Tuesday 7 March 2023

Time for Britain to honour and pay tribute to its Master Stone Carver, Rory Young

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Rory, who has died at the age of sixty-seven, was born early in 1954 in the market town of  Cirencester, Gloucestershire, into a family of Cotswold farmers. His was to be a very different future from work on the land and i
n his fifty year career, he was to become an inspiration for a life devoted to the practice and history of traditional buildings. Yet despite the fact that in his lifetime, he was hailed as one of the country’s most eminent artist-craftsmen, only the provincial 'Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard' (link) has marked his passing. All this, despite the fact that he, in a career which spanned 50 years, worked, most notably, on restoring the stone carvings of the Great West Door of York Minster and designed, carved and painted seven new stone martyrs for medieval niches in the nave screen at St Albans Cathedral.


Rory was born in the Spring of 1954 on College Farm, Cirencester, Gloucestershire. His father, a tenant farmer, had the the 700 acre farm passed to him from his father. Built in 1845 it was part of the 
Royal Agricultural College, the first agricultural college to be formed in England, Originally 410 acres in size, by the 20th century it had grown to 700 acres. At home, on the farm, Rory was surrounded by history and he and his sister Katrina would have been familiar with buildings which had once housed the carpenter's shop, smithy, slaughterhouse, stables for the working horses, pigsties, massive three-storey feeding house and steam engine house, all built in mellow Cotswold stone. 

He was photographed at the age of four in a sandpit with his sister Katrina and said : "There's me looking defiant, having just pulled the sand out of the first arch, which my father taught me how to build". He said he lost interest in farming from this point on with the exception of his discovery of hands-on building while repairing dry stone walls, the love of which stayed with him and was reflected in the recent masterpiece he created in the garden of his house in Cirencester, which enclosed his ‘Court of Memory’ which was the fulfilment of a dream. 

At a young age he loved the ancient  patina of buildings and on camping holidays with his parents in Pembrokeshire, he had noticed the texture and decay of buildings at an old slate quarry. His mother, Jill, made a pen and wash copy of the coastline in the area based on an old photograph. 

At the age of five his parents paid for him to attend Oakley Hall Prep School for Boys in Cirencester, which was under the Headmastership of RFB Letts and where, according to the Telegraph : 'It was a place of chalk dust, mortar boards and flogging. Letts would sweep into Sunday chapel in a gown to take services according to the Book of Common Prayer, complete with responses sung to a wheezing harmonium. Swimming was conducted without trunks and boys had to declare daily details of their bowel movements. After that it was into a curriculum of Ovid, Homer and English kings and queens'.

At the age thirteen he was packed off south to Somerset, where he was a boarder at the independent boys' school, Taunton College, When he was in the sixth form he became the 'Art Editor' and displayed his pen and ink work on the pages of the school's termly magazine, the 'Aluredian', with domestic scenes like the school's old and new kitchens.

Back home in Cirencester he said : "I was building follies down the garden at College Farm. The culmination of that was when I was twenty in 1974, building and industrial byzantine façade. Thirty years later he supervised the repairs to his red brick folly carried out by The Society for the Protection of Ancent Buildings, Lethaby Scholars and the William Morris Craft Fellows.

In 1973 he had left school and took up a place to study fine art at the Camberwell College of Arts in South London. 
When he graduated in 1976 he embarked, in a campervan, on a painting tour of the North of England. He lived on £13 a week, parked in laybys and became a vegetarian by necessity and, despite coming from a well-off middle class family, said : "I’ve always turned on a sixpence and lived on a shoestring" and "I wanted to see the mills of the north, my England before it was all demolished". 

The experience had a lasting effect on him and inspired him to devote his life to the history and practice of traditional building techniques. He now began a career in which he was, by turns, a sculptor, a memorial letter cutter, a builder and a building repairer. He started by managing to find work reconstructing a 17th century gazebo and set about teaching himself masonry, mortared walling, paving and plastering. He became an expert in and effective champion of lime, which he called the : "Lifeblood of all traditional buildings and has the advantage over cement of being protective, nourishing, even the stone it coats and also permeable, allowing building to breathe". 

