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Writing Stone

Updated: Feb 26, 2023

Stone sculpture is often the preserve of history's 'official' narrative, but there have always been unconventional voices drawn to the work.

Stonemasons, stonecarvers, enthusiasts of stonecarving in all its forms, lovers of medieval churches and cathedrals, heritage professionals, archaeologists, geologists, artists, novelists, climbers and beachcombers and many else besides: we are all obsessed with stones. Recently it seems that many of us are writing about it too.

In 2019 my book King of Dust was published by Little Toller. This was my attempt to push my beloved Romanesque (11th–12th-century) sculpture further out from the world in which it is generally quite happy – art history and archaeology – and into the hands of those who might not know anything about it. The means by which I thought I might achieve this was through weaving it in with my learning to carve stone and becoming a cathedral stonemason after I’d written a PhD, an unexpected turn of events in many respects for someone who until that point generally lacked practical abilities, and what that did for my understanding of this centuries old work as well as my health and sense of place. Medieval art can indeed transform your life.

Like my craft ancestors, stonemasons whose work I have learnt from through working alongside it, there is a similar line of writers who have deliberately or inadvertently connected with this spirit of the material (cumbersome, fragile, local, often beautiful) and its historic use for sculpture. Their words underpin recent writing on the subject. These writers and books are by no means the official narratives; in fact, the ten I’ve selected here are more often defined by writers who themselves seem to fit nowhere or who occupy multiple or diverse practices. Their writing often stands distinct from standard histories of buildings, sculpture or artists and is thrown in from the margins to bemused scholars and art historians, defying or bending straightforward approaches and appealing to curious readers of all stripes. These are the ones that, without which, King of Dust could not have been written.

1. Edmund Harold Sedding, Norman Architecture in Cornwall (1909)

The title suggests a standard history and true enough, a quick flick through is unlikely to change your mind on that. But stick with it because Sedding is a quiet revealer of emotional engagement with both Romanesque stone sculpture and the places where it can be found. Sedding was a pioneering architect who, against the trends of his day, went the extra mile to conserve as much medieval material as possible in his work. Much of his time in Norman Architecture is spent ruminating on his journeys to old churches on foot or by train, which has the effect of setting these buildings within the larger, often dramatic landscape and its by turns violent or delightful weather. Beneath the gazetteer format (predating Pevsner’s Buildings of England series by some forty-two years) and interspersed with his own drawings there is a wonderful voice that moves from grumpy to upbeat to impassioned, fusing his deep knowledge of architecture with a love of old carved stones and their contemporary relevance. Long out of print; if you can find a copy for less than £60 you are doing well.

2. August Rodin, Cathedrals of France (1914)

Written in his seventies and in many respects a rebuff to modernists the great sculptor gathered together years of notes and drawings to make this book, his only one, an unabashed love letter to the power of the Gothic. As he wrote, ‘I should like to inspire a love for this great art, to come to the rescue of as much of it as still remains intact; to save for our children the great lesson of this past that the present misunderstands’. Not translated into English until 1965 it carries a profound understanding of the power of medieval stone sculpture, even damaged pieces, that is rarely found elsewhere, drawing the reader towards looking at planes and lines and forms before details and therefore leading our eye into the substance of the work. In some ways a companion to Sedding’s understated book (I think Sedding would have thought of himself as a ‘bridge’ between the past and the present too), certainly in terms of the damaging effects of thoughtless repairs, but also in terms of appreciating long-duration art forms such as cathedrals and the mystical, time-travelling effect of carved stones. Both volumes break out of conventional art history to say the same thing: look.

3. Kate Clarke, ‘The Baptismal Fonts of Devon’, Transactions of the Devonshire Association (1913–1922)

Nine articles published over several years in a county journal helped establish the sculpture of Devon’s Romanesque fonts as of considerable quality. Clarke did what we would recognise today as basic archaeological recording, taking measurements of the fonts as well as their bands of carved ornament, details that until that point had gone unrecorded. Working with her friend Beatrix Cresswell, who drew the fonts and their decoration in simple line drawings, she was able to work out complex imagery that later writers, such as Pevsner, sometimes misinterpreted. Clarke started to write and publish her work on the medieval sculpture of the county in her early 50s after winning an essay competition and over the next twenty years she went on to publish pioneering work on the sculpture of Exeter Cathedral’s west front and misericords. She recognised that often the carved imagery was complex and hard to interpret, and while other writers of the era might fumble about for sometimes way off answers she was unafraid to say, at times, that she didn’t know. A pioneer, and often unrecognised for her contribution to the field.

4. Fred Bower, Rolling Stonemason (1936)

It would be wrong to characterise all stonemasons as the last band in town, an eclectic and swaggering bunch of non-conformists and free-thinkers whose way of doing something is the only right way. However, many of them are and Fred Bower was an outstanding example within an outstanding group. A clear and opinionated voice direct from the workshop who had a leaning toward adventure, travel and a generally unconventional life, Bower was a natural storyteller and a vocal opponent of any injustice. Famous for leaving a time capsule beneath Liverpool Cathedral in which he left a letter to the future railing against the poverty and hardship he and other working men endured on a daily basis it is a brilliant read, in direct and concise prose shot through with chapter titles such as ‘Beer – and Murder’ and weary but insightful observations including ‘A mason can never be said to have learned his job, for he might be fifty years at the trade and then get a piece of stone to hew in a shape, and a way, he has never seen before’. Books often get written in difficult conditions, and none more so than Rolling Stonemason. Suffering from silicosis and routinely evicted from his hut on the Wirral Peninsula by authorities declaring it unfit for human habitation, the manuscript was rejected numerous times before being championed by the Liverpool writer John Brophy.

