed in his footsteps by restoring its modern counterpart, writes MICHAEL MURRAY-FENNELL

‘DRIPPING WITH ornament” is Stephen Burke’s description of the massive stone cross outside London’s Charing Cross station that he has helped to restore. Over the past 10 months, the 32-year-old Irish sculptor worked high above the capital’s red buses and black taxis, re-creating elements of the cross that were destroyed by decades of pollution and pigeon droppings.

The original cross was built by king Edward I in 1290 in memory of his wife, queen Eleanor of Castile, who succumbed to a fever while on a tour of northern England. The queen accompanied Edward on his Crusade, bore him 15 children and – it was said – even sucked poison from his wounds following a failed assassination attempt. “I loved her dearly during her lifetime,” a distraught Edward wrote. “I shall not cease to love her now that she is dead.”

As Eleanor’s funeral procession made its way to Westminster Abbey it stopped at 12 points, where the king subsequently erected monuments. These came to be called the Eleanor Crosses, the last and most splendid of which was built within sight of the abbey, in Charing village. As London grew, the village was swallowed up and soon the cross at Charing became the official epicentre of the city, the point from which distances to and from the capital were measured.

Medieval master craftsman William of Ireland was responsible for carving the elaborate decoration on the cross so it is fitting that Burke is following in his footsteps. Yet the Charing Cross that Burke worked on is not the original. It was destroyed in 1647 during the English civil war. A lavish replacement was built more than 200 years later, a marketing tool designed to promote the new Charing Cross Hotel and to tap into a Victorian reverence for all things medieval.

The restoration was a subtle and delicate process. “You end up carving quite abstract forms to arrive at something that can be read from the ground,” Burke says. “It’s a challenge.”

During the restoration, he discovered a business card left by one of his 19th-century predecessors behind a weathered shield. Carved into a piece of tile was the signature, “S Manley, 1865”. Burke has nothing but praise for the skill of Manley, pointing out one of the elaborate niches halfway up that houses a life-sized statue of Eleanor. “The way those arches spring out, the geometry there is wonderful. It’s a complicated piece of work and it’s great that they didn’t shy away from it and think, ‘aw, we’ll just do it the easy way’.”

So does he consider himself to be continuing the tradition of Manley and William of Ireland? “To be honest, the nostalgia and ‘ye olde crafte’ thing bores me,” Burke laughs, adding: “I was drawn towards the material of stone, how it behaves, what you can do with it.”

Burke’s first workshop was in his back garden in Bray. He first picked up the chisel at 16. “I used to buy old pieces of stone at the quarries, lug them home and then carve and carve and carve. Everything from letters to pillars to bowls.” After studying fine art at DIT and Cork’s Crawford College of Art and Design, he enrolled at the City and Guilds of London Art School for a three-year diploma in architectural stone-carving. “I got a great breadth of knowledge at art college but I wanted to learn more about stone.”

Burke left City and Guilds with a first and still returns there occasionally to teach. Today, his chisel is for hire but the marketplace for carving is radically different from when the Charing Crosses were erected. “Cost is a big factor,” he says. “Nowadays, carving on a contemporary new build is no longer in demand.” Evidence of this is directly opposite the Charing Cross, where a new office block has gone up, one bland and unadorned slab of stone placed on top of the other.

The ornate Charing Cross stands as a rebuke to that style of building. The scaffolding has come down, revealing the majestic monument completely refreshed. Before the final shield with the Queen’s coat of arms was fixed into position, Stephen’s name and that of his fellow craftsmen were carved into the back of it. Whether in another 145 years, the cross will need some more tender loving care and Burke’s name will be uncovered is anyone’s guess.

Irish Times article