Let’s hear it for James Elliott…

…the man who’s made the tomb for King Richard III in Leicester Cathedral.

James is one of the more remarkable of the many fascinating people I’ve met in the course of this unparalleled journey that the discovery of King Richard III’s remains has brought about.   I’ve mentioned him before, but having just returned form another visit to his workshop in Rutland I’m filled again with admiration for his craftsmanship,  attention to detail – and just plain old-fashioned stubborn determination to get the job done!

The tomb’s design was, as is well known, not without controversy, being developed by josh Mccsh, our architect, in collaboration with Chapter, the fabric group, and subject to the overall approval of the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England.   But once it was settled last March most people will have given little thought to how it would actually be made.  It’s just one bit of stone on top of another, after all, isn’t it?  Wrong!   Granted the top stone – the swaledale fossil – is one large piece.  But finding the right stone, for both size and orientation, transporting it to the workshop, and then beginning the painstaking task of slicing, polishing and finishing it is a specialist task above all specialisms.  For a starter, how do you turn a 3 tonne block of fragile stone over to cut the other face without risking it breaking?  (There’s not another one on the shelf you can reach for.)  And there’s the cross to cut into it – without damaging it – and the internal facets to fix and polish.  Just one of the tasks where James has invented a tool which didn’t exist, to smooth down those tricky internal faces.

And how about the plinth, of kilkenny marble?  One large piece of stone, with a hole in the middle for a coffin to go through, perhaps?  No way.  It has to be designed to take the weight of the top, to have just the right slope and angles on the sides, to take the carved words, the raided Ricardian boars, and the inset coat of arms.  In fact it’s probably made up of several dozen separate pieces, all cut precisely and exactly to shape and size, and then all painstakingly assembled on site by James and his team of merry men.  Which is why that part of the exercise took abut two weeks, in the ambulatory, after the main builders, FWA, had moved out.  And was only finished this week.

And if that wasn’t enough, James also has the task of helping create our new altar-table – planned to be in the building just in time for the reinterment services.  This is an amazing piece of design from Josh working to our brief, and of workmanship from James, along with a few others making the frame.  But the real work above and beyond arose form our decision to clad the whole in sheets of alabaster – which is nowhere available above ground in the right amounts.

David admiring the allotted alabaster top for the new altar-table
David admiring the polished alabaster top for the new altar-table

So James, following up on leads from our stone suppliers, went several miles underground into a gypsum mine where the last slabs were known to be, and with the expert help of the art of guys who look after mines every day, he oversaw the blasting and prising and pulling out of the earth of a block large enough to provide all the different faces we needed.  These have since been sliced, polished and worked, in order to hang onto the framework being made elsewhere, in time to arrive in the Cathedral by the end of next week.

Not that it’s all over then.  Because James and crew arrive back in the Cathedral with the tombstone – now cut down to a mere 2.3 tonnes – on the evening of reinterment day (March 26th), in order to carefully bring this massive load carefully over our floor, across the new sanctuary, through the narrow gates of the relocated Nicholson screen, hold it in place over the grave space – by then containing the coffin within which lie the mortal remains of the king –  and lower it carefully into place.  A job for which you only get one go  And then secure it, so that it never can move again (bar earthquake or the vagaries of the far distant future).  and that, we’re prepared to believe, could take all night to secure.  So it’s there in time for our service of Reveal the next day.

James is a giant of a man in stature, and a natural innovator and designer.   But straightforward in nature and a joy to work with.   If it won’t work one way – he’ll find another way to do it.  His work is already well-known in many famous places up and down the land- and after this I hope he’s sought out for many more.  Because it’s not just the nature of the commission – but the care and ingenuity he’s brought to it.

So if you thought it was all a matter of sitting with a chisel and giving a few desultory taps – think again.  And then again.   And then, when you see it all for yourselves, perhaps you’ll know why I say: “Let’s hear it for James.”

Original Source: http://www.leicestercathedralkingrichardiii.org/lets-hear-james-elliott/ (no longer online)