Missing: The Romanesque Tympanum from East Teignmouth

(I wrote this post last year and have updated it accordingly)

A significant piece of Romanesque sculpture, moved from East Teignmouth church in the 1820s to the garden of a house in Dawlish, Devon, is still missing.

Fig. 1

This was it in November 2011 when I visited to research an article, published in last year’s Transactions of the Devonshire Association.* The twelfth-century tympanum, originally above the north door at St Michael’s, East Teignmouth, had occupied this position in the grounds of Shell Cove House in Dawlish since the early 1820s. During the first wave of restoration of the medieval church, between 1821 and 1823, the sculpture was moved here by the Reverend Charles Phillot, curate of the church from 1811 and developer of the house (then known as Clevelands).

Shell Cove House has been developed into retirement flats. In the process of updating my article for publication I was reminded of how vulnerable this disarticulated stone was, set above a garden door and cloaked by holly and other creepers. I made enquiries which led to the realisation that it was no longer there.  The carving is believed to have gone missing at some point between November 2011 and December 2013, prior to the developers taking over the site. As the house was not listed there was no legal protection for this sculpture. As it was privately owned it may even have been sold. It is currently unknown where it has gone.

 

THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE TYMPANUM

The surface discolouration of the tympanum is almost total, but in places where water has run off it reveals a reddish tinge, suggesting that it is carved in red sandstone. The design features three large ‘palmettes’ beneath a shallow arch made from star motifs, the gap in the centre edged with saw-tooth chevron. A sunken panel features some obscure letters or numbers, possibly a date (perhaps 1819; it certainly post-dates an engraving done in 1808). I drew the sculpture in charcoal the month after I visited to try and understand the design a bit better (see below).

Fig. 2

Beyond being an artwork that has survived over 800 years the East Teignmouth tympanum is a rare example of this type of large scale architectural sculpture produced in the locality during the mid-twelfth century.

The type of stone and distinctive motifs link it stylistically with a number of other pieces of work nearby, chiefly fonts, at Ashprington, Blackawton, Buckfastleigh, Cornworthy, Dartmouth (St Petrox), Denbury, Paignton, Plymstock, South Brent, Thurlestone, Ugborough and Wolborough (Newton Abbot).

8 3

7 2

Above: the fonts at Ashprington, Thurlestone, Cornworthy and Buckfastleigh.

At Loddiswell, Dean Prior, and Harberton there are more experimental designs. The font at Loddiswell pairs volutes with star and saw tooth chevron. Dean Prior features star ornament with an incised band of  foliage. The font at Harberton has the main decorative strip at the top, a repeated six-spoked rosette motif, beneath which is a cable moulding and fluting. In contrast, at Stoke Fleming the bowl is left entirely undecorated.

11 12

Above: the fonts at Dean Prior and Harberton.

St John’s church in Paignton displays similar architectural carving around the west door, for instance the red sandstone voussoirs carved with star motifs. This doorway suggests that the workshop responsible was an advanced one, displaying as it does a ‘quite a sophisticated use of polychrome masonry: the outer voussoirs red with saltire crosses, the inner white with zigzag; the outer order on red scalloped capitals, the inner on white ones decorated with simple foliage’.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Above: west doorway at St John’s, Paignton.

Returning to St Michael’s in East Teignmouth itself there are a number of reset twelfth-century corbels in the tower, all now whitewashed. Corbels, ‘consisting of the heads of men or animals’, are mentioned in descriptions of the twelfth-century church in both 1793 and 1808. These are likely to be them. They are carved with animals, including a bird and a snake, the heads of beasts and humans, and geometric motifs. The latter, tellingly, includes a paired volute design, a strong component of the palmette motif itself as well as appearing as a major element on the aforementioned font at Loddiswell. Along with the tympanum they are the sole remnants of the architectural sculpture from the Romanesque church.

 

* Woodcock, Alex, 2016. ‘A Stone “Richly Embossed with Volutes”: The Romanesque Tympanum from East Teignmouth’, Transactions of the Devonshire Association 148: 293–310.

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