The 12th Century Herefordshire School of Sculpture by Doctor Stephen Blake

The 12th Century Herefordshire School of Sculpture

Dr Steven Blake

Meeting of 8 November 2018

With our Group’s great interest in the fabulous beaked mask carvings in St Mary’s Church and the question of whether these are part of the famous Hereford School of stone masons work; we invited Dr Blake to come and speak to us.

The Hereford School is hard to pin down as there is so little documentary evidence from the 12th Century. They were working in a time of civil war with King Stephen and Matilda vying for the throne, and it is amazing that work of this quality was being invested in and made at a time of unrest. We do not know who the masons were, how many there were, where they came from or how much is specifically from the 30 years of the Hereford School or a later work influenced by it. But, researchers like Dr Blake can make good deductions from the evidence we have.

The School’s carving is characterised by wonderful deep flowing lines, especially on clothing and hair. Lots of animals (they seem to have specialised in birds) including the well-loved hare and hound at Kilpeck; often with the drooping paw or claw. The range of subjects is fairly limited, there are a lot of Christ in his Majesty and versions of good defeating evil – including George and the dragon. Figures are often stacked up along columns, and include the ‘pipe-cleaner men’ who are surrounded by tendrils.

Possibly the most impressive pieces are the fonts. Castle Frome’s is the best in England and shows the baptism of Christ.

There are many parallels in style and layout of the carvings with Romanesque churches of France, and it is possible that French masons were brought to England to do the work, or maybe just those on pilgrimage in Europe were inspired by what they saw. It seems that there a lot of connections between owners and patrons of the work, so they must have copied each other or passed around the masons. Possible influence can also be seen from Anglo-Saxon and Romano-British pieces.

The earliest example seems to be Shobdon Arches – a church demolished by later owners who moved the arch and two doorways up onto a hill to create an ‘eyecatcher’.

Kilpeck Church is the most significant of this Romanesque school. Its wonderful carvings include knights, dragons, the tree of life and beakheads almost identical to those in English Bicknor. Also, there are erotic carvings – there are loads of these in Romanesque designs, as well as other temptations such as dancing, music and drinking; we can only guess why people at this time put images like these on these churches.

The carvings are certainly mostly found in Herefordshire. A strong theory is that Leominster Abbey was the studio for the School – this was a daughter abbey to Reading (which Henry I established and is very French influenced). Leominster pre-dates Hereford, and both are Benedictine. The School’s influence spread out to surrounding areas. Just over the border is the George and dragon at Ruardean.

The School seems to have faded away by 1150, which implies that Bicknor’s slightly later carvings are in imitation rather than by the original masons – but there is no evidence either way. Also, the arch the beakheads are on is either not in its original position or the Church was rebuilt on a different alignment after the tower collapsed. Our carvings are of very high quality and the central mask with the stripe (probably a bear) is the same as one at Kilpeck – so the jury is still out.

A few carvings have traces of the original paint – try to imagine what they would have looked like in bright colours with lots of gilding, and visualise our own church as colourful as it would have been! CS