Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judi Dench among distinguished actors who see local artist’s memorial to Sir John Gielgud unveiled at Westminster Abbey
Published: 15:30, 29 April 2022
Updated: 16:04, 29 April 2022
Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judi Dench were among distinguished guests from the world of theatre and film who gathered at Westminster Abbey for the unveiling of a memorial stone to legendary actor Sir John Gielgud created by local artist Wayne Hart, writes Helen Miller.
Wayne, an award-winning letter carver and sculptor, designed and carved the floor plaque with the distinctive flowing letters he has made his speciality at his studio at Green Tye, near Bishop’s Stortford.
He was at the Abbey for Tuesday evening's (April 26) dedication service, which was led by the Dean of Westminster, the Very Rev Dr David Hoyle.
Sir John Gielgud, one of the finest actors of the 20th century, died in 2000 at the age of 96. In a career spanning more than seven decades, he tackled every major Shakespearean role and was acclaimed in the West End and on Broadway for both classic and avant-garde roles. He found success as a theatre director and appeared in some 60 films and numerous TV and radio productions. In 1996 he was awarded the Order of Merit (OM) by the Queen, an honour bestowed for distinguished service on only 24 living individuals.
The ceremony took place where the memorial stone now lies in the south transept of Westminster Abbey next to the Shakespeare monument and memorials to other great actors including Sir Laurence Olivier and Dame Peggy Ashcroft.
Heartfelt personal tributes accompanied formal readings, with contributions from actor Dame Janet Suzman, film and theatre directors Sir Richard Eyre and Sir David Hare as well as Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judi Dench.
Dame Judi, who read Shakespeare’s sonnet 29 as a tribute to Gielgud, described him as “a brilliant actor and a brilliant friend”. She later pulled the cover off the memorial stone to complete the unveiling.
Afterwards, Sir Ian praised the expressiveness of Wayne’s design and compared it favourably to other memorials in the Abbey. “It really is very elegant. It’s got a little... flourish to it,” he said.
For Wayne, the ceremony was the culmination of a lengthy design process. It began with meticulous research, watching recordings of Gielgud’s performances and consulting broadcaster Gyles Brandreth, who wrote a biographical portrait of the actor-director. In the end, what inspired his final design was the simple fact of Sir John’s own distinctive handwriting.
“He had these wonderful Gs with this elongated neck at the top... those Gs and the J (of John) are very unique to him. There was just a lot of character to his own handwriting so I just wanted to try and capture that in the design, which I think it does.”
Once the design was agreed with the Abbey, Wayne drew and scaled it up onto tracing paper by hand. The next step was to transfer the outline of the letters onto the stone using sheets of carbon paper, before shading in the area to be chiselled out with white pencil.
“There has to be an overall balance in the design and interaction between letters and different lines so things connect. This is lettering, not a typeface, so everything is drawn specifically for this piece and no two letters necessarily need to be identical, which gives it a bit more life and humanity.”
The memorial was made from a block of highly-polished Purbeck blue marble, a material prized in church building and decorative stonework for over a thousand years. It is quarried from only one part of Dorset and is in reality a type of limestone, composed of billions of fossilised Viviparus snail shells which are clearly visible on the surface.
It is dense and harder to carve than some stones, but, says Wayne, that has its advantages. With millions of people expected to walk over it in centuries to come, the memorial needs to last – and so does the inscription, which has to be cut deep enough to withstand any erosion.
Wayne employs tools and techniques that have essentially remained unchanged since medieval times.
He uses a traditional mallet and chisel to create a gutter down the middle of the letter. He taps in swift distinctive rhythms. He works from the middle to the edge, carving first in one direction then flipping the chisel round to chase in the other side. He repeats until it leaves a perfect V-shaped channel behind; a channel that will create a contrast of light and shadow to make the letter ‘pop out’ at the observer. On completion, a dilute oil-based paint seals the recesses of the carved letters to prevent them fading back to the colour of the original stone.
Wayne, 35, from King's Lynn in Norfolk, studied typography and graphic communication at Reading University but became disillusioned with the constant emphasis on designing in 2D for screens. He enjoyed making things in the physical world and was fortunate that one of his modules introduced him to stone carving.
“While everyone else was making their websites, I was carving a rock in a back room on my own.”
An apprenticeship with Pip Hall, a stone carver in Cumbria, followed and a career was born.
Wayne says there is growing interest among the public in heritage crafts and handmade objects. He was the first tenant to take up residence at Grandey’s Place Heritage Craft Centre in Green Tye, a philanthropic venture set up in 2019 to preserve and nurture crafts that are under threat by helping talented craftspeople rent affordable workspaces in order to make a living.
It is now home to 19 craftspeople and associated businesses including stained glass making, leatherwork, ceramics, mosaics, sculpture, stringed instrument restoration and millinery.
The Gielgud stone is the second memorial Wayne has carved for Westminster Abbey. His trademark free-flowing letters can also be seen on the memorial to CS Lewis, writer of The Chronicles of Narnia, which was dedicated in 2013 when Wayne was just 27.
So how does Wayne feel about his work being on show in the Abbey for centuries to come alongside that of the master masons and craftsmen who originally built it?
“I do feel immensely proud and honoured. Westminster Abbey is one of the biggest galleries of art there is, although people may not necessarily think of it in that respect. Many artists have put their work into that building and to be a part of that is really special.”
* If you are interested in visiting Wayne’s studio and those of the other craftspeople at Grandey’s Place Heritage Craft Centre, pre-booked tours are available. For more information, visit www.grandeysplace.co.uk.