Friday, February 23, 2018

Southwell, Nottinghamshire


The Leaves of Southwell

When posting about one of the carvings in the chapter house of Southwell Minster the other week, I inevitably got down from my shelves my copy of The Leaves of Southwell, Nikolaus Pevsner’s short book about this building’s extraordinary late-13th century sculptures of the leaves of plants and trees. I did so to look at the excellent photographs of Southwell’s stone leaves – oak, ivy, maple, buttercup, hop, vine, and other species. I ended up rereading the text of the book as well.

The Leaves of Southwell is in the King Penguin series, which are short hardback books published by Penguin Books between 1939 and 1959.* The format for the series consists of an essay (usually of about 30 pages, though Pevsner’s is double that length), followed by a series of illustrations. The photographs, by F L Attenborough, then Principal of University College, Leicester, and father of Richard and David Attenborough, are exemplary: detailed, well printed, and with just the right amount of contrast. From the patterned cover to the photographs, the book is a pleasing object.
The text is good too. Pevsner combines the virtues of a good art historian: a perceptive and inquisitive eye, a knowledge of contemporary history and intellectual context, and the wit to understand how the visual and the historical might relate. He picks out several qualities to admire in the Southwell carvings – the way the artists balanced pattern and background, the interplay between the architectural structure and the ornament that adorns it, the naturalism of the carvings and how this is modified or stylised in places. It’s this naturalism that is the remarkable thing about the carvings – they date to the point at the end of the 13th century when sculptors had turned away from the highly stylised ‘stiff leaf’ ornament of the previous decades and before they’d hit upon the slightly more formal style of carving that came later. Pevsner also enlisted a botanist to advise on exactly which species are represented, although the results aren’t always conclusive.

Pevsner also writes about the intellectual context of the carvings. He discusses how early-medieval herbalists and encyclopedists write about plants. Most of these writers, he says, are not really very revealing. They tell us a few facts about a plant and maybe some of its herbal uses, but they don’t go into much detail and their information is mostly copied from other writers, not based on observation. The exception, says Pevsner, is Albertus Magnus (c. 1200–1280), Dominican friar and bishop, scholar of Aristotle but also of the great Muslim writers Avicenna and Averroes. When Albertus writes about plants, he does so in a much more specific and observational way, as if he has actually seen what he is describing. This way of writing marks a change, and it occurs just before the Southwell carvings were made in the 1290s.

Pevsner is not saying that the master mason of Southwell read Albertus. He is pointing out that this new realism and respect for specific detail was in the air at the time – it is part of what he calls the spirit of the age (his translation for his British readers of the German word Zeitgeist). It’s a spirit that encompasses the preaching of the friars, the growth of busy towns, the worldly love and nature poetry of the wandering scholars, the rejection of superstition, and the new openness to both Classical art and the ideas of Islamic philosophers. It’s a spirit, then, that accommodates with ease naturalist sculpture like the leaves of Southwell.
At one point in his text, Pevsner remarks that Southwell is probably the least visited of all Britain’s cathedrals. If the chapter house were in France, British people would flock to see it, he says. Seventy-five years on from Pevsner’s account, it’s still very quiet – a handful of people were visiting when we were there before Christmas. The cathedral authorities are on a mission, though, to ensure that those who come will be able to appreciate the carvings and the stories behind them. In conjunction with a major project to restore the cathedral’s roof, they are also planning work on the chapter house – to provide heating and better lighting, and to present more information about the carvings; a video here, with more shots of the carvings, explains more. I hope that more people will see the carvings as a result, and appreciate their extraordinary qualities of naturalism, observation, and openness.


