Reuben Marsh for his restoration of the WWI Memorial East Window at St Pol de Léon Church, Cornwall

Finalist for the Best Craftsperson or Apprentice on a Heritage Rescue or Repair Project, sponsored by Ecclesiastical, at the Historic England Angel Awards 2018.

The restoration of St Pol de Leon church in Paul, Penzance, was the result of a campaign by a community determined to preserve their unique church, particularly its much-admired WW1 Memorial East window. In Reuben Marsh, they found the craftsman with a deep connection to the south west of England and the skills and sensitivity to do justice to what has been described as the most significant stained glass window of any age in Cornwall.

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The challenges

Dedicated by the Bolitho family to their son Torquil who died in action at the Battle of Ypres in May 1915, the unique memorial window was created in 1917 by prominent arts and crafts designer Robert Anning Bell, and its five-light stone frame was designed by architect John Dando Sedding in 1875.

The stunning window has been noted for its unusual images, contrasting peaceful coastal landscapes with depictions of battle. It dominates the church’s interior and was the focal point of a campaign by the community to overhaul the Grade 1 listed building and make it a more inclusive heritage venue.

While St Pol de Leon’s location overlooking Mount’s Bay has made its tower a useful navigation point for centuries of seafarers, constant exposure to the sea air had damaged the church’s structure and eroded the soft stone in which the window frame was built. Though easy to carve, the Polyphant stone used for the original frame could not withstand exposure to the elements and cracks had started to appear and widen, exacerbated by the rusting retaining rods that held in the glass.

Launching a campaign in 2014 to rescue the church and the window, the community put on local events to raise money and eventually obtained a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Nevertheless, there were still obstacles to overcome, including finding a stone carver with the right skills who would be willing to work in such a remote part of Cornwall.

Born in Redruth, Cornwall, Reuben Marsh is the son of a stone mason/sculptor and painter and grew up “very influenced by art”, he says, before studying Historic carving at the City and Guilds of London Art School. He spent four months over the past winter restoring the memorial window at St Pol de Leon, alongside colleague Richard Holliday and specialists Humphries Glass of Wells. They all enjoyed a lot of support from local people. “The community were exceptional, really helpful,” he says.

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Restoring the frame involved removing all the old worn stone and keeping track of its position so it could be replaced by new stone, cut to exactly the same specifications. The window contains five main lights with eight smaller windows and seven others that are smaller still and follow the contour of the arch.

Reuben Marsh, colleague Richard Holliday and Dan Humphries used Forest of Dean stone to match the original stone, completing a complex reassembly of the frame that contained 3,000 pieces of glass of varying thicknesses. Each individual piece had to be removed and cleaned before being reinserted into the frame and secured with rods.

For Reuben Marsh, the most satisfying aspect of his job is the final trimming of the stone to ensure that everything fits perfectly and it is this perfectionism that drives him on, he says. “You need to have a really precise eye to be a stone mason as well as an awful lot of patience. But you also really need to love and care about an old building. It’s not enough to think, ‘well, no one will see it up there,’ you need to really care that all of it will be finished perfectly.”

In May, a century after it was first dedicated, the restored WW1 Memorial East window was finally unveiled to the community. The transformation of the church, which is believed to have been founded in 490 and then rebuilt in 1600 after being destroyed in a raid by the Spanish, has led to wider efforts to promote local heritage, including several oral history events and tours of the church.

Reuben Marsh is now applying the same perfectionism to his current project restoring the bay window of a Victorian hotel in Truro. Previous projects include restoration work at the Tower of London and Highgate Cemetery. “I believe old buildings, especially ecclesiastical buildings, deserve a lot of love and attention,” he says.

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