Earlier this year, Little Toller published Alex Woodcock’s memoir King of Dust, a craftsman’s journey through the landscapes and ancient sculpture that inspired him to first pick up tools, eventually becoming a stonemason working at Exeter Cathedral. For this series on The Clearing, Alex asked writers and stone carvers to respond to the idea of ‘Artefact.’ Here, Alex introduces the series and we publish an abridged version of chapter ten, Church of the Storms, from King of Dust.
‘I’m delighted to introduce this series of works based around the theme ‘artefact’. Artefact, as the dictionary will tell you, is defined as an object made by a human being. Yet as these writings demonstrate perhaps there isn’t such a clear distinction: in various and sometimes unexpected ways the raw material itself often plays a prominent role too. Material objects are important in many ways but it’s the emotional pull that they exert that really interests me – what we invest in them and what they come to hold for us, as these essays so deftly explore. I hope you enjoy them.’
Alex Woodcock, December, 2019.
Church of the Storms
The slab was the first thing in the van. A piece of Irish limestone about three feet by one foot by three inches thick. Probably the heaviest single thing I owned: I could just about lift it. I’ve moved enough times since carving it to know that it goes in first, sandwiched by double-thickness cardboard. Everything else can pile on top and I know it’ll be alright even though it’s one of my most treasured pieces, carved with a repeating Romanesque star design that always seems to look new.
I was moving into a friend’s spare room. My place in Falmouth had turned out to be not just damp but wet. There had been a few warning signs. The sea mist that came in through the closed windows. The warped folder of drawings I’d picked up one afternoon that started to drip. The carpet that oozed around my toes. The metal picture frame that had rusted on the wall. The only thing left was to get out, put everything in storage and move into Matt’s house across town.
As I heaved the stone into the back of the van I remembered how I’d found it: in a skip at a monumental masons’ yard. It took a fair amount of shifting of other offcuts to reach it, the single, pale grey corner that had initially caught my eye gradually increasing in size as I got closer. It wasn’t a perfect rectangle. One of the ends was at a slant, and there was a vent along one side, presumably the reason why it was discarded in the first place. Being sawn on six sides, there were no rough surfaces, though there were a few chipped edges. Otherwise it was a good find.
As I would discover, Kilkenny limestone is a lovely stone to work. It’s hard but cuts cleanly. It holds edges well – it will chip rather than crumble. The colour is the thing, though: cut it and it’s pale grey, polish it and it goes a glassy black, like marble. (In fact, it’s often called Kilkenny marble.) For several months I wondered what to do with that stone until a trip to a Romanesque church in Herefordshire showed me the way. It was the lintel to the south door at St Andrew, Bredwardine, which became a lesson in the possibilities of repeated geometric patterns. The Bredwardine lintel is carved with one giant rosette or hexafoil motif divided so that each spoke or petal crossed a dividing line into an outer ring. Between each point in the outer circle there were smaller circles, each one containing a four-pointed star. On either side of the rosette the remaining space of the lintel was carved with massed star patterns. The design even carried on underneath. Look at it long enough and new patterns were formed from the building blocks of each square. It was an incredible piece of work, showing the potential of simple motifs and their repetition.
Not long after that visit I started to carve test pieces of star motifs on different offcuts of stone, just to get the pattern into my hands. On my slab I intended to do thirty of approximately similar size, in three rows of ten. The slight angle at one end of the slab could be accommodated by stretching the design; one point of some stars would appear slightly longer than the others. I thought that would look good: human, imperfect and purposeful (‘Good sculpture is purposeful,’ as my carver friend John once said to me. ‘You may not know what its purpose or meaning is, but you can feel its presence.’)
I carved it in my friend Rosie’s studio on the edge of Dartmoor over several months, a day here, a day there, whenever I could find the time. I averaged about three to four stars per visit. ‘Edge’ of Dartmoor doesn’t really do the location any justice – the gate to the moor is right next to it, a former barn now carpeted in white marble dust and stacked with pieces of stone: Portland, Carrara, Spanish alabaster. Sometimes I’d cycle there from where I lived in Ashburton, taking a short cut through the grounds of Buckfast Abbey and up the ridiculously steep hills behind Scoriton and Combe, several miles of gradient. It seems to me that where you make something is almost as important as the making itself. The studio, remote and at the end of an unsurfaced road, the weather, my journey there, the conversations we had, all went into the stone in some way, which itself drew from the long heritage of decorated lintels, grave slabs and other architectural sculpture. Centuries of working practice, not to mention daily life, live in each project.
While sculpture, like other artistic practices, can bend itself into the shapes of words, it takes its life from the sensory realms beneath and beyond them. These ‘empty spaces where art happens’ are impossible to quantify. It can be difficult to know, let alone explain, the feelings a work inspires, not just during its making but in the life it then takes on when finished, separate to the circumstances in which it was produced. The artist and teacher Philip Rawson believed this was due to the complex connections between memory and sensory experience. Those works of art that resonate with these submerged memory traces are like powerful beams of light illuminating forgotten or hard-to-reach aspects of ourselves.
