Stone Carving on Channel 4’s TIME TEAM:
Lucy Churchill’s blog post about the experience.
Series 19, Episode 7. To be televised: Sunday 4th March 2012, 6pm.
In May 2011 Time Team excavated the site of Earl’s Colne Priory in Essex. The Priory was destroyed by Henry V111 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536, and it’s contents were looted and dispersed. It was hoped that excavation would recover lost information about the buildings, and possibly some artefacts.
Several alabaster tombs commemorating members of the de Vere family, were taken from the Priory when it was demolished, and later re-housed in St Stephen’s Chapel, Bures, Essex. My part of the project was to look at the monuments with presenter Alex Langland, to teach him the rudiments of stone carving, and to recreate a small piece of carving to demonstrate the labour involved. It was a lot of work to cram into 2 days filming, and so much preparation was required beforehand.
I went to St Stephen’s Chapel to examine the tombs and see what I might be able to recreate during the time available. I was awe-struck by the experience. The chapel is on a remote hillside, and the alabaster figures lay in the dark stillness, beautifully serene. The only sound I heard all day was the call of a cuckoo, and as I sketched the figures I watched a spider making a web between the knight’s nose and his folded hands. It was a deeply peaceful and pleasurable experience.
Memorials such as these were commissioned as a display of high status and virtue, and were covered in significant details for the viewer to decode. The de Vere family had a history of supporting the monarchy in battles and on crusades, and much symbolism was to do with wealth, power and devotion. I poured over the tombs trying to place each reference; some were obvious but others required further research. I particularly enjoyed deciphering the broken fragments of script on Sir Richard de Vere’s helmet and sword.
Even the finest details of the knight’s armour was carved with precision, including the delicate chainmail under-suit, and ornate buckles and straps. You can see the finger nails, and also the ‘knuckle-dusters’ he is wearing on his hands held in prayer. His wife, Alice de Vere, is wearing a strange and intricate headdress perched on her high plucked forehead. Small fragments of pigment show that parts of the memorial were once been richly painted; red, blue and gold. Not only is their wealth demonstrated through the depiction of their rich clothing, but by the fact that they could pay highly skilled craftspeople to record such intricate details.
The alabaster figures are covered with incised graffiti; initials, dates (the earliest being 1532), and most intriguingly, pentagrams. I later discovered that early Christians used this symbol to represent the five wounds of Christ. Given that some of these scratchings predated the dissolution of the priory, it seems as the graffiti was not a mark of disrespect, but something a pilgrim might do – like lighting a votive candle, or dropping a coin into a well.
The producer of Time Team had suggested that I should recreate a shield-bearing angel from one of the tomb’s panels. However, my eye was caught by a three-dimensional boar on top of the helmet, which lay beneath the head of Sir Richard de Vere. As hunting and eating wild boar was an aristocratic pursuit, this animal symbolised bravery and largesse. It is likely that the stone carver had little contact with these beasts as even though the form is very lifelike, it looks more like a plump pig than a boar. Perhaps to give vigour and virility to the crest, the animals’ genitalia are depicted with great detail.
The boar’s head was broken off, so while at the chapel I modelled a new head in soft wax, working directly onto the stone. This helped me to get a better sense of the carvings original appearance. I took many photographs and measurements, and made sketches, which I used later to make templates to work from.
The De Vere tombs are made from English Alabaster, a cheap alternative to marble during the mediaeval times. However demand for alabaster declined after the Reformation when the production of religious icons fell, and marble become cheaper to import for funeral sculpture. At the end of the 20thC it became more profitable for English quarries to blast the stone out of the ground to make plaster.
Michael and Nigel Owen, stone merchants in Northamptonshire, hold the last stock of English Alabaster. Unfortunately the remaining pieces are tiny, so I could only buy a small panel suitable for my project with Alex. I bought a larger block of Italian alabaster for the boar, but even this stone is in short supply and the dimensions had to be scaled down. The preparations were now complete, and I was ready for action.
On the first morning Alex Langland and I were filmed at St Stephen’s Chapel. It was a strange contrast to my previous visit; then the only illumination had been sunlight coming through the windows, moving slowly across the monuments over the course of the day. Now the chapel was filled with bright lights and equipment and the bustle of a tight schedule. Again and again Alex and I were directed to burst through the door, and I had to try and recreate my initial awe on seeing the alabaster figures. I’m not a very convincing liar so I probably blushed throughout. It was fascinating to see the amount of work involved in making such a program.
The rest of the day was spent showing Alex stone working techniques, and guiding him as he carved a star (another emblem of the de Vere family) into the small square of English alabaster. Not having a television I was unfamiliar with Alex Langland; I thought that having done a bit of televisual chipping, he would disappear leaving me to finish the product. However he was naturally very skillful and applied himself to completing the piece, even after the film crew had moved on. I was genuinely impressed
My background is as a restoration carver, and I am trained to recreate objects with great accuracy. However because of the limited time schedule, I had to put aside the time consuming process of cross-referencing. As I had studied the original in such detail I threw myself into the carving and worked largely from memory.
By the time the light faded and filming had to come to an end, a credible carving of the heraldic boar had been achieved. Paul Whight, the owner of Earl’s Colne Priory, had watched the work in progress and promptly bought the sculpture. It’s there now, in place of the alabaster tombs – I hope that the original stone carver would approve.
More about Time Team: http:// ww.timeteamdigital.com/w
More about St Stephen’s Chapel:
More about Lucy Churchill: http://www.lucychurchill.com/
(See new website early February)