Photographs by F L Attenborough, from The Leaves of Southwell
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* The King Penguin series, of which Pevsner himself eventually became General Editor, was miscellaneous in its subject matter: there were natural history titles, books on history, places, and on subjects such as heraldry, British military uniforms, and the history of toys. Any subject was considered, if it would benefit from treatment in the series format of ‘essay plus a series of illustrations’. Some of my favourites feature the work of interesting British artists of the period: Edward Bawden’s Life in an English Village, John Piper’s Romney Marsh, Barbara Jones’s The Isle of Wight, and Kenneth Rowntree’s A Prospect of Wales.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Hanwell, Oxfordshire


February carvery (5)

I’d thought that my previous post would be the last of this month’s short ‘carvery’ pieces, but then I remembered Hanwell. This is one of the churches in North Oxfordshire that have distinctive carvings from the fourteenth century. Like Adderbury, it has a range of figures, beasts, and other carved subjects, both indoors and out. Some of them are of the ‘linked arms’ type on capitals, the kind I’ve previously noticed at another North Oxfordshire church, Bloxham, and elsewhere.

The heads at Hanwell are if anything even better than those at Bloxham – individual, crisply carved, and full of character. This bearded face is one of my favourites. His hair, beard, nose, and mouth are well done, I think, although the eyes are rather small and mean. The overall effect though is good, and makes one smile. Nikolaus Pevsner says in his book The Leaves of Southwell (to which, I hope, I’ll soon return) that capitals mark a structural junction between two functions (column and arch) and ornament marks this important transition while also masking the joint. In this case, the figures also look as if they are doing some of the structural work, by bearing the weight of the arch on their arms and shoulders. They look none the worse for their effort. 

Friday, February 16, 2018

Brant Broughton, Lincolnshire


February carvery (4)

For my final short post about church carvings, here’s one from Brant Broughton. This time it’s on the outside of the building and shows a beast less ambiguous than the Much Marcle creatures: a bear, by the look of things, and one that has been chained and muzzled. A dacning bear, perhaps, and part of a long and cruel tradition, but accepted in the Middle Ages and in some parts of the world today.

He’s part of a large collection of carvings high up on the outer walls, a display that reminded me of some of the glorious North Oxfordshire churches such as Adderbury. Like that area, Lincolnshire, and the bordering parts of Nottinghamshire, seem to have had a strong local tradition of medieval carving – and, in many places, enough prosperity to employ master craftsmen to do this work. Positioned on an outside wall, the bear and his neighbours have worn quite a lot. But there’s enough strength in the stone, and a bit of shelter from the cornice above, to ensure they still give pleasure.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Much Marcle, Herefordshire


February carvery (3)

A few years back I did a post about the great yew tree in the churchyard at Much Marcle and I’ve always meant to go back and look again at the church there. One reason is these charming, and rather odd, carvings, which I’ve chosen for the next in my series of short posts. Some of the capitals in this church are a cut above the usual parish church fare of plain mouldings, stiff leaf, or more realistic foliage.

Here we have a row of heads – and what else? A bird with a tail that has turned into a bit of foliage to the right of the central head; another creature with bird-like body but animal-like head on the other side, again with a foliate tail. We seem to be in the realms of the bestiary here. I’m intrigued, and, yes, when life is less busy, going back and having a further look must be on my list of expeditions.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Southwell, Nottinghamshire


February carvery (2)

For the next of my short posts showing medieval church carvings, an example from the best place of all to see this sort of thing: the chapter house at Southwell Minster. This is one of the great medieval rooms, a feast of carving, much of it very realistic depictions of leaves. Ever since Nikolaus Pevsner worse his little book about them (The Leaves of Southwell), they’ve been known among architecture buffs. But Southwell is not a major tourist centre, and Southwell Minster is one of our quietest major churches.

I’ve chosen an example from above one of the seats ranged around the wall. Not a Green Man with foliage coming out of his mouth or nostrils, but a face encircled with leaves. A beautiful way to fill up this space above the arch, and one of the best preserved of the carvings in Southwell’s chapter house. A real delicacy from the carvery.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Navenby, Lincolnshire


February carvery (1)

Life is very busy at the moment, so for the next two weeks or so, I’m going do to some short posts. I thought a common theme, medieval church carving, might be entertaining, and would enable me to share a few more pictures from some recent discoveries and rediscoveries.

