Telltale Heads

Most sculpture of the medieval period was produced by carvers whose names are now lost to us. In the twelfth-century, long before the emergence of professional stone carvers or ‘imagers’ which occurred from around the 1300s onward, there are sometimes few clues to identify the work of even a team of masons. Occasionally, however, the archaeology itself suggests connections between different sites based upon similarities of design; if we’re lucky, sometimes we get near identical carvings. 

In Devon and Cornwall there are several sites that have close stylistic connections. In the north there are three Devon churches with similarly decorated doorways at Buckland Brewer, Shebbear and West Woolfardisworthy (Woolsery). These doorways, all dating to c.1150-1180, display a number of similarities with carved work at Kilkhampton and Morwenstow in north Cornwall. I will explore these sites in a future post as they are significant for many reasons, not just for the work itself but for what they suggest about how stonemasons worked in the twelfth century. Here, I just want to look at two images, both from Devon, in (or on) the churches at Hawkchurch and Bishopsteignton.


The image on the left shows the capitals from the north side of the chancel arch at Hawkchurch, while that on the right the capitals on the south side of the west door at Bishopsteignton. Look closely and you’ll notice that the capitals on the left in each photo are very similar to each other: a grinning animal head appears between two strands of foliage that end in tiny leaves, all of which is set above a run of either broad leaves with incised curves or a mixture of broad leaves and unfurling narrower leaves.

In twelfth-century Devon designs were often reproduced. The series of over a dozen fonts carved in the New Red Sandstone from the Torbay and Teignmouth area, which mix motifs from a limited repertoire of palmettes, saltire crosses, chevrons or rosettes, were likely to have been carved near (or even at) the source of the stone, the finished pieces then delivered to their intended churches. What about these capitals? The similarity of the design is unmistakable. It is impossible to say, however, that they were carved by the same person. What they do indicate is a connection between the two churches, with perhaps the same  team of masons working on both projects. One may even have been copied from the other.

All of which brings us back to the question of how stonemasons organised themselves in the twelfth century. Was the work produced at the site itself or elsewhere and then delivered? The north Devon churches mentioned earlier, as well as the south Devon fonts, all suggest the latter. Given that Bishopsteignton belonged to the Bishops of Exeter it is likely that cathedral masons were involved in its construction, although the work is unlike anything that survives at the cathedral from the same period.

(Thanks to John Goodliffe for the photograph of Hawkchurch).

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