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Saturday, 28 September 2013

Some ancient stone carvings and structures in Cornwall: mysterious stone chambers, circles, pavements and labyrinths

Although my trip to Cornwall included visiting a few churches to look at the carvings and stories within them, these weren't the only carvings and man-made structures that I'd like to write about here. Some were far, far older.

Perhaps the oldest structure was Trethevy quoit on Bodmin Moor. This is a dolmen, a chamber made from huge stones thought to date to the end of the Neolithic (Late Stone Age), about 5,500 years ago. There are a few in Britain, some having shown evidence of burials within them but they may have also had other purposes such as territorial markers. No one really knows with certainty the original purpose of these chambers, but they are also found as far away as Korea and India.

On the same side of the moor one can find the Hurlers, a row of three (or possibly four) stone circles and outlying stones, which may date to the Bronze Age or may be older. They lie in a SSW-NNE alignment.

We were very lucky to visit them whilst an excavation was taking place to uncover a 'pavement' of white quartz stones, which appears to link two of the circles and runs in the same orientation. The quartz structure has only been uncovered in modern times once before, in 1938, and will be covered over again once the project is completed. The local community was assisting with the dig, which was tied in to a study of the astronomical orientations of the site that is being conducted by the Roseland Observatory. It's interesting to think what the Hurlers must once have looked like. The stones in the circles show evidence of having been hammered to shape and the pavement of quartz must have glowed and twinkled in certain light conditions.

On the north coast of Cornwall lies another mysterious site that may date to the Bronze Age. The walk to this one began at Tintagel, a site closely linked with legends of King Arthur.

The castle ruins that can be seen today are comparatively recent, having been built in the 13th century by Richard, Earl of Cornwall. There is archaeological evidence for much older use of the headland though, going back to Romano-British times. However, no traces of an actual settlement on the site then have so far been found, although evidence for early trade with Mediterranean societies has been discovered here.

After a walk of about two hours along the beautiful coastline, past Bossiney Haven...

... one arrives at  Rocky Valley.

The river is followed upstream for a while...

... to a ruined watermill.

On a rockface behind the mill ruins are carved two of the most intriguing carvings that I know of. They are surrounded by offerings tied to trees and scratched into stones, which have then been lodged into cracks in the rock. A plaque nearby notes that they are 'probably of the early Bronze Age (1800 - 1400 BC)'. In truth, they are almost impossible to date. They are two labyrinths.

This design is a unicursal maze. There are no dead-ends or branches, just a single path travelling into the centre then out again. The design is ancient, a square version having been found on a clay tablet from the Mycenaean palace at Pylos, which was destroyed by fire around 1200 BC.

Stone carvings that may be more recent, although still very old, can be seen back on Bodmin moor. One is the Longstone, or Long Tom; a cross carved in granite. Some people believe that this is an example of the Christianisation of an ancient menhir (standing stone). Rather than destroy the pagan relic a cross might have been carved onto it, perhaps because it was too useful as a wayside marker on the inhospitable moor to be taken down or because of some other particular importance to local people. 

Another nearby monument of carved granite is certainly Christian, albeit still very old. It is called King Doniert's Stone but is actually two granite bases for crosses, which have interesting Celtic knotwork and an inscription carved into them.

The inscription says in Latin 'Doniert Progavit Pro Anima', which translates as 'Doniert ordered (this cross) for (the good of) his soul'. Doniert is thought to be King Durngarth of Cornwall, who drowned in the river Fowey around AD 875. 

The stones are decorated with carvings of late 9th century style and sockets carved into the tops of the stones may once have held separate parts of the monument; perhaps wooden cross heads?
An underground passage cut into the hard granite begins about 8 metres (26.25 feet) from the stones and terminates below them in a cross-shaped chamber. The relationship between the stones and the passageway and chamber is unknown. 
As with most, if not all, of the ancient carvings and man-made structures in the county, this Cornish monument leaves the visitor considering questions to which we will probably never know the answers.

St Carantoc's church in Crantock, near Newquay in Cornwall. My introduction to the extraordinary carving work of Ms. Violet Pinwill, as well as the nefarious deeds of William Tinney of West Pentire

St Carantoc's in situated in the small village of Crantock in Cornwall. There has been a church on the site since one was founded there by Carantoc in about the 5th century. He was the eldest son of a Welsh chieftain and had given up his succession, studied under St Patrick in Ireland and is reputed to have sailed from there to this area in a coracle.

The church is basically of Norman design, although there has been much rebuilding; the tower, nave and many other parts were rebuilt in the 15th century after the previous tower had become neglected and collapsed (bringing down much of the church with it). The South Porch dates to the 17th century.

