Charles (Charlie) Gurrey was commissioned to carve the Triptych, described in the original quotation as a “nativity frieze in oak” in late 1994. The genesis of the project was increasing dissatisfaction with the quality of the figures for St. Stephen’s Christmas nativity display. It was Charlie’s suggestion that St. Stephen’s opt for a triptych on the basis that figures were poor value: who would ever see the carving of the backs?
The church had been re-ordered by the time Charlie was engaged, so that the dimensions of the Triptych were calculated to enable it to fit snugly under the forward altar.
Charlie’s letter of 8th November 1994 enclosing the drawing now hung in the music room explains the thinking behind what was entirely his own creation.
“The drawing gives a final composition for the figures. I won’t say anything about this (unless you ring me for explanations!) except that without the earlier lettering at the top, the huge beam and post of the stable now better intimate the cross. I propose a max. depth of relief on the side panels of 11/2” and on the centre panel 2.
“Having discussed the matter at length with the cabinet maker, it came to seem unsatisfactory both from a constructional and display point of view to seek to allow for the display of the panels both as concave and convex. What I propose is a shallow concave display position as shown on plan. The feet will give stability and will help to elevate the frieze: the plinth helps to give a foundation and seems to carry the lettering well at the bottom. The words come from the second verse of the beautiful Puer Nobis carol – ‘Unto us a boy is born’. Hope you like them.
“The solid drawn brass lift-off hinges (poss 2 or 3 on each joint) will allow for ready dismantling of the Triptych: I think this is important for handling otherwise we may be dealing with quite a bulky piece of work. Again, for the lettering I would suggest a matt beige-green colour (poss oil if not enamel) of which I could send a sample before using. Green would seem to echo the flat grey-green used on the chancel arch and on the roof at St. Stephen’s.”
The Triptych arrived in April 2005 and was soon on its permanent shelf, donated by Millie Stoney in memory of her husband, between Christmases.
In 2001, Charlie let a new piece into the central panel – most easily seen from behind – to compensate for a serious split which had grown progressively larger in the years since the arrival of the Triptych. This seems to have happened because the European kiln-dried oak used dried out further once in situ.
The Triptych was one of Charlie’s first substantial commissions. Subsequent work includes the figures above the west door of Guildford Cathedral, which has a certain neatness since the now Bishop of Guildford, Christopher Hill, had suggested Charlie for the Triptych.
Features of the Triptych include:-
(a) the pile of stones incorporated by Charlie to reflect St. Stephen
(b) the new-bornness of the baby Jesus (i.e. no Rubens baby!)
(c) the Yorkshireness of the shepherds
(d) the way in which the three kings seem to be struggling to get in
(e) the depiction of the animals, especially the shape of the sheep.