Woodcarver, Stonemason and Sculptor
Plaque erected in St Leonard’s Place, YO1 7HD
George Walker Milburn, master woodcarver, stonemason and sculptor, was born in Goodramgate, York on 17 June 1844. He was the eighth of ten children of Lionel Altimont Milburn, a York tailor, and his wife, Elizabeth Clapham, of Gainsborough, Lincolnshire. Little is certain about George’s childhood years but, in his early teens, he was apprenticed as a woodcarver to William Alfred Waddington, “Pianoforte Manufacturer”, who was based at 44 Stonegate, York. He attended York School of Art where he won several medals and awards. A head modelled by Milburn so impressed the sculptor Thomas Woolner RA that he offered the young student the opportunity to study with him, but Milburn felt obliged to decline as he had already commenced his apprenticeship. In 1865, having completed his woodcarving studies, George went to London to study stone-carving with Samuel J. Ruddock. While there he exhibited a medallion of the stained-glass artist Charles Hardgraves at the Royal Academy of Art.
George returned to York around 1872 and set up his own stone yard at 53 Gillygate. One of his first commissions was for the architect George Edmund Street on the massive project to restore the South Transept of York Minster. Street employed the young carver to execute a large portion of the decorative stonework on the interior and exterior during the eight years of restoration (1872-80). Street was sufficiently impressed by George’s artistry that he took him to Corfe Castle in Dorset to work on St James’ Church at Kingston, the church described as “The Jewel of the Purbecks”. In addition to Street, George worked with many other leading architects of the Victorian and Edwardian era including Sir George Gilbert Scott, Charles Clement Hodges, Charles Hodgson Fowler, and Walter H. Brierley.
York’s first public statue
In 1885 George Milburn won the competition to execute a statue to commemorate George Leeman MP, three times Lord Mayor of York and a dominant figure in 19th-century York politics. Some felt that George had insufficient experience to execute the work and the controversy rumbled on in the York newspapers for many months. He took an enormous financial gamble, signing a potentially punitive contract with York City Council which would have ruined him had he failed. But the gamble paid off and York’s first public statue established him as a sculptor in addition to his already established reputation as a stone- and woodcarver.
About this time, George moved his stone yard to St Leonard’s Place at Bootham where it would remain for more than 50 years. He would go on to be awarded commissions for a statue of Queen Victoria for the Guildhall and a statue of William Etty which stands in Exhibition Square. While the Victoria statue also caused rumblings of discontent in the press, it was less to do with the choice of sculptor than with political squabbling over whether a statue was the correct form of memorial with which to honour the late Queen. On its completion, the statue received widespread praise. When unveiled by the Queen’s daughter, Princess Henry of Battenberg, she broke with protocol and shook the sculptor’s hand.
Ecclesiastical and secular work
George left a large body of work, ecclesiastical and secular. He carved almost 50 memorial crosses and executed works for more than 150 churches. A small sample of his stone-carving includes the impressive Boer War Memorial Cross at Durham Cathedral; the Bede Cross at Roker, Sunderland; the statues for the elaborate Reredos at St Aidan’s Church, Bamburgh; the Reredos at St Peter-at-Gowts, Lincoln; and multiple pulpits and fonts including St Barnabas’ Church in York, St Aidan’s in Hartlepool, and All Saints in Lincoln. His woodwork, equal to though less recognised than that of Robert Thompson, can be seen in the tracery panels for the magnificent double organ at Howden Minster, the organ screen for St Helen’s Church at Escrick, the chancel screen at Melton Mowbray and the beautiful reredos in St Benet’s Chapel at Ampleforth Abbey.
His mastery of both stone- and woodcarving can be seen at St Thomas’ Parish Church at Stockton-on-Tees where he sculpted the large stone cartouche over the east window and the elaborate oak bench ends in the choir, and at St Andrew’s Church at Bournemouth in Dorset where he carved the delightful oak figures for the choir, six stone statues and a beautiful alabaster reredos of the Annunciation. His works for private houses included Hawkstone Hall, Shropshire; the chapel at Hatfield College, Durham; Dunollie Hall, Scarborough; Carlton Towers, East Yorkshire; Gray’s Court, York; the renowned Arts and Crafts-style house, Goddards, York; and the chapel at Castle Howard.
