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Sunday, 18 September 2016

Our apprentice in Canada - Saint Joseph's Oratory

As soon as I had some free time I took the first train to Montreal because of all the fascinating stories I’ve heard about their architecture. That day I only managed to see St. Joseph’s Oratory because it required the entire day to fully appreciate it. On later visits to Montreal I visited other buildings but I always made some time to see St. Joseph’s because of the incredible atmosphere and mysterious interior.  

This Roman Catholic basilica is considered to be Canada’s largest place of worship and many devout catholics still make it part of their pilgrimage. The eclectic mix of styles makes the church a living piece of  Canadian history. It was first built in 1904 and at the time was just a plain wooden chapel. The number of visitors and pilgrims increased with each year and each decade left it’s mark on the original chapel. It is said that the original design of the basilica was completed in the early 1920’s but it was realised by the 1960’s. The growing number of visitors meant that the original design was rethought multiple times which gives the current building an interesting mix of influences.

The main building is the basilica which is the more popular destination for tourists. The first feature that stands out is the colonnade which is over 19 meters high and framed by corinthian columns. The guide was very proud of the fact that the dome is the world’s 3rd largest and oratory larger than London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral.  It boasts 283 concrete steps and a smaller flight of wooden stairs that is no more than 100 steps for pilgrims who wish to climb on their knees.

While the Basilica is an impressive sight, the real attraction for me was the Votive Chapel. It is said that it was an impromptu, last minute, addition to the Oratory. It lies adjacent to the rock of Mount Royal, which can be entered through a small doorway connected to the chapel. While it might not sound very impressive, in person it is quite fascinating. The volcanic rock covers the entire left hand side of the hallway and leads to a modest sculpture of the Virgin Mary. A weak stream of volcano-filtered water drips down on the masses of coin donations visitors lay on the foot of the rock, creating a beautiful chiming.

The Votive Chapel is a destination for pilgrims because it is said to heal the lame. The walls are decorated with layers of wooden crutches and canes, items left behind by pilgrims that claim to have been healed by st Joseph. The room is quite humid and hot due to the fact that there are over 10 000 candles lit at any given point. Huge numbers of visitors and pilgrims make the visit an unforgettable experience. Pleading and wailing, many pilgrims pray for St. Joseph’s blessing, lighting candles and donating money as they go.

The Basilica warrants many visits to explore the particular architectural features. Hopefully in the future I get to see it again and write a little more about the interior.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Customer Satisfaction - Carving Workshops

'If you were feeling in any way daunted by the thought of the one day stoneworking course, you should think again.   The four of us chose to go, all with very different backgrounds and abilities, and it was a very satisfying and eye opening day for us all.


I have never had much ability with practical work,  the other three have a variety of craft experience from woodcarving to watercolours to a wide range of DIY - none of us had ever attempted to carve stone before.   


After a couple of hours you’ll have found out a few basic principles of how to use the tools and how the stone responds.   You’ll find yourself understanding the craft, skill and concentration required to produce more finished pieces.   You’ll look at the buildings around you with a new eye.   You will know more about the detail of those buildings than the guy standing next to you.  


You don’t need to commit to a whole day.   You’ll find that half a day gives you a good initial understanding.   It’s your personal choice to continue to refine your work over the day or to take your piece away at lunchtime to admire at leisure.   One of us chose and was encouraged to come back the next day to begin a second piece.       


It’s a very friendly and inclusive environment; it’s a rare treat to be able to access the advice and guidance of a Guild Master.    Apart from the practical skills he’ll pass on, you’ll find out as much as you wish about guilds, restoration, geology, geometry and, apparently, why the Cotswolds might be a preferable place to live than Norwich……and he’ll make you a cup of tea to keep you chipping on happily.


And you will all, however little a craftsman you think you are, come away with your own piece of work that you wont want to part with.


The donation the Stonemasons ask of you is very small for the experience you will find.   


Don’t wish you’d done it, do it!'

Dave McRoberts, Sept 2016

Our carving workshops cost £80 and take place on a Saturday or a Sunday. Stone and tools are included and customers keep their resulting piece. If you don't complete your carving in the course of one day you are welcome to return and finish it on another day. 

