Charles Gurrey’s painstaking work adorns churches and cathedrals across Yorkshire and beyond. Julian Cole went to see the sculptor.
Sometimes Charles Gurrey, the York sculptor, is struck by the transience of life. Much of his work is attached to churches and cathedrals, you see, so it will be around for a while. “The time thing is surprising for some people,” he says. We are in his workshop in Hessay, four miles from his home on the west side of York.
Charles, who is 65, is wearing a heavy cotton jumper-style overall, to guard against the dust. That dust covers all surfaces. There are also drawings, old and present maquettes (or sculptor’s models) and a secret work-in-progress being chipped from a block of lapine limestone.
His hair is grey as if dusted too and he wears wire glasses. “If you go for a public art contract they’ll say, ‘Oh it must have a 25-year lifespan’ and that’s tomorrow afternoon for me,” he says. “So much work you do in an architecture context will be there for 200 or 300 years.”
The biggest example of Charles’s work is to be found above the doors of Guildford Cathedral, based around a figure of Christ that is nearly ten feet tall. Unusually, that was a one-man job. “It was all done by me as that’s what they wanted,” he says.
There were nine figures, abstract figures and some text. He did most of the work in his dusty workshop. “The last bit was done on site in winter up on the scaffolding,” he says, recalling the strong winds. “I was coming to the end and I was exhausted. It was all scaffolded and sheeted and no one could see anything.”
The four-year project left him depleted and defeated. “I asked them to ring when the scaffolding was struck,” he says.
As soon as that call came, Charles drove south, arriving just before the light faded. “Partly I was driving down there to see if you could see anything. It’s a strange thing to say but I’d reached a point where I was so unsure about everything, just because I was so played out.”
Was he proud of the work? “That’s a difficult word. I thought I’d given them my best.”
You don’t have to travel to Guildford to see examples of Charles Gurrey’s work as it graces cathedrals around Yorkshire. For York Minster he made the font from sycamore and bronze in 2003. This had to be portable for use in two or three locations, so the job came with a three-verger challenge.
“You are trying to make something that’s visually substantial enough to hold its own in the huge spaces of the Minster and yet be portable,” he says. “And they said it had to be portable by three vergers.”
The outside of the extension to the Minster Library features a figure in relief of Alcuin, who was the Minster librarian in the eighth century, while two figures sit up high in the north transept, just to the left of the main aisle. One is Bishop Eborius, who was the first bishop of York, and the other is Queen Ethelburga, who married King St Edwin.
He had to imagine the faces, but does he ever just use someone he knows as a model? “I never normally do that but, in his case, I did. I based it on someone I’d done a portrait of,” says Charles. “His face came to me as I was thinking and working on this. It’s not a likeness but I used aspects of his face.”
Ripon Cathedral features his tribute to the First World War poet Wilfred Owen. This is made up of five boards with lettering running across and secondary letters running through the pieces. The boards have been treated with graphite.
“As you get close I’m hoping some people will run their fingers over the surface as they read the smaller text, and then they’ll come away with graphite on their fingers,” says Charles.
He also made the outside signage for Bradford Cathedral, which takes the form of large sculptural text in bronze and aluminium.
Further afield, he carved the 3ft high nativity figures for Leicester Cathedral – beautiful wooden figures with solidly human faces.
Away from churches, there is the memorial at Bletchley Park, the code-breaking centre near Milton Keynes. This was unveiled by the Queen in 2011. It uses text as an image, by working the motto of the outstation workers – “We also served” – as if the letters were going through the rotating alphabet drums used in the code-breaking machines.
Back in York, Charles’s carving adorns the concrete wall in Bootham School’s art centre, while he made the corbels in the roof of St Olave’s, the church he occasionally attends.
Charles is married with five children. He came to sculpture by an unusual route, first studying philosophy at Oxford and Cambridge for five years. He had always loved sculpture and went to art school in the evenings.
After graduating, he worked for Anelay builders in York, then did a five-year apprenticeship in with Dick Reid, the renowned York sculptor.
Charles mostly refers to what he does simply as sculpture. His work can roughly be divided into three areas: architectural sculpture, ecclesiastical work and work with text, such as private memorials and poetic work. Architectural sculpture forms part of a building.
Nowadays he works for himself in that dusty workshop, or in the garden office behind his semi in York.
He is engaging and good company, and talks slowly but steadily, pausing to weigh his words. With all that time spent in churches, it seems fair to ask if he has any religion.
“That’s a complicated question,” he says. “It’s not easy to answer in one word. It matters to me to do the church work and I do attend church from time to time.”
He doesn’t see people how people can have no religion. “But I don’t understand people who think that religion gives them all the answers, so it’s a complicated thing.
“But the church work matters – for all kinds of reasons, not least for the people who will get the benefit of it. That’s a big thing for me.”