historic stonecarving

Sculpture at Hartland

I’m out on the north-westerly tip of Devon at Hartland. At Hartland Point grey cliffs erupt from white water hundreds of feet below, monumental sections of slate themselves folded into waves, syncline and anticline, by earth movements millions of years ago. Look west and it’s an uninterrupted view towards America. The tower of the church of St Nectan at East Stoke, inland by about a mile and the tallest in North Devon at around 130ft, is swallowed up by the vast sky. (more…)

Church of the Storms

‘Close to the sea, but sheltered from it by a bluff’ wrote Nikolaus Pevsner in 1951 in his trademark terse prose. Such understatement does little to introduce this building, the church of St Winwalloe at Gunwalloe on the west coast of the Lizard Peninsula. It is fortunate that the volume’s later contributing author, Peter Beacham, editing and updating it in 2014, adds exactly what Pevsner had missed but what appears obvious to even the most casual visitor. ‘Even for Cornwall’, the sentence now begins, ‘an especially romantic site for a church, on its own on the edge of a sandy cove but sheltered from the sea by a bluff’. Without this giant rock and its attendant spikes of slate to break the waves I doubt the building would last much more than one Cornish winter. ‘So close is the building to the shore’ wrote the vicar in 1870, ‘that the waves have frequently broken away the walls of the churchyard’. A neatly-lettered sign hangs above the door in the porch: St Winwaloe, it says (one ‘l’), The Church of the Storms. (more…)

A Gothic masterpiece at St Endellion

I’d heard about the late medieval sculpture that exists in a handful of churches in North Cornwall but until recently hadn’t seen any of it first hand. Because of the excellent North Cornwall Book Festival at St Endellion over the weekend I had the opportunity to combine my love of books and writing with my love of Gothic stone carving, clearly a win-win situation. When the church was empty one afternoon (it was great to see it used as a performance venue for the speakers and musicians, as well as hosting an exhibition and printmaking workshops) I was able to take a closer look. (more…)

Modern and medieval: cathedrals as perpetual works of art

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‘An art that has life does not restore works of the past’, said the artist Auguste Rodin in his book-length love letter to the Gothic period, Cathedrals of France (1914), ‘it continues them’. I’m thinking about this as I stand on the scaffolding at Exeter Cathedral with my friends and former stonemasonry colleagues, looking at the replacement stones that they’ve carved and fixed into place. The work is exceptionally good, and carries a sympathetic medieval spirit but there is something undeniably contemporary about them too. This is as it should be, and indeed, unavoidable. (more…)

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. (more…)

Circles and Serpents

Romanesque sculpture is consistently surprising. In few places in Cornwall is it anything other than fragmentary, a doorway here or a corbel or tympanum (the segmental space immediately above the door) there. Sometimes, however, it is fragmentary at a single site, which, at some point in its building history has adopted a fairly scattergun approach to the reuse of its twelfth-century carved stones. Mylor is one such church. Here it’s possible to find one doorway still in situ, another likely made up from a tympanum and other original stones, and several carved corbels now positioned in prominent architectural locations (one of which is a beakhead, unknown in the county outside of Morwenstow and Kilkhampton). (more…)

Forgotten Stones and Lost Fragments

It’s a bright winter’s day on the south coast of Cornwall. Sunlight dazzles on windows and windscreens.  The coast path rises through a straggle of trees; behind them I can see the St Austell river forming a wide loop across the beach before it reaches the mirror-like sea. I’m here to find the source of one of Cornwall’s best carving stones, the fine-grained, straw-coloured igneous rock that takes its name from the village far below: Pentewan. (more…)