From stone to silver: how Westminster Cathedral’s eagles gained life in a new form

One of 12 stone eagles stare out over London from the tower of Westminster Cathedral

In his inaugural address in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson described the essence of America as the “uncrossed desert and the unclimbed ridge… the star that is not reached and the harvest that is sleeping in the unploughed ground”. Overseeing the American nation is the bald eagle, a symbol of freedom, protection and fierce national pride. Eagles also feature at Westminster Cathedral and there has been debate as to what inspired the 12 stone eagles which encircle the upper reaches of the Campanile, stark sentinels in the sky.

Some authors have suggested, Winefride De L’Hôpital among them, that an eagle, the emblem of St John the Evangelist, represents a stone tribute to the Cathedral architect, John Francis Bentley. That theory – though tantalisingly romantic – seems a bit high-flown. The Westminster eagles have an altogether more prosaic purpose surely: frightening off the local birds, perhaps, or just an architectural whim, a flourish on the draughtsman’s page.

There are no recorded drawings of the eagles either in preparation or in situ. Bentley drew one architectural drawing which places the eagles (rather budgie-like) on a lower tier. It was left to Henry McCarthy to fashion them out of oolitic limestone, working by day in one of the chapels of the as-yet unfinished Cathedral. His birds, three sets of four, are utterly majestic. Up close you see the talons and the detailed feathers. They would not look out of place on the grandest Art Deco edifice.


The Eagle Pendant

When the Friends of Westminster Cathedral agreed to take on the funding of the Cathedral Tower lift and viewing gallery restoration and renovation, the eagles were an obvious focal point. Some are in need of repair – that belongs to a later campaign – and they seemed to encapsulate the grandeur of the Cathedral Tower in need, also, of a bit of TLC. We approached the fashionable Mayfair Jewellers J & C Martin, run by brothers Jamie and Casey who, by happy coincidence, were childhood friends of the son of John Daly, the Cathedral commercial manager. Thus, the silver eagle pendant was born – emblem of the campaign and on sale in the Cathedral shop for £150 a bird, with all profits going to the tower campaign.

I visited the Martin brothers at their Dickensian workshop and outlet in fashionable Shepherd Market. They are moments from Kitty Fisher’s, a favourite eatery of the Prime Minister, and slap-bang in the heart of a thriving retail district that is also beloved of tour guides for all the wrong reasons. Jamie Martin recounts that, working in his eyrie one day, he heard a guide say that all the upper floors of the shops were still in use as brothels. He flung up the sash window and shouted down somewhat indignantly: “No, they’re not!”

They moved to their Mayfair premises 10 years ago. In the 1960s the shop had been used as a jewellers, later a booking office for flash cars. Today the displays of beautiful, bespoke jewellery suit the quaint 1860s’ frontage. There is nothing remotely bordello-esque about the quiet, small workroom on the first-floor with light filtering in from the narrow alleyway.


The Jewellers

The brothers came to jewellery design through a circuitous route. Jamie had left school and started working as a dental technician when he discovered that the tools of the trade lent themselves nicely to fashioning jewellery for his girlfriend. Determined to pursue jewellery-making as a full-time occupation, he took a BTEC in jewellery and jewellery design at Kingsway College, followed by a placement at prestigious Clive Burr. This was expert gold and silver work with commissions for the Queen Mother and outstanding silver gilt bowls given at some of the hottest race meets in the country. Jamie was given free rein to work on individual, quirky pieces.

Casey in tandem had studied design and graphic design at college and the two brothers started working together at home. In the late 90s they produced a jewellery range for men, which was snapped up by the fashionable jeweller Jess James. The move to the premises in Shepherd Market, via a studio in Marble Arch, happened soon afterwards.

The Cathedral Eagle pendant started life on the end of a selfie-stick as Jamie and the intrepid John Daly climbed to the very top of the tower to take pictures of McCarthy’s birds of prey. Jamie describes the experience as “utterly exhilarating”. “I knew, the minute the project was mentioned, that I wanted to do this,” he explains. “I knew it would work and I was really excited even before we saw the eagles up close.”

The Martins had worked previously on jewellery that combined an architectural/historical vibe. They have on sale a sweet Victorian chimney pot pendant with matching pigeon, but the Cathedral eagles were a step beyond.
He continues: “We have done architectural pieces before and it was just our thing but it is marvellous to see the eagles up close. Where the stone has weathered you can see fossils coming through; the level of detail is just incredible.”

That degree of detail has carried through into the finished pendant, which combines the very best features of the 12 originals. Casey was clear that an exact copy of an eagle wouldn’t work. It had to sit right, feel right. The feathers are different on each of the four sets.

“We spent a day on feathers,” says Jamie. “A day in the studio debating what worked.”

The base figure is sculpted in wax and then cast in silver. This provides the template on which the detailing and character may be engraved. The tools that Jamie uses haven’t changed in 300 years. He works off a carved-out jewellery bench, a leather apron catching the slivers of silver and other precious metals. The tools look hand-made, a shard of metal on a door knob, a solid smooth pad of leather which sits on the bench peg to be spun smoothly at will, turning the silver piece as the design takes shape.

It took eight days in total to create the Cathedral eagle and he is a handsome bird, with a patrician gaze on the world. It is not surprising that the Martins’ first jewellery design should have been for men. The eagle works for men and women and there have already been enquiries about eagle cufflinks.

He is a limited commission only so please buy your eagle and wear it with pride.

The Cathedral Eagle, solid silver, fully-hallmarked and handmade by J & C Martin, is on sale now in the Cathedral Shop priced £150. All profits will go to the Friends Cathedral Tower Campaign