With each new star carved, the pattern on the stone became more and more complex, new lines and shadows confusing the eye. Some days I’d be dazzled by the thing and unable to focus properly – the apotropaic entrapment theory is far from just an idea. I was particularly excited to finish it. The raw, cut surfaces, textured with my chisel marks, were pale grey. At the edges, where I’d polished it, the grey deepened to a charcoal black. The American author Richard Sennett, writing about the emotional rewards of making something in his book The Craftsman, notes that the process of engaging with a given material means that ‘people are anchored in tangible reality, and they can take pride in their work.’ Connecting with tangible reality is the lightning rod that brings us out of the ether and fully into the here and now, with all its complex and conflicting emotions.
All night the rain had kept me awake with its furious clattering on the windows, each fresh gust hammering the house to its bones. 12.30; 2.46; 3.33; 5.14; all slipped by, and with the prospect of sleep diminishing, I got up and drew the blinds. Half-past six. The first tendrils of light were seeping through the clouds and there were waves breaking over the harbour wall, white water swallowing its granite arm. Arriving in Penzance the previous evening, I’d dropped my bag at the B&B and gone for a walk. It was the last day of October. The wind had yet to fully bite but already waves were striking the promenade wall, a spray of white water hanging in the air long enough to be blown across the road. I bought some chips and ate them sitting on a nearby bench, safely out of the way and protected from the weather by a wall and a small stand of trees. Three teenagers were running the gauntlet of the prom, shrieking as the exploding waves fragmented into droplets above them. Under the streetlights the white water lit up like ultraviolet.
The morning light brought fresh evidence of the night’s destruction, though the storm had yet to abate. Mounds of black seaweed had been flung across the seafront road, and here and there fallen branches with worried, twittering leaves were pushed up against parked cars. Upstairs in the Morrab Library I watched as each new gust flattened the shrubs in the gardens outside. I’d blown in through the front door and struggled to close it behind me. ‘Isn’t it fantastic?’ said the woman tidying the books for sale immediately next to the door. ‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘it’s everything I’d hoped for.’
I’d come to Penzance to do some research. Years ago, on a quick visit to Cornwall, I’d visited a small church that stood, amazingly to me, on the beach. It seemed to sum up everything that I understood about the South West then – the mysterious quality of the place. I wanted to find out more about this church on the sands at Gunwalloe, a building so perilously close to the unfettered rage of the Atlantic that it was known locally as the Church of the Storms.
The Morrab Library is a wonderful place to sit out a storm. Founded in 1818 it occupies Morrab House, a Victorian mansion set within a landscaped garden of palms and ponds that slopes gently down to the sea. It’s one of the few independent libraries still left in the country, with diverse collections on all manner of subjects. I gathered up the usual suspects from the architecture and Cornish history shelves and headed upstairs to the best seats in the house, where the view offered me flashes of sunlight through broad, wet leaves and a glint of rolling waves in the distance.
The church of St Winwaloe at Gunwalloe, is, according to the updated Pevsner volume on Cornwall, located in ‘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 the building probably wouldn’t have lasted 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.’ Its origins are – perhaps suitably for a building that sits alone on a stretch of sand hills (or towans) and dramatic eruptions of rock, flanked by unstable cliffs – obscure, prey to fanciful narratives. In The Churches and Antiquities of Cury and Gunwalloe in the Lizard District, published in 1875, Alfred Hayman Cummings mentions a local tradition about two sisters who vowed to build a church if they escaped from their wrecked boat with their lives. They survived, so the tale goes, but couldn’t agree upon the site, and finally settled their differences by agreeing that one sister should build the tower and the other the nave and chancel, which rather too neatly, perhaps, explains the unusual separate structures.
The Cornish antiquary and artist John Thomas Blight (1835– 1911) also mentions this story of the church being built ‘as a votive offering by one who here escaped from shipwreck,’ but gives an alternative explanation:
It is said that the builders intended to erect the church on higher ground, nearer the centre of the parish, at Hingey; but as fast as materials were brought to the place they were, by some mysterious agency, removed during the night to the present site. And here the church was built, it being found useless to contend with a supernatural power.
This supernatural story is a reminder that this coastline is entwined with death and misfortune. On my previous visit I’d spent some time looking at the gravestones and other memorials in the small churchyard. One of them recorded the final resting place of an unknown Luftwaffe pilot. A particularly beautiful stone near the porch, Italian marble set with a piece of slate, read ‘Remember Adam and Rachael Watson who died on 8th December 1998’ in hand-cut letters, neatly spaced between a carved sprig of oak leaves and a heavy-headed sunflower. The design was a simple one, but the work that had gone into it was considerable. I found myself wondering about the healing power of stone and how its use as a memorial might anchor grief in time and place, and in this way help those left behind to find a way through. In commemorating and connecting with the lost, thoughts and memories become a bridge between life and death.
