Vanishing Dragons

‘To one whose mind is still full of the memories of some great English Abbey or Cathedral’ wrote the architect Edmund Sedding in 1909, considering the church of St Winwaloe at Tremaine in North Cornwall, ‘this desolate little sanctuary would seem hardly worthy of notice’. However, to ‘the few who love the work of the medieval craftsmen, these works they have left us are beyond price’. It is easy to understand Sedding’s reflective prose inspired by the tiny church at Tremaine. Framed by beech trees it sits on the very top of a hill, its weatherbeaten masonry changing colour with the passing clouds whose shadows collect in the fields and woodlands far below. It is a simple structure of chancel, nave and tower. On a still day it holds a loud, ear-ringing silence.

Tremaine is one of a group of three churches in this area possessing a Romanesque tympanum, the segmental space above a doorway that is often carved. At the other two, Egloskerry and Treneglos, the tympana are filled with a foliate-tailed dragon, and two leonine beasts facing each other on either side of a luxuriant palm-like tree. Each is a unique work of art, and likely to represent the output of the same team of masons or even the same carver – the style of the foliate tail on the dragon at Egloskerry, for example, is remarkably similar to the terminations of the two lower branches of the tree at Treneglos. The tympanum at Tremaine, however, has a different history. Like nearby Egloskerry it too was carved with an image of a dragon, as noted by the writer Joseph Polsue in the 1870s. By the time this work is next referred to, however, by Arthur G. Langdon in 1906, it has been ‘ruthlessly hacked off, probably at the time when the circular hole was cut through the stone for the passage of a flue pipe’. When Sedding sat down on the sloping grass bank by the door to sketch it for his Norman Architecture in Cornwall there was only a blocked hole and a small indentation to record, which Langdon noted ruefully, ‘might perhaps be a bit of the dragon’s tail’.

We are familiar now with the wayward church restorations of the Victorian period, some accomplished with great sensitivity to the medieval fabric, others with none. And yet despite the enormous advances in conservation and legal status, historic churches and their medieval sculpture in the UK can still be lost. At the church of Buncton in West Sussex in 2004 the sheela-na-gig (an exhibitionist figure often found among medieval sculpture), carved as part of the imagery on a Romanesque chancel arch capital, was chiselled off. The story ran in the local newspaper, the Brighton Argus, but to my knowledge no investigation was launched and no-one prosecuted. The misunderstanding of this type of image as somehow ‘pagan’ may well have been behind the destruction.

Medieval sculpture is a finite resource. Standing before the north door at Tremaine I wonder how Sedding must have felt as he sat there sketching the remnants of the sculptured tympanum over a hundred years ago. ‘The time will come,’ he wrote ‘when a just value has been set upon old buildings’.

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Above: Tremaine church and its north door with ‘lost dragon’ tympanum.

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Above: Two lions on either side of a palm on the tympanum at Treneglos.

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Above: The dragon on the tympanum at Egloskerry (the three-lobed tail is at the top).

(All photographs by Alex Woodcock).

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