From the start, his preferred rock was limestone, because he knew that the masons of the past who worked sandstone of Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Staffordshire, were taken by silicosis at an average age of 35. As he said : "Sandstone masons died like flies; but you couldn’t kill a limestone mason. Masons in the Cotswolds would live far longer : limestone dust is pretty well harmless". The thing that he did share with those masons was anonymity and it didn't bother him. He said : "Both on the Great West Door of York Minster and on the St Albans seven martyrs, there have been various television features where my name doesn’t appear. And I’m delighted about that. I really am". What he appreciated was not praise or accolade, so much as the commission itself. He believed that carvings are designed to honour a building, or place, by enhancing its existing qualities, and adding to its cultural significance.

He worked on the basis that sculptures aren’t ‘found’ in stone, but are painstakingly worked and teased out using highly technical skills with coordinates, measurements and skilled drawings prefiguring any picking up of chisels. Rory said : "This romantic idea that comes from Michelangelo, that you’re revealing the figure out of a block of stone, in fact, right back to the Ancient Greeks, sculptors made models and copied from them. Eric Gill, a great hero of mine in terms of lettering and a brilliant designer, even he, on big pieces, would be working from a model. So everything would be scaled up mechanically".

By the end of the 20th century the carvings around the arch of the main west door of York Minster had deteriorated badly and in 1998 Rory was commissioned to replace them with new designs and the decision was made to replace them with carvings of stories from the Book of Genesis. 
Rory started with a strikingly contemporary 'Hand of God' for the Creation and followed with 'Adam and Eve', 'Cain and Abel' and 'Noah'. The decision was also made that the stories should be presented in a more twentieth-century fashion, with a focus on the human lessons to be learned from the text, such as the responsibility of mankind as stewards of God’s creation, the necessary harmony between man and animals as evoked by Rory's image of Noah’s Ark.

In his career, Rory works in Westminster Abbey, the Guards Chapel, St. George's Bloomsbury, Carlisle Cathedral, the Chapel of the Dukes of Beaufort and parish churches. Of the latter he said : "Poor old churches. They have to afford insurance; mending a roof that’s been stolen; dealing with dry-rot in the pews. It’s very rare that there’s actually money to put the icing on the cake; to adorn in an artistic way".

In 2001 he was commissioned to produce the memorial stone for Peter Blake, the revered New Zealand yachtsman, who was killed by pirates while he was on an environmental exploration trip in South America. Peter's wife asked Rory to create the stone for the commemoration service in Auckland, which in the event, was attended by 40,000 people and the Prime Minister and Brazillian Ambassador. Rory said : "Occasionally I allow the stone to actually dictate the design". With slate from Cumbria he said he : "Used the stripes on the stone. The idea of the equator for the northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere and the sky and the great swell of the ocean he sailed on".(link)

In 2010 at the age of fifty-six Rory took on his biggest project, the sculpt and paint s
even new painted stone statues of the St Alban's Martyrs and install them in the medieval niches in the nave screen at the Cathedral. 
During the five years which followed, Rory worked closely with the Dean of the Cathedral, the Dr Jeffrey John who said : "Rory Young’s research has been meticulous and his workmanship of tremendous quality. The statues are a fine contemporary reworking of a medieval tradition, but the statues fit and blend in so well; it feels as if they have been here for centuries. The recent saints remind us that there are Christian martyrs in every age – probably more now than there have been for many years – and inspire us to be braver ourselves in standing up for what we believe"Rory himself said : "It was a huge privilege to win this commission and to actually work on the fabric of the building in preparation for installing the statues. It has been incredibly humbling to attempt to portray these Christian heroes". 

Historically, no painted figures in the country had been placed in a church screens since before the the English Civil War in the seventeenth century. He said the first thing I did was to study the screens which had survived. (link) Then before painting the St Albans martyrs blue, yellow, pink, green against a halo of ivory stone, he referenced the work of cathedral archaeologist Jerry Sampson, who spent a lifetime studying the West Front of Wells Cathedral and the existing church screens in England. Rory said : "Having been trained as a fine art painter, to me colour is an absolute joy in my life". He was keen to emulate the screens of the past because, as he said : "We do misunderstand, don’t we, the vivid, vibrant colours with which our ancestors imbued our sacred buildings ". 