St Carantoc's was the centre for a college of priests after being granted a charter by King Edward the Confessor. This made it quite powerful and the mother church for a large area around it. The Eastern end of the building is higher and wider than the Western end (as you can see in the picture above) because the monks of the college worshipped in one end whereas the poorer parishioners used the other. I'm sure that you can guess who got which end!

The college of priests was disbanded during the Reformation in the 16th century and the building gradually fell into disrepair, with the Puritans no doubt helping the process along. There were some attempts at restoring it in the 18th century, although they were fairly shoddy.

The current state of repair is basically down to one man: George Metford Parsons, who became vicar there in 1894 and remained vicar until his death in 1924. He campaigned for funds to renovate the building in 1897 and by 1907 the work was done and pretty much paid for. The architect for the renovation was Edmund Harold Sedding and he did a very good job, with any surviving pieces of high-quality older woodwork being incorporated into the newly restored church furniture or being displayed in an arrangement at the back of the church. Fifteen new stained glass windows were also installed at the time.

Sedding was buried in the churchyard at St Carantoc's after his death.

My first reaction on entering the church was amazement at the unexpectedly high quality of the woodcarving to be seen. The rood screen and choir stalls in particular are stunningly well executed.

Under the choir seats are misericords, for clergy to rest against during masses. The ones in St Carantoc's are based on plant designs and were carved, like most of the other work in these photos, by a company led by Ms. Violet Pinwill. They had finished installing the carved work by 1907.

Pinwill and Sedding worked together on other church restorations, including St Winnow's in Cornwall.

(One piece of work in the church that was carved elsewhere is the crucifixion scene on the rood screen, which was produced by some of the famous woodcarvers of Oberammergau in Bavaria and mounted atop the screen afterwards.)

This was the first time that I had knowingly come across Violet Pinwill's work. She sounds like she was a very remarkable person.

Image from
Violet was the daughter of Reverend Edmund Pinwill. When he became vicar of the rundown church at Ermington in Devon, woodcarvers were hired to restore the woodwork there. Mrs Pinwill encouraged her daughters to be taught the craft by the carvers and Violet, together with her sisters Mary and Ethel, carved and assembled the pulpit in a room in the vicarage. Thanks to Helen Wilson for getting in touch and correcting the misspelling of Ethel's name as 'Esther' in the Ermington website and elsewhere. The link through Dr. Wilson's name will take you to her website, where you can find out more about the Pinwill sisters.

They decided to go into business and formed the company Rashleigh Pinwill, basing themselves in Plymouth in Devon. The company specialised in supplying carvings based on natural forms to churches in Devon and Cornwall. When Mary and then Ethel left, after some time, Violet continued to head the company under the name V. Pinwill Carvers. She employed several male carvers but also executed a lot of the carved work herself.

Violet Pinwill died in Plymouth in 1957, aged 83. She left carvings in wood and stone in over 100 churches in Devon and Cornwall, including Truro cathedral. It may be worth remembering that the Pinwill sisters formed and led this highly successful company of woodcarvers at a time when women in Britain were not even allowed to vote.

Ed Hall, maker of trade union banners, noted in the programme for the Dismaland exhibition that he particularly likes banners made by the Suffragettes. He makes an interesting point about women working at this time in British history:

'The interesting thing about the Suffragettes is that one or two of them, including Sylvia Pankhurst, were artists in their own right - women were excluded from many professions but there was no bar to them joining the arts so some of the Suffragette banners were professionally made.'

Behind the church is a small roofed structure containing a woodcarving in oak by Davey and Bushell, who were based in Bristol. The panel was carved sometime between 1900 and 1919.
It accompanies the old stocks for Crantock and relates the tale of the last man to be held in them.

The carved story reads like this:

'The last man in Crantock stocks (circa. 1817) was William Tinney of West Pentire, a smuggler's son and a vagabond. He robbed, with violence, a widow woman of Cubert parish and was placed, to abide justice, in Crantock stocks, then standing in the church tower. By negligence or design he was insufficiently secured and shortly afterwards appeared on the top of the tower. He had cut the rope from the tenor bell and by this he lowered himself to the nave roof. Climbing to the eastern gable of the choir and sliding down it, he dropped to the churchyard grass and in the sympathetic view of certain village worthies bolted, got off to sea and was never brought to justice or seen in the neighbourhood again.
This record was taken down in April 1896 by George Metford Parsons, vicar, from the testimony of Richard Chegwhidden of Crantock, he being then 88 years of age and well remembering as a witness the events described.'

