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North Oxfordshire School of Carving

So what is a “school” of carving - or of architecture, for that matter? The “arts”, it seems, likes to have “schools” rather than talk of “styles”. Hence we have the “Norwich School” of art, for example, which denotes a similarity of style in work of a number of sometimes unidentifiable painters as well as of a rough geographic co-location.

When we look at the churches of Bloxham, Adderbury, Hanwell and Alkerton, the existence of a “school” of carving is undeniable. These churches are very close together and the similarity in style of some of the carvings is obvious. We see this is the friezes with their elongated carvings of contemporary life, in the carved capitals that show people with their arms entwined and in some of the corbels. Indeed, between Bloxham and Adderbury, at least, there are close architectural similarities.

Historians (and I am not so vain as to think of myself as one) look for patterns and sequences of events that enable us to bring some semblance of understanding of why events took place and why they are linked. As ordinary folk we are apt to talk of “amazing coincidences” in events that really are quite rationally explicable. To give an example, we would all think it an amazing thing if the numbers “1,2,3,4,5,6” were to win the National Lottery (go on, admit it - you would too!) yet a statistician would tell you that this is no less likely than 1,5,23,37,42 and 49 for example. So it seems to me that we non-historians are programmed to look for patterns in events as well.

As one visits church after church, regional similarities in structure and materials are very obvious and well-documented. In my own Rutland area, for example, hefty oversized Early English towers (“Bruisers” I call them) are common and in other counties they are all but unknown. Our builders did not leave clues to their identities (although we love to speculate) and there is a frustrating lack of commonality at the “micro” level of carving and adornment where for many of us the greatest fascinations in church architecture are to be found - not helped, of course, by the constant rebuilding and re-design of churches over the centuries.. Perhaps the most famous “school” is the Herefordshire and Worcestershire School of Romanesque architecture. Someone a long time ago must have spotted similarities of theme, design and execution and dug away at the available information to find support for the theory that these similarities were not mere “coincidence”. Malcolm Thurlby in his awesomely researched “The Herefordshire of Romanesque Sculpture” leaves no room for scepticism and can even trace the group of wealthy Norman patrons that were responsible for commissioning work in the individual churches.

Even that book, however, cannot identify individual craftsmen nor attribute all of the carving in any one church to a single individual. Rather, we are led to believe in a band of peripatetic workers, at times coalescing into groups, going their separate ways and re-coalescing into different groups - “going where the work is” as we might say today. The characteristics of their work - the outcome of shared philosophies, local fashions and simple plagiarism - are thus woven into sculptural “tapestries” which are unique to each individual church.

In my own case, I identified purely by chance the work of a single man on the friezes of two churches local to myself - Ryhall and Oakham. I would argue that this was undeniable and no coincidence, so idiosyncratic is the style. Beyond that, however, it was a leap of faith to attribute all of the Ryhall frieze to this man, and even more so at Oakham. Yet at church after church in the vicinity we found common themes and common styles and even the extraordinarily prevalent “trademark” (itself extraordinary) - what I call the “Mooning Men”. The problem was that between any two churches there would be one or two things definitely  in common, several that were arguably similar and a great deal that was seemingly completely different! As we dug deeper we also found that the claimed dates for some of the work spanned more than the feasible life of a single man. We speculated then at the work of a master and (younger) apprentice which still satisfied our emotional need for a “pattern”. As our doubts grew we then thought about a single “gang” of men. Finally, rather reluctantly, we had to concede that we were probably looking at - yes you’ve guessed it - a “school” of carving that I call the East Midlands School. Read about it here.

So to the “Northern Oxfordshire School”. As I stated previously, the existence of this school is undeniable. Compared with the Herefordshire School and even my own supposed “East Midlands” School the Oxfordshire one is extremely limited - four churches (plus occasional bits and bobs of carving elsewhere) all within a very small geographical area.

It is believed by many that the frieze carvings on north and south aisles must have been by the same hand. Yet a gentleman called John Goodall in his exhaustively researched “A Study of the Grotesque 14th-Century Sculpture at Adderbury, Bloxham and Hanwell in its Architectural Context” concluded:

“The 14th century church at Adderbury was not a single well integrated design executed over a few years. Instead the church saw three major building phases over a period of perhaps thirty years between c. 1315 and 1344. This dating has obvious implications for the sculpture. It cannot be by any single hand over such a long period of time, nor is it the product of a single patron's demands. Rather, different patrons have requested their new building to imitate this unusual local style of carving....”. For the full text see http://oxoniensia.org/volumes/1995/goodall.pdf

Moving on from Adderbury, I do not know at what date Alkerton received its frieze. We do know, though, that it depicts the life of Edward the Black Prince, son of Edward III, who lived from 1330-76. Amongst the carvings is believed to be his wife, Joan the Fair Maid of Kent a granddaughter of Edward I. The Black Prince did not marry her until 1361, so we can see that these carvings post-dated Adderbury by two decades. The date of Bloxham’s frieze, again, is not stated but it seems likely that it predated Addebury, so we see the timeline being extended still further, surely beyond the working lifetime of an individual at a time when the average lifespan was pitifully short. The early part of the c14 saw the most dreadful famine in England and although our craftsmen might have been expected to have been able to keep body and soul together, there is no reason to suppose that they had any particular immunity to the Black Death of 1348 that killed up between 40 and 60% of the population.

So, all in all, the Northern Oxfordshire School is a rather limited one, considering that it spanned a very few churches over a period of maybe 40 years. It predates the much more extensive East Midlands one that I believe started during the late fourteenth century. In both cases - and perhaps in the case of many or all of the so-called “schools” - what we cannot establish is to what extent the similarities were part of a conscious artistic style by one or more men; and to what extent they were, as surmised by Goodall, imposed by fashion-conscious patrons. The former is the more satisfying theory for both the architectural historian and the art historian because it speaks of shared belief in a single style practiced not by great artists but by relatively humble artisans. I would like to believe that it is true at least in part, but my head tells me that the balance of it is closer to Goodall’s theory. Then, as now, artists were driven primarily by what the “market” demanded and were quite happy to adapt and plagiarise accordingly!