You might have noticed that the county of Herefordshire, a rural county known mostly for cows and cider, has more than its fair share of parish churches featured on this site. If you have read these entries, you are probably used to references to the Herefordshire School of Romanesque Sculpture and possibly you might be a little bemused as to what this is and its significance.
Let’s begin by stating the obvious: we are not talking of a “school” where people were taught. We are talking of a recognisable style of art - in this case sculpture - and, by implication, of a group of people who held similar artistic values and who were influenced by each other. That’s my own definition and I must apologise if it varies from the accepted one. You will come across the concept most often in visual arts. Often you will see paintings attributed to, for example, “The Norwich School” where the artist cannot be named but where the work conforms to the style and artistic values of a discrete group. It has to be admitted, however, that it is an expression that is used rather loosely. One might also add that it is perhaps also a little pretentious but we are going to have to live with it!
The Herefordshire School operated in the first half of the twelfth century. Its work was consistently of the very highest quality. It epitomises everything that was best in English Romanesque decoration. It is vibrant and bold in both theme and execution. It drew on Christian dogma both popular and obscure. It uses pagan imagery that leaves us scratching our heads and looking for Christian allegory where probably none was intended. Its seems to draw its influences from all over Europe. Culturally this is surely one of the most important bodies of folk art in England, if not in Europe, yet few know of it and it gets no special protection or promotion from Britain’s country house and castle-obsessed conservators. Yes, I’m on my soap box again.
Confusingly, perhaps, the work of the Herefordshire School is to be found in some churches in Worcestershire and Shropshire as well as in Herefordshire! The principal writers on the subject are George Zarnecki and Malcolm Thurlby. Zarnecki was a Pole who remained in England after serving with the Free Polish Forces during World War II and went on to become a noted expert on the history of art - particularly Romanesque art. Malcolm Thurlby, citing Zarnecki as his inspiration, is, I believe, still Professor of Visual Arts at York University. His book “The Herefordshire School of Romanesque Architecture” is now back in print and is the definitive work on the subject. I am indebted to his much-treasured book for for the precis offered here.
In my own book, “Demon Carvers & Mooning Men” I talk about a group of masons who travelled about the East Midlands countryside in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century leaving behind hundreds of carvings on parish churches, almost certainly largely of their own invention and with probably little detailed attention from their patrons. They were expanding and remodelling existing churches, not building them from scratch. The work of the Herefordshire School, however, was not mason-led but patron-led. The masons and sculptors were not modifying churches but building them.
We are talking here of post-Conquest England. The Anglo-Saxon lords had been supplanted by Duke William’s men and their descendants. The invaders were intent on consolidating their hegemony. Castles - previously unknown in England - were the symbols of their secular power. The building of churches were symbols of their religious ascendancy. The churches we are talking of here did not belong to a “parish”; they were not commissioned by “The Church”. They were commissioned by the men who owned the villages that lay upon their land. Because we know who these men were we are able to know who was the patron of what church. These were not men who were just commissioning a building job. They were men who had great wealth and power and for whom the churches they built were a measure of their prestige,
Malcolm Thurlby is thus able to name not the masons but their patrons: the likes of Hugh de Mortimer, and his agent Oliver de Merlimond, the Lacy family and Payn Fitz John, Ralph de Baskerville. Such men would have known each other and have rivalled each other. Their families would have intermarried. These were the men who employed the masons of the Herefordshire School. They were not just the savage, ruthless men of English legend. They were men who had travelled Europe and seen the ecclesiastical buildings of modern Italy, Germany and France. They may have travelled to the Holy Land during the First Crusade of 1099.
The churches that these men built might, to our eyes, seem simple and crude compared with the excesses of the High Gothic periods. Thurlby, however, says that they were in fact the height of sophistication for their time and drew heavily on the architectural developments at Hereford and Gloucester cathedrals, amongst others. Let’s not forget, by the way, that some at least will have been replacing wood and that Anglo-Saxon buildings! They did not regard the decorations on doorways, tympani, chancel capitals and fonts as being trifles to be left to the whim of any old itinerant carver. They wanted and got the best exponents and would have demanded at least some consultation.
Zarnecki and Thurlby mention only two masons: the “Chief Master” and the “Aston Mason”. The Aston Mason was so called by Zarnecki because of his early work on the church at Pipe Aston. Were there more? I doubt that they would be able to tell you for sure. Thurlby is, however, quite unequivocal about one thing: these men were not jobbing masons. Nor were they even the master masons who designed and supervised the building of the churches. They were professional and highly-regarded craftsman sculptors. Common sense tells you this. Their artistic skills were of the very highest and their work is found in many locations, including not-so-humble places like Leominster Priory. They would not have had the longevity or the energy to be building these churches and there is no consistency in the architecture of the churches. This again, is in contrast to the work of the Mooning Men Guild I discuss in my own book. Those masons, I have suggested, were peripatetic as a group and not necessarily as individuals. Their work was not of outstanding artistic merit even for its day. Although they worked on more than one church, they did not work on great numbers. There is an exception to that. I have now associated the man I call John Oakham (but not the other “named” masons) with several more churches in South Lincolnshire so that, like Malcolm Thurlby, I am now forced to believe that this man was for at least for some of his career employed as a professional sculptor and not as a general mason.
One of the fascinating features of the Herefordshire School is the interplay of religious and folk - we might say pagan - themes .Look, for example, at the three most celebrated fonts - Eardisley, Castle Frome and Chaddesley Corbett - each amongst the finest in Eurpope, never mind in England. Castle Frome’s theme is all unequivocally religious; the evangelists, the Baptism of Christ. Eardisley’s is more controversial but I am satisfied that it too is all religious. Chaddesley Corbett, on the other hand, is all about dragons! At Eardisley one of the main themes is the Harrowing of Hell. Its use here on a font is unique in England (although, significantly, it appears on a tympanum at Shobdon) and it is a theme only referred to only once - obliquely - in the Bible. Where did our mason get this kind of deep knowledge of Christian doctrine? Neither Thurlby nor Zarnecki linked the font at Rock - another Herefordshire School church - to the thesis of Mary Curtis Webb who proved beyond all reasonable doubt that some apparently stylised decorations were linked to Platonic philosophy. Rock’s font clearly shows the motif of a circle interlaced with arcs - Plato’s representation of the Cosmos.