Completing a PhD is an exhausting business and, as Alex Woodcock completed his on medieval sculpture, he was physically and mentally exhausted and rapidly heading towards depression. Even though he had studied the art, he had never picked up a tool and chipped away at a stone with the intention of creating something. He signed up for a course and began the process of learning the craft of stonemasonry. A few years later he had qualified as a stone mason and applied for a job at Exeter Cathedral. One of the tasks in his interview was to assemble a bench, which at the time seemed a little odd but he got the job, just. He spent his time there replacing and renovating the stonework of the building as it slowly succumbed to the elements of the years. After a decade there, he felt that he needed to cross the Tamar and make the move to Cornwall.
Fed up with unpacking, he headed to the beach for a walk and to get some sea air. A chance meeting with a man with a metal detector on the beach began a conversation that carried on in the pub over a pint. Before long they had hatched a plan for a field trip to the church at Crantock. So begins his compulsion to discover the village churches of Cornwall and look for the Romanesque architecture and carving that these churches still have. Romanesque carving dates from the 12th century and is an often overlooked form, especially when compared to Gothic. It is rounder and squatter in form and have simple geometric shapes. The carving is carried out on the structure of the building too, so when you look around you will see the patterns favoured by the masons as well as the fantastical creatures that they added, the most famous of which is the beakhead. (Very similar to the masks used by the doctors of the Black Death.)
One thing led to another and this initial trip became a year-long pilgrimage looking for these early churches, their carving and their fonts. Woodcock extended his range across the South West to Devon and Dorset. At each of the churches, he uncovers the history of each, revealing details of the carving and occasionally the people that created it. He also takes time to reflect on the moments of his own life that brought him along the path he was currently walking. A chance knock on the door of Little Toller HQ when he was looking for St Basil’s led to them publishing this book and, for a debut book, it is quite impressive. Woodcock has excellent attention to detail and because he is a historian and a carver knows his subject inside out. The sketches of the stoneworks that add a lovely touch to the book. The stunning cover and end papers have the sort of attention to detail that you’d expect from Little Toller. Sculpture is where art meets masonry and these works of art can be seen by anyone who wants to take a few days out to visit the same places that he went to. It is a love letter to Cornwall too, its landscapes, its coasts and most importantly it’s overlooked Romanesque architecture.
Paul Cheney 4/4
King of Dust: Adventures in Forgotten Sculpture by Alex Woodcock
Little Toller Books 9781908213693 hbk Apr 2019