Introducing the Craftspeople of St Paul’s Cathedral

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Introducing the Craftspeople of St Paul’s Cathedral

John William Drake, stonecarver

Many are familiar with the name of Sir Edwin Lutyens; fewer of us will be familiar with the name of John William Drake – a stone carver who worked alongside him on many occasions and who - along with Lutyen’s close friend William Curtis Green, worked on carving his memorial tablet in the Crypt of St Paul’s.

In July this year his grandson, Frank Dumbleton, who is researching his life and work thoroughly, contacted the Cathedral Archivist for help identifying a photographed piece of carving that purported to be part of the Cathedral. We were successful, with the help of the Cathedral Conservator and the photograph retained by Mr. Dumbleton, in identifying this piece, which transpired to be the open pediment located over the external South West Dean’s Door, leading to the Geometric Staircase. This is typical of his work, and he evidently either worked on this piece himself or took the photograph as a reference. The Cathedral’s involvement in London Craft Week seemed a good opportunity to share the stories of some of the many very ordinary yet very gifted craftspeople that helped craft St Paul’s and its many fixtures. His grandson kindly supported this and was willing to share his research with us. 

John William was born in Bradford on 10 March 1883, the youngest of four brothers. He studied stone carving with his father, Alfred and was subsequently apprenticed to his brother Moses, also a stone carver and nine years older than John William. He then worked on Cartwright Hall, Bradford, under the sculptor Abraham Broadbent who asked him to go to London to work for him.

Abraham Broadbent was also a Yorkshireman, born at Shipley in 1868, who had moved to London in the 1890s. Broadbent worked on an extensive programme of carving for the School Hall at Eton College between 1904 and 1908. Evidently John William worked at Eton on this project because it was there he met his future wife, Lucy Eva Elder. Lucy, born on 4 December 1887, worked in the tuck shop at the college, along with her sister Beatrice. Occasionally they waited at table for college banquets, when Beatrice was told that her name was too grand for a serving girl (she shared it with Queen Victoria’s youngest daughter) so they used her middle name, Emily!

Lucy’s father, James Elder, was a servant in the royal household at Windsor Castle. He had a friend who was a policeman and rather hoped that Lucy would marry him. It seems he didn’t approve of an itinerant stone carver as a prospective son-in-law. However, Lucy was having none of that: one day she put on her best clothes, covered them with her work coat, and walked out of her parents’ house to marry John William.

The ceremony was in Bradford on 1 August 1908. On the wedding certificate John William has an address in Eton, while Lucy’s address is that of her parents-in-law at Bradford. The newlyweds soon bought their first home in Southall, Middlesex, and went on to have six children – five daughters and one son.
In 1915, John William exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, a ‘Study of a Head’ in marble. As the First World War gathered pace, John William saw a period of wartime service both on the front lines and as a craftsman needed to assist in the huge increase in production of aircraft between 1915 and 1918 – probably carving propeller blades. After the First World War, he carved the wreaths on the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London, one of the many memorials Lutyens was responsible for as one of the principal architects to the Imperial (later Commonwealth) War Graves Commission. He also carved the decorative stone features representing fruit, flowers and foliage around the windows and doorways of the Midland Bank at 196 Piccadilly (now Maison Assouline gallery). 

In the early 1920s John William and his brother Moses worked on carvings for Gledstone Hall, West Marton, Yorkshire, designed by Lutyens. At the same time John William was also one of the 1,500 artists, craftsmen and manufacturers who worked on Queen Mary’s Dolls House, one of Lutyens most famous projects. John William carved some of the miniature detail with a darning needle! 

In 1943 John William was working on another memorial commission from Lutyens, whose health was deteriorating. In a letter to his brother Moses, written late that year, John William describes a poignant visit to Sir Edwin’s office:

“I took the front panel up to his office yesterday but could not see him, he is so ill. The lady secretary said he was in a coma. She said she must warn me that Sir Edwin is not the same man as when I last saw him. He wants to get better, he says he has such a lot to do. Some days he feels a little better and walks into the office, of course it is like going from one room into another. I had to leave my model until he is able to see it.”

Lutyens died on 1 January 1944, and his ashes were placed in the Cathedral Crypt beneath a planned memorial tablet. John William wrote to his brother Moses on 27 March 1944:

“Well, I had a phone message from an architect called Curtis Green RA. […] I went to his office on Thursday morning and he said the Royal Academy wanted to put a memorial up to Sir Edwin Lutyens and they wanted me to do the coat of arms. It is to be fixed in St Paul’s Cathedral crypt but I have to make a drawing first to full size and he said the tablet might be Hopton Wood and the coat of arms bronze.”

The tablet seemingly took a long time to produce, and John William clearly had various other commissions on the go: just over a year later, on 11 April 1945, John William wrote again to Moses:

“I have been doing a bit too much, I have been doing 4 sets of dancing figures 10” high, they are for demonstration lessons of dancing and now I have to get on with the Lutyens memorial for St Paul’s and my garden and allotment wants doing yet, I am all behind this year.”

On 26 November 1945 John William again wrote to Moses, with the Lutyens tablet apparently finished but not yet installed in the Cathedral: “I have not got the Sir Edwin Lutyens memorial fixed yet, it has to go through so many hands, the mason work and bronze cast and enamelling.”

The Lutyens memorial tablet was finally unveiled in the crypt of St Paul’s on 9 May 1946 by Sir Alfred Munnings, Lutyen’s successor as President of the Royal Academy.

A few days later, the Royal Academy sent John William a note accompanying a cheque for £180 for production of the tablet - quite a generous amount (equivalent to about £7,200 today) when the average wage was about £6 a week. 

John William continued to work for the Lutyens family, largely through Lutyen’s eldest son Robert, also a designer and architect. On 16 December 1946 he wrote again to Moses:

“Well I seem to be getting plenty of work these days. I have two tombs to do for Lutyens to be fixed in Lincolnshire in Ketton Stone. I have to model them up in Lutyens’ place. I am having all the side with moulding run in plaster then model the drapery and laurel wreath on it. Well I think you will be getting tired of hearing about this work. I get tired of it sometimes when they want it done at once. I often think of you having a hammer at each place so they don’t ask you if you are coming in the morning. Those good old days, they were nice to look back on.” 

The extracts from his letters give the impression of a skilled, hardworking and gently humorous man, as well as a glimpse into the life of a stonecarver of early-mid 20th century, and the changes he witnessed over the years – it certainly seems that clients became more demanding!

His grandson Frank has some early memories of him, which speak the loudest, and provide a fitting conclusion:

“I was born in 1945, and can just about remember John William before his death in March 1950. His routine was to return in the evening from the stonemason’s studio where he worked in Ealing. In those pre-television days he spent the evenings dozing in a ladder-back wooden armchair with a rush seat. But before settling down he would have a few minutes’ contemplation on the outside toilet. I’m not sure why he chose that one, when there was a warmer bathroom upstairs. The simple wooden planked door to the outside toilet had a finger-sized hole in one of the planks. Our routine was for me to poke a finger through the hole and he would try to grab it before I could pull it out. Then his finger would appear outside and I would try to grab that. A simple game played with the hands that I now realise did such wonderful work.

Vanessa Bell
With many thanks to Frank Dumbleton for use of his writing and research in preparing this article