If you are interested, please email our Guild Clerk via: 

Monday, 12 September 2016

Our Apprentice in Canada - The Sir John A. Macdonald Building

The Bank of Montreal building, which is now called the Sr. John A. Macdonald building, stood out to me instantly. Amongst the building works and busy main road, lies this magnificent and unusual former bank building.

The doric columns are flattened, almost bas-relief work, and the carvings depict industrial images, which I found very unusual. I later found out that the choice in design was heavily influenced by the time the building was designed. During the 1930’s Canada was going through the Great Canadian Depression, so banks like this one wanted to appeal to the regular working man in an attempt to draw them back into their buildings and back on their books.

The grand entrance and regal proportions add a little bit of Art Deco into this otherwise Gothic revival dominant city. The coat of arms of the original Bank of Montreal depicts the shield supported by two native Canadians and a beaver resting on the top. The motto carved is 'Concordia Salus'. which is translates as, 'Prosperity through Harmony'.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Our Apprentice in Canada - Parliament Building Ottawa

Ottawa Parliament Hill

I have heard a lot, from Canadians mostly, about the beauty of their parliament building. To someone who grew up in Europe, where there is an abundance and appreciation of traditional architecture, the thought of Canada having fascinating classical architecture was a little foreign. It never occurred to me that as a member of the commonwealth, Canada would have inherited some beautiful British style gothic revival architecture. During my very first day in Ottawa I headed to Parliament Hill and decided to see this much beloved building in person.

The first feature that stood out was the amount of building work and reconstruction that was happening. The hustle and noise of the main road that connected the Parliament building to down town, took away a little of it’s intended regal effect. It was built on the banks of the iconic Ottawa River that separated Quebec from Ontario, which once made the city so strategically and logistically valuable that Queen Victoria made it the capital of Canada in 1859.

This elegant Gothic revival building has a history of fire, terrorist attacks and police stand offs, but it still maintains all of its original beauty. The ongoing renovations that will go on until late 2021 promise to further recover features that have not stood the test of time.

I went to see a master at the site, who spoke of his French education in stonemasonry, to find out a little more about the technical features.

The stone is Sandstone which was quarried from Ohio and nearby Nepean, and brought over by train and ship. He explains that this stone in particular is able to withstand the harsh Canadian winter and constant salt that is scattered on all surfaces. I asked him why the features are not very glamourous compared to other gothic revival buildings of that magnitude. He believes that the building was intended to replicate 13th century Gothic with modifications to suite the climate. This means that a lot of the ornamental work was reworked by the stonemasons to be more rigid.

Proud stone masons presenting their final work

The absolute trophy of the entire main building are the delicate carvings of the arches that frame the doorway. Their symbolism isn’t particularly complex or mysterious, still tell a story of allegiance to the British monarchy and of Canada’s individuality. These arches need to be studied further!

Lion on the left hand side

Unicorn on the right hand side

Our apprentice in Canada - St James United Church

Seeing classical architecture is a rare treat in Canada. So I was very pleased when I encountered this beauty in Montreal. There is no shortage in Gothic revival churches in Canada but this one seemed to be the only one that I encountered that is built before the 1880’s. In England we are spoiled for choice when it comes to churches with grand history and we take all the architectural variety for granted. With Canada being a young country, only a few select styles are to be found. So far in my journey I’ve only seen Gothic revival and one rather unusual Babylonian church (coming soon).

St James United Church doesn’t skimp on the ornamental qualities of Gothic revival, in fact it celebrates them. The day of my visit, I managed to see an exhibition in it’s function room and interrupt a sermon in the chapel but luckily was still offered a tour.

The interior and worship room were rather unusual. It reminded me of an amphitheatre with a very modest stage. The tour guide claims that the facade was inspired by Neo-Gothic French cathedrals but admits that there is an eclectic feel to the style. In WWI the church became a social justice hub where women’s suffrage was welcome. There is evidence of the church trying to acclimate to modern times because on the basement level there are remains of a bowling alley that dates back to WWI. The painted vaulted ceiling stands above the function room and is seen by wedding parties and exhibition visitors.