While his works were predominantly in Yorkshire and the North-East of England, his work can be found throughout the country, from Bournemouth in Dorset to Edinburgh where he carved the statue of John Hunter on the façade of the National Portrait Gallery. Although the Scottish sculptor James MacGillivray Pittendrigh has been credited with the latter, it was George Milburn who sculpted the statue from a miniature by Pittendrigh. Works can be found in almost 20 counties throughout the UK including Lincolnshire, Kent, Shropshire, Durham, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear, and Norfolk.
In York alone the list of his works includes the William Etty, Queen Victoria and George Leeman statues and works for York Minster, York Art Gallery, York Explore Library, St Barnabas’ Church, St Chad’s at Knavesmire; St Olave’s Church, St Wilfrid’s Church, Holy Trinity Church, All Saints Pavement, Barclays Bank, Beckett’s Bank (now Starbucks), Jacob’s Well in Micklegate, St Sampson’s Church, St Andrew’s Church at Bishopthorpe, Fulford Church and many others. He found time in his busy career to make a positive contribution to some of York’s many societies; he was a member of the York Philosophical Society, an active supporter of the York School of Art and a frequent lecturer.
In his private life, he was a practising Catholic – although he seems to have had a relaxed attitude about the strict adherence to church rules; his first marriage, to Ellen Ward, was at St Wilfrid’s Church; his second, to Isabella Fletcher, took place at St Olave’s Church in Marygate. Like many Victorians, he suffered a series of family tragedies; his first child, Lionel, died at the age of one; his first wife, Ellen, died of TB in 1885 at the age of 28, shortly after giving birth to their fourth child, Norah; Norah herself died one year later. In all, of five children in his two marriages, only two survived into adulthood. His second marriage, to Isabella Fletcher, in 1888, lasted until her death in 1924. With his son, Wilfrid Joseph Milburn, the two worked as G.W. Milburn & Son from the stone yard at St Leonard’s Plac
George had an exceptionally long career, working well into his eighties and living through enormous changes in his native city. Born in the seventh year of Victoria’s reign, when Sir Robert Peel was Prime Minster and York a city with a population of barely 40,000, his work straddled two centuries and honoured the dead of two wars: the Boer War and the First World War. During his lifetime the population of York expanded to more than 123,000 inhabitants. Few others can claim to have lived and worked continuously in one city through a period of such enormous change. He died in York City Hospital, Huntington Road on 3 September 1941.
His importance to York can be gauged by the judgement of his fellow artists and peers. John Ward Knowles, the renowned York stained-glass artist, was of the opinion that for many years stone-carving in York had been ‘confined to the works of ornamental sculpture’ until ‘the higher branch of the art was again resuscitated by George Milburn’. Street reportedly called him ‘the best Gothic sculptor in the country’ and Knowles felt that, in stone-carving, George ‘stood pre-eminently in front of his confrères’.
More than 270 of George Milburn’s works survive but this master craftsman has not received the recognition that he deserves, and most of his extant works remain uncredited, overshadowed by others, such as Robert Beall of Newcastle or Thompson of Kilburn, or even incorrectly ascribed to others.
A. Powell and D. Reid, ‘George Milburn’, York Historian (York, 2017)
Barrie and Wendy Armstrong, The Arts and Crafts Movement in Yorkshire, A Handbook (Wetherby, 2013) – references to some of George Milburn’s work
Barrie and Wendy Armstrong, The Arts and Crafts Movement in the North East of England, A Handbook, (Wetherby, 2013) – references to some of George Milburn’s work
Paul Usherwood, Jeremy Beach and Catherine Morris, Public Sculpture of North-East England. (Liverpool, 2000) – Milburn is correctly credited for the Temperley Memorial Fountain in Hexham but his carving of the Bede Cross at Roker, Sunderland is credited to the architect and two other works of Milburn recorded in the book do not mention him at all.
H. Murray, The York Graveyard Guide, (Edinburgh, 1994) –the Leeman Memorial in York Cemetery is credited to Milburn but at least 20 other monuments by him are not
I.R. Pattison and H. Murray, Monuments in York Minster, An illustrated inventory (York, 2001) – mentions several memorials by Milburn in York Minster but not all.
© Anthony Power