There are two signs tucked into the hedge at the side of the A356. One says Toller Fratrum, the other indicates that the road that will take us there is a dead end. We turn left onto a single-track lane bounded on each side by a wire and post fence and bump along into the gentle valley, underneath a railway bridge and over a narrow river, then up the other side. I’d heard that the manor house had burnt down and here it is, where the road ends in mud, cloaked in scaffolding, emitting occasional groans and squeaks as the wind catches in its roof of plastic sheeting. Adjacent and serene is the church of St Basil, the path to it through the churchyard lit by daffodils. It is a simple building with a commanding view across soft, pale green hills fringed with smudges of trees.
I’m here to see the font. It’s by no means a unique pilgrimage. Today I’ve only come from Poole, a marked contrast to the artist John Piper, who, in 1934, drove through the night from Henley to rural Dorset with his wife-to-be and a friend, the font the sole purpose of their trip. An early enthusiast for Romanesque sculpture it was the ‘bigness and strangeness’ of the figures carved here that appealed to him, images that were somehow both ancient and modern at the same time. They still are. While many of the faces have been repaired the power of the piece is undiminished. Eyes gaze out from the stone; hands are raised to grip the cable-moulding that runs lazily around the top; a beast with two bodies and one head is propped upon columns; tiny heads peep out of obscure corners. The whole ensemble is oddly inviting, with a great energy as well as, perversely, a gentle, almost icy calmness.
Trips by artists such as Piper were crucial in the wider rediscovery of the Romanesque. Along with Henry Moore, drawn to the figures carved in the church at Adel in Yorkshire, or Fernand Léger, who found in Romanesque sculpture starting points for his experiments in distortion, Piper’s pilgrimages to the southwest of England to take photos of carved fonts and other fragments of sculpture (Luppitt in Devon was another one that caught his attention) were part of a growing cultural mood which saw a new interest in the art and architecture of England. As well as inspiring new art it also led to new guidebooks, such as the Shell County Guides, with which Piper would become involved.
Only thirty years previous even those writers publishing on Romanesque sculpture could be ambivalent about their subject. This work ‘is not wholly to be derided’ wrote Minna Gray in 1905 in her article about the sculptured font at St Marychurch, Torquay, even though it was carved ‘more than two hundred years before the Perfect Rose of Gothic loveliness’. Victorian and Edwardian England loved the Gothic style, especially that of the thirteenth century, in which the simple lines and restrained elegance of ‘stiff-leaf’ foliage lent churches a nuanced, geometric perfection. The work of this period was ‘pure, amazingly pure’ wrote the scholar Emile Mâle, whose Religious Art in France of the Thirteenth Century would set the tone for the era. And yet even he would succumb to the power of the Romanesque, writing a companion volume on the twelfth century a decade or so later, in 1922, in which he questioned many of his earlier opinions. Such reflective prose was the scholarly exception, however, and for the most part Romanesque was perceived as primitive, unbalanced and dark, suggesting an undercurrent of paganism. Modern artists eagerly embraced it.
At Stoke Canon, a few miles north of Exeter, there is another font with figurative carving. It too is carved from a single block of stone, although unlike Toller not a creamy coloured limestone but a hard, pitted, volcanic one. This alone makes the figure sculpture around its base and the geometric designs on the bowl impressive. On each corner the figures, arms raised, loop their fingers around a cable moulding. Each one is, however, in the process of being eaten, the head held within the jaws of an inverted, crouching beast with a cylindrical body. In between these poised human and beast pairs are other figures, not unlike those at Toller, with oval heads and oval eyes, long tunics and pointed shoes, one holding a staff, another a book.
Kate Marie Clarke, a name familiar to any researcher of Romanesque sculpture in Devon, wrote in 1906 that ‘the subject of the font is very puzzling’. It has remained so, despite attempts to attribute meaning. Clarke herself suggested that the animals were lions, which led her to posit a theme of Daniel in the lion’s den, ‘exemplifying God’s power to save the faithful from spiritual danger’. I agree with her on the lions: Romanesque carvers tended to present them with their tails curved up through their legs, as they are here, but am wary of such a definite interpretation overall. Lions and other powerful creatures entered Romanesque art from diverse sources, but were often associated with a centrally-placed tree or a human, like on the tympanum at Down St Mary a few miles north. The strength of the ‘Tree of Life’ imagery may have led to its constituent parts, lion and/or other powerful creature, tree or human, to have carried overtones of its meaning (broadly, the resurrective power of Christ, and by extension, the Church) in other arrangements, like on the tympanum at Ideford further west on which the ‘tree’ is replaced by a palmette motif and the creatures each side of it are a bird and a dragon.
Down St Mary
I visited Stoke Canon the day before Toller Fratrum but in my mind the two are linked by more than my random timing. Both fonts carry that sense of something beyond the physical; even the awkward figures whose heads are being devoured gaze directly at the viewer as if nothing untoward is happening. The lions have friendly pointy ears like a cartoon: perhaps their bites are playful, the creatures tamed. Everything is static yet uncertain, a moment held in time but suggestive of time passing. That spot between two different states, movement and stillness, life and death, the Romanesque carvers found again and again. The many faces on the font at Toller Fratrum do not suggest chaos but a stillness amid the swarming mass of life. The figures with their hands raised are perhaps holding up the bowl of the font, but it is worth remembering that to raise one’s arms like that is also an ancient posture of prayer. Are they supporting the font or being supported by it? Are they hanging on or are they praying? Are some being baptised themselves, the hand of one pushing the head of another down, perhaps into water? It would seem that, beneath the grey early April skies draped over the valley, there are no easy answers.