Rory said he : "Wanted the colours to be the servants of  form" and worked, being conscious of how the light from the window in the south aisle played on the drapery and heads of the saints and how the colour : "Inevitably helps to describe them and tell their stories". (link) He also said : "‘Somebody said to me : "Only you, Rory, could have trodden the dodgy line between bad taste and high art". For me, that was the ultimate compliment". Although he also said : "I really did nearly burn up one of my nine lives on that. Working crazy hours to achieve what I wanted. I wanted to take these St Albans stone statues to a great level of realism. I was painting them, so that was a complete departure; nobody had done anything like this in my lifetime."

In 2019 he went on a week long painting trip organised by a fellow painter from his Camberwell College days. As a result, his Ayrshire lime kiln was his first painting for many years and he said : "That's my insurance for old age, getting back to painting and writing my memoirs of my tour of the North of England, which I did when I left art school and that was the moment that I switched from living the life of a fine artist to being conservator and builder of ancient buildings".

When Rory learned that he had cancer at the age of sixty-eight, he decided to spend some of the time he had left trying to raise money for the cancer unit at Cheltenham General Hospital, which treated him. As a result, during the lockdown winter of 2020-21, as part of a £480,000 restoration project at the church,  Rory and a colleague spent four weeks crafting a 22-inch by 17.5-inch masked-medic grotesque out of Lépine limestone from France, simply titled 'A National Health Service Worker'. 

He first created the full-scale polystyrene model of the head, which he planned to sell by auction and was painted to look identical to the stone carving and it was money raised from this which he planned to donate to the hospital. He had been inspired by a photograph of architect Columba Cook’s niece, a doctor working in an intensive care unit and he said : "I enjoyed doing the medieval drapery for her head gear, her PPS and her mask with nice facets. We decided goggles were quite impossible. We needed to see human eyes looking down in gargoyle tradition". He said that it : "Put me in the limelight with my sculpture which I'd never had before, apart from St. Albans, my work is deeply out of fashion, but suddenly there were crowds of young people with their phones looking up at this figure in situ". 

Rory showed three pieces of his work at 'Fresh Air Sculpture Show in 2022'. His '
Flight and Footfall' which was a paved slab for the floor of the Europa Building, Heathrow, Terminal 1, was, as he said : "A nod to the inspiring phenomenon of mass air travel" and "The inscribed floor slab celebrates aviation history, the memory of the iconic Europa Building at Heathrow and utilization of British geology.  These themes are crystallized in a frieze of ‘concrete poetry’ whose letterform and colour are redolent of the heyday of commercial air travel". In addition, he said : "
The alliterative text provides cultural significance for this relic" and "If it had been installed at that time from 1955 to 2005, it is estimated 314 Million pairs of feet would have walked across this floor. The wear on the surface is equal to that of an ancient cathedral floor".

He said his 'Durer’s Magic Square' had "Numeric figures in grid raised off a background, tooled in imitation of Durer’s diagonal hatching by ‘chisel rocking’. A recreation of the number square featured in ‘Melancolia I’, an engraving by Albrecht Durer". He referred to the magic number square seen behind the despairing angel in the engraving one of the most well-known old master prints which intriguingly resisted a definitive interpretation. He said : "The square follows the traditional rules of magic squares: each of its rows, columns, and diagonals adds to the same number, 34. The corners and each quadrant sum to 34, In fact you can find eighteen ways to make 34. Any number added to its symmetric opposite equals 17. The two middle cells of the bottom row give the date of the engraving, 1514, the year Durer’s mother died".

He said his 'There Must be a Bygynnyng' : "Was a deeply carved quote from a letter from Sir Francis Drake to Sir Francis Walsingham in 1587 about the importance of completing the job". Rory remembered he had heard this powerful message read solemnly at school services at Taunton College, at least once a term. It was adapted as a prayer in the early 20th Century but the original text referred to quashing the Spanish Armada.

Artist PJ Crook said : "As a fellow artist, I was always hugely moved by Rory’s great dedication to his work. They were imbued with his spirit of sublime beauty and grace many churches, cathedrals and secular buildings, a legacy left to lift and inspire us over the generations".

On the gravestone that Rory designed for himself, he used a quote from Pericles, which in his case isn't true, since he left behind both : 

‘What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others’


  1. conal o'donnell8 March 2023 at 00:56

    Great tribute to a superb artist-craftsman whom it was a life enhancing pleasure to know.

  2. One of the most talented and enthusiastic people I’ve ever known - an honour to have been one of his many friends.