Photo-essay by David Lloyd and Jane McNeil.
There are two possible reasons why SevenStreets is feeling strangely serene. The unnerving sight of massed ranks of Our Ladies, assorted saints and Christs on crosses. Or the sweet smell of aerosol vapours currently filling our lungs…
We’re in leafy Kensington, at E Carrara & Sons – manufacturers of religious statues to, by the look of things, half of known Christendom.
A steady production line of aunts, sister, mothers – three generations and counting – mould, rub, spray and paint a salvation’s army’s worth of Jesus Christ and latter day saints in a workshop adjoining a grand villa – once the location for the city’s Italian embassy. Statues that are destined to grace Cathedrals and churches, schools and nativity scenes from here to the Holy Land.
“You’ll get used to the smell,” says Nicky Everitt, as we start our tour, already ascending to some pleasurable, otherworldly realm.
E Carrara & Sons was founded ninety years ago by Enrico Carrara, who moved from Lucca to Liverpool, married a local lass, and brought his Italian Catholic flair to the city’s churches, with a range of ecclesiastical statuary.
“He worked from a studio in the city centre, but it was bombed in the war, so we moved into this house,” says his great granddaughter, Nicky, as we descend into the cellars.
Here in the halflight, cobwebbed, ghostly resin likenesses of Mary, cherubs, and an entire flock of the lambs of God lurch and dance in the shadows. It’s just about the most terrifying place we’ve ever seen.
“If we were naughty as kids, this was the place we were threatened with!” laughs Nicky.
SevenStreets is on its best behavior.
Upstairs, the showroom offers a spine-tingling ten-foot Corpus Christi – Jesus on the cross, complete with hand-painted gashes, and bruised cheeks. Looking on, like some cutting-room floor scene excised from a particularly harrowing Doctor Who episode, are the assembled ranks of Premier League saints, and grizzly Stations of the Cross.
Irrespective of whether you have faith or not, the room packs a powerful punch.
Nicky sees us bristle, like the hapless priest in the Exorcist.
“You do get a sense of something, don’t you?” Nicky agrees. “It’s a strange feeling, you can’t help but pick up on it.”
“The Crucifix is going to London on Sunday, but Dad won’t let a courier touch it, so that’s my husband driving 200 miles with Jesus on Sunday. He’s not looking forward to it.”
We bet. We’ve heard Jesus never offers to take the wheel at Watford Gap. And he’s crap at I Spy.
“The priests will pop in here if they’re passing. ‘What have you got in today?’ they’ll say…You’d be surprised how much money the church has to spend…”
We probably wouldn’t be.
As we marvel at the fine detailing on a particularly haunting Saint Joseph the Worker we ask whether Nicky can spot her family’s work when she’s on her travels?
“You can always spot the eyes,” Nicky laughs, “We hand paint all our eyes. That was Dad’s special skill, but he’s passing it to my niece now.”
It is, despite these turbulent times – not least for the embattled Catholic church – evidently a recession-proof business. Cribs, of course, are a seasonal cash cow (or should that be oxen?) and trends dictate fashionable new looks for old saints, keeping the business in fine health, nearly a century on.
“We never really see a quiet period, and we’ve recently been getting lots of orders from travelling folk. Trouble is, they place the order and disappear for four years. That’s one they’ve ordered…” Nicky points to a six foot Our Lady that, we suggest, would pose some kind of mild peril in a six berth tourer.
“Yeah, we thought that. Maybe they got their sizes mixed up. We can’t sell it though, because they might turn up tomorrow…”
Back in the studio, Karen is sanding down a Saint Anthony (‘one of my favourites’) – ready for it to be painted.
“We mix our own shades up. Most saints have their own traditional colour scheme. But even then, we can take liberties,” she says, pointing to a jaunty figure propping open the spray-room door.
“The Infant of Prague is mostly in red, but we’ve a customer in London who loves him in pink and green, so that’s no problem. She’s from the Philippines. They like a bit more colour over there…”
Karen’s also been known to get creative with her family’s roll call of moulds. Need a saint that’s not on the production line? Enter Saint Patrick – “we can usually chop off his upheld arm, and stick something from someone else. We’ve been known to add Mary’s arm to a male saint. We can usually mix and match,” she says, er, handily.
Karen’s been at the sharp end of the business for ‘twenty-odd’ years, smoothing away the creases of the Catholic church’s great and good and her mum, at 76, is still spraying.
Does she take anything spiritual from her days bent over a kneeling St Bernadette, we wonder?
“When you’re sitting here, it’s just a job. But when we get visitors who are so obviously moved by our work then, yes, it’s a lovely feeling. And when you see the statues finished, you can see why they’re so loved. They become something else…”