At our annual meeting at St Cuby, Tregony, which focussed on the Romanesque period of church architecture in Cornwall, Christine Edwards set the scene by describing the history of Tregony, its Norman castle and port, alongside an earlier church site of St Cuby. This helped to introduce Dr Alex Woodcock who shared with us his immense knowledge on sculpture from this period. He spoke on his years as a stone mason at Exeter cathedral and the difficulties of carving granite (Norman sculptors used softer, easier to carve stone). Then he showed us how the ‘modernist’ appearance of much Romanesque sculpture appealed to mid-20th century sculptors like Henry Moore or Barbara Hepworth, but not to Nicolaus Pevsner. Indeed, the first slide of Alex’s talk showed John Piper’s hand appearing in a photograph of the beast-covered Norman font of St Cuby, Tregony, where Piper’s wife’s job was holding up a white background.
Cornwall has a great deal of Romanesque or Norman-period sculpture and architecture of high quality, and Alex steered us through some of the notable doorways and fonts found throughout Cornwall with tree of life, beasts, interlocking circles and winged heads among the motifs. Among his most interesting discoveries was that the beasts and beakheads found in some North Cornwall and Devon churches, are otherwise only found in Oxfordshire and Yorkshire. Although churches are rarely documented in the Norman period, Alex was able to show patronage links between the Romanesque south doors at Kilkhampton and Morwenstow in Cornwall, and Reading Abbey through Henry I’s illegitimate son Robert of Gloucester. Illegitimacy was a bar to becoming king, but clearly not to cultural engagement with the arts and architecture. Thus Cornish Romanesque architecture, like much else later, can be seen as of national, not just regional, importance.
Alex left us a list of churches throughout the county for us to find fine examples from this period which you can download below.