My latest commission was initially to make an exact copy of a stone lion that had guarded a 15th century doorway in Italy. However the project soon turned into a more creative challenge – to carve a newly designed lion in a specifically medieval style.
Not making an exact copy of an existing carving has its benefits – I was able to take into account the client’s individual preferences, and the room in which the sculpture will be placed; The lion is to sit in a bay window at the front of the client’s house so I placed his tail where it will be seen through the window and turned his head to greet people as they enter the room.
Though one specific lion prompted the commission, the new design was influenced by several other 15th century examples. My client had seen the Italian antique in an auction catalogue but the carving was weather-damaged with many features worn away. (See the original below, and others further down).
It wasn’t hard to find similar carvings whose features remain clearly visible. Lions symbolised courage and nobility so can often be seen on medieval tombs supporting the feet of armoured knights. Sheltered inside churches their details are often well preserved and a great resource for study.
Above: The tomb of Sir Richard de Vere, St Stephen’s Chapel, Bures, Essex
Below, left to right: St Stephen’s Chapel, Bures, Essex, All Saint’s Church, Leeds, Gloucester Cathedral, V&A Medieval Sculpture
These lions are fantastical. Few Medieval travellers would have seen a real lion so the sculpted features are based on hearsay, the work of other artists, the stonecarver’s personal taste and the extent of his skill.
When it came to creating a new sculpture based on these medieval carvings my client specified which particular elements he liked or disliked, stipulating that his lion should look thoughtful and definitely ‘NOT CUTE’. As many of these medieval carvings looked a bit like cats or dogs wearing wigs this was a narrow path to tread.
Creating a completely new artwork that was rooted in a specific historic style raised some subtle issues. The tomb lions (whose body shape I took for inspiration) stoop under the weight of their knight’s feet. However raising the head and straightening the body posture had interesting stylistic repercussions; I had to guard against making my upright lion look Victorian, like the proud beasts in Trafalgar Square (below). It also hindered me to look images of real lions – too many anatomically correct details gave the sculpture an excessively modern appearance.
I came across a similar issue several years ago when reconstructing a damaged low-relief image of Anne Boleyn (see below). Known as ‘The Moost Happi’ medal it was made in 1534, and is now held in The British Museum. This portrait is the subject worldwide fascination because it bears the only surviving, uncontested contemporary depiction of Anne Boleyn’s appearance. Knowing the intense scrutiny that my reconstruction would come under I made several attempts to capture her image, each more carefully defined than the last. However, refining her features took away the 16th century style of the medallion and gave Anne’s face a Classical appearance. This version would have pleased legions of fans who wish to believe that Anne Boleyn fitted within modern standards of beauty. However, it would have diminished the authenticity of the reconstruction.
As a stonecarver I often look at old buildings and like to think that I can spot and date restored carvings. Victorian restoration work gives itself away by being too neat, and animals carved in the 20th and 21st century often look unintentionally cartoon-like. We view animals more often on YouTube than in person, whereas medieval carvers showed a close familiarity with nature. Their mythical beasts might have been fantastical creations but their features look real. There is an attention to detail, such as the bones and sinews indicated below the surface of the skin, that comes from a daily contact with nature ‘red in tooth and claw’. Contemporary culture is no longer imbued with the life-and-death struggle that pre-occupied our predecessors, and we have swopped a knowledge of natural forms for clean lines and a more sophisticated awareness of style.
Trying to authentically recreate the past is a subtle and subjective art. Artists, writers and film directors face the same challenge when creating new work based on historic events. That is, to try and identify the essential elements, and truthfully convey them to a modern audience. How much leeway is given to engage the viewer or reader is up to the artist or writer. But even with the best intention to represent the past accurately, one cannot help but look at the surviving evidence and focus on that which appeals to our current taste. Cultural philosopher Susan Bordo has written an interesting examination of how history is reinterpreted and represented according to our own preferences and the age we live in. In her book, ‘The Creation of Anne Boleyn’ she interviews Hilary Mantel, author of the novel Wolf Hall. Like all historical fiction the book, and its recent dramatisation, has been the subject of much debate regarding its interpretation and delivery of the past.
Mantel observes; ‘All historical fiction is really contemporary fiction. We always write from our own time’.
I wonder whether people will look back at my historically based sculpture and date it to the early 21st century?