Kenneth Eager - an illustrious craftsman

Kenneth Eager in the workshop on Ditchling Common
Kenneth Eager in the workshop on Ditchling Common

Kenneth Eager, one of the last great stone cutters and wood carvers attached to the Catholic Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic in Ditchling, has died aged 84.

Kenneth also specialised in heraldic designs and letter cutting and examples of his skills as a master craftsman can be seen all over the south east.

He converted to Catholicism whilst studying at Xaverian College in Brighton and was apprenticed to renowned sculptor, carver and letter cutter Joseph Cribb, who had joined the Guild at Ditchling when it was founded by Eric Gill in 1920.

Kenneth and Noel Tabbenor worked as Cribb’s assistants in his workshop on Ditchling Common where John Skelton also honed his skills as a letter carver and sculptor.

Kenneth worked with Joseph Cribb for 22 years and continued at the workshop after Cribb’s death in 1967 until the Guild was disbanded in 1989.

Kenneth’s wife Audrey recalled: “Joseph Cribb was a real countryman in the old-fashioned sense and a great herbalist and entomologist who was interested in beetles and butterflies.

“His workshop was quite old fashioned. It was very cold in winter and there was no running water - they had to cross a field and draw water from a farm tap so it was a tough life, but there was a wonderful atmosphere with parties for the children, especially on St Dominic’s feast day.”

Kenneth, Joseph and Noel were involved in projects of national importance, including restoration work on Canterbury Cathedral. An example of their craftsmanship can be seen in the memorial chapel to The Buffs - the Royal East Kent Regiment - where an elaborate dragon was carved on a marble panel of the altar.

Kenneth went on to carve the headstone for Sir Norman Hartnell, who was dressmaker to the Queen Mother and her daughter, Queen Elizabeth II. Hartnell is buried in Clayton churchyard.

Kenneth’s son Nigel said: “Dad was a dedicated family man and modest about his skills. He enjoyed doing his art rather than talking about it.

“He took a practical approach to art, never produced work for exhibition and thrived on classical letter cutting and carving.

“He could perhaps have exploited his talent to greater commercial benefit but chose not to expand the business and remained committed to his commissions, almost all of which came by word of mouth.”

Fine examples of Kenneth’s work include the ‘Pelham Memorial’ in Falmer parish church, which lists the names of the fallen from two world wars, including The Honourable Lyttleton Herbert Keymer Pelham, son of the fifth Earl of Chichester who died in 1914.

Kenneth also carved a baptismal font for Telscombe Catholic Church and carved the stations of the cross out of sycamore and walnut for St John’s Seminary at Wonersh, Surrey.

Audrey said: “Heraldic designs were his real love because he could use his artistic talents to the full. He was a gifted artist and used to say how lucky he was to have a wonderful life and to enjoy every day.”

Kenneth lived with Audrey, his wife of 59 years, and their son Nigel in Burgess Hill and later in Haywards Heath. He enjoyed playing tennis and cricket and was an active member of Burgess Hill Conservative Club.

When he retired, Kenneth moved with Audrey to France where they lived for 11 years before settling in Malta. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in April this year and died on September 22 after a short illness.

The funeral service was held in St Joseph’s Catholic Church in Elm Grove, Brighton, where Kenneth had worshipped as a young man and carved some of his finest work - four reliefs on the altar.

Kenneth’s committal took place at Lawn Memorial Cemetery in Woodingdean where members of his family are buried. In keeping with the ethos of the Guild, he requested a simple headstone.