To begin with, a bit of early-14th century Gothic from the chancel at Navenby. This is what 14th-century Gothic is meant to look like: lots of little arches and niches, so smothered with ornament that you can hardly see the structure – crockets, finials, pinnacles everywhere. But here, as so often, there’s also a human touch – little heads that make it all less serious, one sticking its tongue out, another with a rather grumpy expression. This visitor went away far from grumpy.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Highley, Worcestershire


The signs of yesteryear

In the words of Chard Whitlow, Henry Reed’s amusing parody of T. S. Eliot, ‘As we get older we do not get any younger’. As I get older, I can’t say I experience outright rudeness that often, although the world is not short of oafish behaviour, as a swift walk through any provincial town on a Friday night will reveal. I wonder, though, whether in days gone by it wasn’t worse. One certainly might think so, looking at old notices aimed at improving people’s behaviour. You didn’t have to go far before encountering a ‘COMMIT NO NUISANCE’ (low down, where an inconvenienced ‘gentleman’ might ‘aim’), an ‘ANYONE SMOKING WILL BE PROSECUTED’ (more likely at eye level), a ‘PLEASE REFRAIN FROM SPITTING’ (on buses), a ‘GENTLEMEN RAISE THE SEAT’¶ (on trains), or even an ‘ANY PERSON WILFULLY INJURING ANY PART OF THIS BRIDGE WILL BE GUILTY OF FELONY AND UPON CONVICTION LIABLE TO BE TRANSPORTED FOR LIFE’ (on bridges, in Dorset).

Oh, the signs of yesteryear. So people really had to be told not to spit on the bus or piddle in the corner? I suppose they did, oafs being as thick on the ground then as now, and hygiene being as important then as ever. So the Victorians and Edwardians got on and told them, in bold painted notices and cast-iron signs. Maybe some people even took notice of the notices. But above all, I suppose, it’s the language that marks them out, with its bracing mixture of euphemism (‘nuisance’) and dire warning (‘transported for life’).

A sign of the euphemistic sort that I’d never seen was ‘PLEASE ADJUST YOUR DRESS BEFORE LEAVING’. How can I have missed that one? Too busy admiring the plumbing in the Gents? I don’t know. I became aware of the existence of such signs years ago, reading an excellent book, The Faber Book of Parodies.* This contains not only the poem quoted at the beginning of this post, but a further go at T. S. Eliot, a sort of synoptic parody, called Sweeney in Articulo, attributed to Myra Buttle.† One section of this mock-epic concludes with a random-seeming bunch of quotations, in allusion to the allusive way in which Eliot’s The Waste Land ends. There’s one from Baudelaire, a bit of Latin, some Chinese characters, and then, mixing the highfalutin with the lowly:

‘Love thy neighbour as thyself,’
‘Couldn’t you bring better weather with you?’ and,
Above all,
‘Please adjust your dress before leaving.’

Like anything about T S Eliot, the poem has to have footnotes, and the final line is glossed, ‘Reproduced by permission of Westminster City Council’.

I was thrilled, therefore, some forty years on from reading the parody, to visit the railway station at Highley on the Severn Valley Railway§ and find, not only a ‘Paisley’ water cistern by Doulton and Co, looking like a large butler’s sink painted black, held above my head on two very sturdy iron brackets, but also this notice, a cast-iron plate with letters picked out in white on a black background. Thank you to the Severn Valley Railway for paying attention to the small things. As one must do when adjusting one’s dress before leaving…

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¶ Jonathan Miller, in Beyond the Fringe, offered the suggestion that this might be a loyal toast.

* Dwight MacDonald (ed), The Faber Book of Parodies (Faber and Faber, 1961)

† After wondering for a minute whether ‘Myra Buttle’ might be a pseudonym of one of my Oxford tutors, Marilyn Butler, I read that Myra Buttle was a Cambridge don, a Sinologist called Victor Purcell. Anyone who likes parodies might also want to search out Myra Buttle, The Sweeniad (Secker & Warburg, 1958), which contains the Sweeney epic. 

§ Like many preserved railway lines, the Severn Valley is a good hunting-ground for sign-fanciers: it has an abundance of old enamel advertising signs.