The poem under this scene reads:

' I paid my price for finding out,
Nor ever grudged the price I paid,
But sat in clink without my boots,
Admiring how the world was made.'

Friday, 6 September 2013

Two recent lettercutting projects; an elm breadboard and an oak memorial

I was contacted by a client who wanted a breadboard with a carved inscription, made from seasoned oak. Oak is actually not a great wood to use for chopping boards, as it can split easily and contains a lot of tannins that could taint food. I suggested elm instead and am very happy with how the board now looks:

It has been finished with olive oil that has been slightly warmed, so that it penetrates the wood more deeply and doesn't sit on the surface going sticky. The surface was then buffed to a satiny sheen.

Another recent commission involved carving and constructing an oak memorial. It is to be sited in a natural cemetery and so it was important that no metal or stone was used in the construction (eg. metal screws). The sign is joined using glue and dowels instead and the board is finished with durable tung oil. A separate stake was provided, at the client's request, to make a pilot hole into which this stake could be pushed without damaging it.

King's Weston House, a recently renovated English Baroque mansion in Bristol

Kings Weston house was built between 1713 and 1719 and was designed by Sir John Vanbrugh in the English Baroque style. It lies to the north-west of the centre of Bristol.

The estate buildings and the mansion are the biggest collection of buildings designed by Vanbrugh outside of the South-East. Bristol is also the only city outside London to have any buildings designed by him. He worked a lot with Nicholas Hawksmoor and was originally a dramatist. Eventually, Vanbrugh would go on to do much of the design for Blenheim Palace, the residence of the Dukes of Marlborough in Oxfordshire. However, that job did irreparable damage to his reputation.

One of the house's main architectural features is the impressive arcade of chimneys, which you can see below:

The mansion is a Grade I listed building and the land around, which is open to the public, is a Grade II listed landscape. The house has recently been bought and renovated and I was lucky to be in one of the first groups to dine inside since the work was completed.

Many of the original features have unfortunately been removed over the years. The house itself was extensively remodelled in the 1760's and then again between 1845 and 1860. It has been through many different uses, having been a family home, a school of architecture, empty for five years, a conference centre, a police training college and a hospital during the First World War. However, there are still a few interesting things still about.

One of the most striking features of the interior is the ornamental plasterwork on the ceilings. Much of this was designed by Robert Mylne and executed by Thomas Stocking in a large-scale remodelling of the house's interior during the 1760s.

Stocking also made plasterwork 'frames' to show the inherited family portraits of Edward Southwell, the man who commissioned Vanbrugh to design Kings Weston house. These frames were also to Mylne's designs. The original portraits have recently been renovated and reinstalled.

In the same large room is a very impressive skull with antlers. It was once an Irish elk, which had the largest antlers of any deer that has ever existed as far as we know.

These creatures were unrelated to modern elk and the most recent remains were found in Siberia and carbon dated to about 7,700 years ago. Many skeletons have been found in Irish peat bogs, hence the name, but the range of this deer was much wider, from Ireland into Russia. Adults were as large as a modern moose (about 2.1m or 6.9 feet at the shoulder) but the antlers were up to 3.65m (12 ft) across and weighed up to 40 kg (88lb)!

One of the Southwell family was a Secretary of State for Ireland and he may have brought the antlers to Kings Weston.

The 'hanging staircase' is also noteworthy, floating in the entrance hall and extending upwards for three stories (sorry for the quality of the photo!). Apparently, the only other surviving example is in St Petersburg, Russia.

There's not a huge amount of carving to be seen, but there are some interesting pieces of furniture in the house: well as a couple of interesting fireplaces. This one, with fighting cherubs on a marble plaque, is in the large saloon with the elk antlers:

It was possibly carved, at least in part, by John Deval to Mylne's designs in the 1760s. Deval certainly carved at least one other fireplace in the building. Most ornamental features were removed during 1938, prior to the house becoming a school, with many of them being stored in the cellar. After the Second World War, much of the ornament was stolen or damaged (even leading to questions in Parliament in 1947, about how best to conserve the building). One of Deval's marble fireplaces was recently rediscovered in 2013, still in the cellar where it had been stored.

This Tudor fireplace stands in the main hall below the floating staircase and near to some interesting trompe l'oeil paintings showing statues and vases. Perhaps it may have come from the building which stood on the site before Southwell commissioned this mansion. Vanbrugh was often keen to conserve and use older features in his buildings (trying and failing to do so when designing Blenheim Palace).

The new renovations look very sympathetic to the heritage of Kings Weston House. It's great to have had the opportunity to see inside.