The branch of a tree scraped against the window, breaking my reminiscence. The storm seemed to be getting worse. A fellow library user appeared to tell me that he’d just heard they were going to close. As I started to pack up, a librarian confirmed that a tree had come down in the gardens and the grounds were now closed to the public. Given that the library was part of these it had to close too. I gathered my things and headed out into the rain.
I sheltered in a nearby café and studied the image from Cummings’s book on my phone: a sepia photograph of St Winwaloe’s Romanesque font, which, at that point in time (the latter part of the nineteenth century) was a fairly sorry-looking thing propped upon a section of column. Its upper part was missing a crescent of stone, like a bite mark from some unknown creature, and it was still in this state when Sedding drew it over thirty years later (he described it as being ‘in a mutilated condition on a shelf at the west end of the church’). Reading Blight as I had just done, however, I’d learned that this situation was in fact a step forward in terms of the font’s preservation, for it was previously to be found in the churchyard, yet another piece of Romanesque sculpture moved, perhaps when the new font was installed in the later medieval period, then salvaged and returned to the church.
In the perpetual cycle of loss and recovery we rediscover what is important about that thing, over and over, again and again. Usually it’s an emotional connection, a place where a part of us has rested and been held for a moment, long enough to be absorbed into that object. Certainly if we’ve made it ourselves: there is a fragment of self-revelation lodged within it, of just what we are capable of doing. This magical connection between things and self is an important one. Objects maintain identity by preserving personal history (and in their making: if you carve a stone you and the stone are connected, from the ‘unparalleled intimacy,’ as the carver Mark Batten memorably put it, of head and hand and material). The repair and recovery of a piece of sculpture or a building isn’t just a repair for its own sake then, but for a personal or collective sense of identity too, just as its easy loss through carelessness, greed or misunderstanding robs us of something that not only cannot be replaced, but is hard to replace or rediscover in ourselves.
Perhaps this is why I feel that Romanesque sculpture runs in my blood. Whatever quality it had that I seized upon in those months of depression, back in 2003 and 2004, had helped me find a way through. It connected with a part of my brain that still worked. The texture of the stone, the lines and the faces, it contained life, the life that something has if it’s made by hand. It had enough to spare, enough to lend me, and I was thankful for it. Learning to carve had been a means of getting closer to this source of whatever it was – an energy, a sense of something bigger than myself – and while this alone hadn’t ‘cured’ me, the possibilities that it opened up had led to new places. I had a new perspective. As time went on, just as I hadn’t been aware of wandering into the hinterlands of depression, I was unaware of leaving them behind too. The stones had mediated throughout all this, consistent, silent, but present, companions to whatever else I might have been struggling with.
I’d arranged to meet my friend Charlotte the following day. As we drove out to Gunwalloe it was clear that the previous day’s storm had left its mark. There were substantial alterations to some of the nearby cliffs, the exposed soil roped off by a bright orange strip of emergency fencing that redirected walkers around a section of missing coast path. Sand was piled deep in the porch of the church and it was gritty underfoot inside. A soft light filtered through the windows, absorbed by the granite arcades of the nave. The repair to the Romanesque font, right by the door, appeared to have brought it back into use, as it was fitted with a lead bowl and a new pedestal. Its decoration was straightforward but unusual among Romanesque designs, a repeating pattern of broad arches, each of which sheltered an upward-pointing arrow. What was unusual, though, was that it was only carved around one half.
Sedding had sketched the font and recorded the incomplete pattern in his drawing, unlike Cummings’s photograph which suggested it went all the way around. Perhaps this was why the stonemason who repaired the font chose not to continue the design into the new section of stone but left it blank. It was a good idea, and the repair as a whole worked well, not just for releasing the font back into active service but for the skilful and honest indent of new stone and the balance between decoration and emptiness.
In the nave of the church at Gunwalloe we stood as still as possible. It was one of those silent early autumn afternoons where the sky was blank, the quietness amplifying ordinary movements and sounds. Even the sea, just outside, seemed like it was barely moving. I crouched down beside the font to have a closer look at the carving around the bowl, once again impressed by the repair that fitted it so well. Whoever did this had given this piece of stone a new life, rescuing it from sitting propped on another fragment of carving by the wall, as Blight’s photograph had shown. It’s not all loss then. Loss must be balanced out with examples such as this. If carved stones disappear, are broken, buried, they are also – with luck – found, mended, and reused. Recovery, or at least its potential, hides in each one.
Alex Woodcock is a writer and stonemason from the south coast of England. After completing a doctorate on medieval sculpture he worked at Exeter Cathedral, where he helped repair the internationally significant west front. He has published work on Romanesque and Gothic stone sculpture, surrealist artists and the landscapes and geology of the south and south-west coasts of England. He is an award-winning poet and essayist, and is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. Buy King of Dust here, or from your local bookshop.