5. John Piper, ‘England’s Early Sculptors’, The Architectural Review (1936)

An article published in the same year as Rolling Stonemason but under vastly different circumstances, Piper’s writing in The Architectural Review called attention not only to the quality of Romanesque sculpture in England but to its similarity with modernist art. Writing about the font at Toller Fratrum in Dorset (a sculptured work that he’d driven through the night, on one occasion, to show to a friend) he noted that it had the ‘bigness and strangeness of all the achievements of Picasso’. In this one phrase he succinctly managed to align the artistic output of the twelfth-century with that of the twentieth. As an artist he was already drawing upon works in churches for his own practice, as were contemporaries such as Henry Moore and Fernand Léger. While the scholarly tide was turning, with books such as Religious Art in France: The Twelfth Century (1922) in which the esteemed art historian Émile Mâle notably changed his mind about the quality of Romanesque sculpture, for many it was still a long haul from it being the embarrassing precursor to the ‘perfect rose of Gothic loveliness’ as Minna Gray, a Devon writer on carved fonts, put it in 1905. Artists, and the increasing acceptance of modern art, were crucial in its rehabilitation.

6. George Zarnecki, English Romanesque Sculpture (1951 and 1953)

The first books on English Romanesque sculpture (two: one on the early and one on the later period) and the most conventional of this list, though, as if to underline the crossover nature of the subject, not published by an academic press as might be expected but by the sculpture publisher Alec Tiranti. Small enough too to fit the emerging trend for gazetteer-like guides, should one be on a Romanesque road trip. Zarnecki was himself an outsider, a Polish soldier who stayed on in England after the war and wrote his PhD on Romanesque sculpture at the Courtauld Institute, virtually establishing the field single-handed. These books are utterly joyous to look through, defined by their inky black and white photography and short and punchy prose. Essential works for anyone with even a passing interest in the subject.

7. Seamus Murphy, Stone Mad (1966)

A character-driven, raucous evocation of being an apprentice stonecarver in early twentieth-century Ireland. Much like Bower Murphy has a natural ear for a story and a deft literary talent which means the narrative rarely lets up, with workshop folklore given as much weight, if not more, than the wider contextual history – in many respects it is the history. In talking about the work Murphy also highlights the inescapable class divisions faced by masons on a daily basis. Then as now, the places where we often work are high status – cathedrals, stately homes – since the material is historically (and remains) expensive to quarry and transport and takes hours of work to cut and carve; but the masons themselves are rarely from backgrounds of privilege. In many respects this furthers a sense of outsiderness, and while deference to the political structures that enable a particular building to exist in the first place is usually absent there is deference to the material and those who have worked it before. The stones tell us that another has been there and probably cursed the same things or felt the same joy. This sense of struggle and camaraderie across the ages is nowhere more powerfully expressed than in this book.

8. Michael Camille, Image on the Edge (1992)

A maverick scholar with a laser beam mind and an uncanny ability to write beautiful, clear prose about complex ideas, Camille’s work did much to open up the world of medieval art to non-specialists as well as move research forward. Camille looked at the often-ignored aspects of medieval art from gargoyles to images in the margins of manuscripts and instead of dismissing them took them seriously. His idea was that these images ‘at the edge’ of things could tell us as much, if not more, about the lives of medieval people than more conventional histories, an approach that helped turn medieval studies on its head and made possible all kinds of new studies (my PhD on the grotesque among them). Camille himself was a Yorkshireman transplanted to Chicago who died far too young, from a brain tumour, at the age of 44. Originally published in paperback the book was out of print for a long time but in 2019 Reaktion Books brought out a hardback. Well worth getting hold of a copy while you can.

9. Philip Rawson, Sculpture (1997)

One of the best books on sculpture yet written and the last of a trilogy of works (Drawing, 1969; Ceramics, 1971) exploring the nuances, textures and possibilities of forms – and the value of art in general. Rawson, both an artist and an academic, wears his learning lightly and the book is neither a ‘how-to’ nor a conventional art-history, though it contains elements of both. What he does is pursue a thread through the sculptural works of a variety of cultures to ask what it does, teasing out the ability of shapes, figures, and materials to carry non-verbal information rich in emotional content. A truly mind-expanding book which I first discovered around the time I picked up tools. I wish I had found it earlier.

10. Pamela Petro, The Slow Breath of Stone (2005)

A Romanesque road trip through southwest France tracing the lives and marriage of Lucy and Kingsley Porter, an American couple from the east coast, against the crumbling abbeys and cathedrals of the region. Kingsley Porter was a scholar of Romanesque sculpture and taught at Harvard in the early twentieth century; Lucy was a photographer. As the stone gently decays in the southern sunlight so too does their marriage, Petro weaving their story together with that of the history of the buildings and her own life in a brilliant work of creative nonfiction. It would be an understatement to say this book had an impact on my own; it showed me that not only was it possible to write about Romanesque sculpture in a vivid, accessible and non-academic way, but desirable to do so too.

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