The Lanreath font and altar slab

Most of the places I visit I’ll have seen a picture or at least a sketch, possibly an engraving, of the carved work that exists at that site. At the very least a description. Prepared as I am, knowing what I’m looking for, it’s still possible to walk into a church and be awed by the physical presence of a beautifully worked  example of twelfth-century sculpture. The font at Lanreath is one such piece.

This font is one of the best pieces of twelfth-century sculpture I’ve yet seen in Cornwall. It’s a highly ambitious piece of work, accomplished by a hand and mind alive to the possibilities of a strong design. Unlike Fowey (the subject of the previous post), it is in good condition, although some damage has occurred where the topmost edge has been trimmed back at some point, possibly to accommodate a cover previous to the current one. This has resulted in the loss of the band of saltire cross motif. (However, saltire crosses aplenty remain on the broken half of a Romanesque altar slab that rests on a windowsill at the east end of the south nave aisle. This too is a rare survival.)

Both pieces are carved from a pale straw-coloured stone, in places, tinged with a darker brown. This is likely to be a variety of Pentewan stone, the fine-grained acid igneous rock that outcrops at Polrudden Cove near St Austell, used extensively in the local area for building and carving. Along with the dark blue-green Polyphant, and the charcoal black Cataclews, both from the north side of the county, this is one of the best carving stones of Cornwall. The font has been worked from one piece. This represents a significant investment of time and effort; first to square the rough block, then to produce a cylinder, hollow out the bowl, and remove the stone around the ‘waist’ between the bowl and the foot. Only then would the decorative carving have begun. This consists of a band of palmettes, a prominent cable moulding with supplementary chevron, and broad spikes of triple chevrons on the base, some bearing traces of red paint.

In many respects the Lanreath font is closer in design and feel to the Devonian examples carved from Beer stone at Buckland-in-the-moor and Bishopsteignton rather than any other Cornish fonts. The blunt-ended leaves of the palmettes, the strong volutes (curiously, spiralling towards, rather than away from, the base of the palm), and the large scale chevrons decorating the foot are all balanced well in the overall design, resulting in a coherent piece. We are lucky to still have it in such good condition.

The broken section of altar slab in the south aisle, now an attractive base for a spider plant, is well worth a look as well. I am a big fan of repeated geometric motifs in Romanesque sculpture and this partial slab, damaged as it is, does not disappoint. Three bands of saltire cross motifs fill two sides of the stone. Tantalisingly, the slab has broken through the centre of a curved design, perhaps a scrolling plant or other foliate motif, now indecipherable.

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Above: The font, with detail of the palmette motif (Photos: Alex Woodcock).

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Above: The section of altar slab in the south aisle (Photos: Marcus Williamson).

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