Friday, February 23, 2018

Southwell, Nottinghamshire

The Leaves of Southwell

When posting about one of the carvings in the chapter house of Southwell Minster the other week, I inevitably got down from my shelves my copy of The Leaves of Southwell, Nikolaus Pevsner’s short book about this building’s extraordinary late-13th century sculptures of the leaves of plants and trees. I did so to look at the excellent photographs of Southwell’s stone leaves – oak, ivy, maple, buttercup, hop, vine, and other species. I ended up rereading the text of the book as well.

The Leaves of Southwell is in the King Penguin series, which are short hardback books published by Penguin Books between 1939 and 1959.* The format for the series consists of an essay (usually of about 30 pages, though Pevsner’s is double that length), followed by a series of illustrations. The photographs, by F L Attenborough, then Principal of University College, Leicester, and father of Richard and David Attenborough, are exemplary: detailed, well printed, and with just the right amount of contrast. From the patterned cover to the photographs, the book is a pleasing object.
The text is good too. Pevsner combines the virtues of a good art historian: a perceptive and inquisitive eye, a knowledge of contemporary history and intellectual context, and the wit to understand how the visual and the historical might relate. He picks out several qualities to admire in the Southwell carvings – the way the artists balanced pattern and background, the interplay between the architectural structure and the ornament that adorns it, the naturalism of the carvings and how this is modified or stylised in places. It’s this naturalism that is the remarkable thing about the carvings – they date to the point at the end of the 13th century when sculptors had turned away from the highly stylised ‘stiff leaf’ ornament of the previous decades and before they’d hit upon the slightly more formal style of carving that came later. Pevsner also enlisted a botanist to advise on exactly which species are represented, although the results aren’t always conclusive.

Pevsner also writes about the intellectual context of the carvings. He discusses how early-medieval herbalists and encyclopedists write about plants. Most of these writers, he says, are not really very revealing. They tell us a few facts about a plant and maybe some of its herbal uses, but they don’t go into much detail and their information is mostly copied from other writers, not based on observation. The exception, says Pevsner, is Albertus Magnus (c. 1200–1280), Dominican friar and bishop, scholar of Aristotle but also of the great Muslim writers Avicenna and Averroes. When Albertus writes about plants, he does so in a much more specific and observational way, as if he has actually seen what he is describing. This way of writing marks a change, and it occurs just before the Southwell carvings were made in the 1290s.

Pevsner is not saying that the master mason of Southwell read Albertus. He is pointing out that this new realism and respect for specific detail was in the air at the time – it is part of what he calls the spirit of the age (his translation for his British readers of the German word Zeitgeist). It’s a spirit that encompasses the preaching of the friars, the growth of busy towns, the worldly love and nature poetry of the wandering scholars, the rejection of superstition, and the new openness to both Classical art and the ideas of Islamic philosophers. It’s a spirit, then, that accommodates with ease naturalist sculpture like the leaves of Southwell.
At one point in his text, Pevsner remarks that Southwell is probably the least visited of all Britain’s cathedrals. If the chapter house were in France, British people would flock to see it, he says. Seventy-five years on from Pevsner’s account, it’s still very quiet – a handful of people were visiting when we were there before Christmas. The cathedral authorities are on a mission, though, to ensure that those who come will be able to appreciate the carvings and the stories behind them. In conjunction with a major project to restore the cathedral’s roof, they are also planning work on the chapter house – to provide heating and better lighting, and to present more information about the carvings; a video here, with more shots of the carvings, explains more. I hope that more people will see the carvings as a result, and appreciate their extraordinary qualities of naturalism, observation, and openness.†

Photographs by F L Attenborough, from The Leaves of Southwell
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* The King Penguin series, of which Pevsner himself eventually became General Editor, was miscellaneous in its subject matter: there were natural history titles, books on history, places, and on subjects such as heraldry, British military uniforms, and the history of toys. Any subject was considered, if it would benefit from treatment in the series format of ‘essay plus a series of illustrations’. Some of my favourites feature the work of interesting British artists of the period: Edward Bawden’s Life in an English Village, John Piper’s Romney Marsh, Barbara Jones’s The Isle of Wight, and Kenneth Rowntree’s A Prospect of Wales.

† Perhaps the 19th-century iron capitals on the station platforms at Great Malvern are the fruit of looking at 13th- or 14th-century Decorated Gothic carvings like these.

1 comment:

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

Pevsner unfortunately believed excessively in the Zeitgeist: the leaves of Southwell are not necessarily like leaves elsewhere e.g. York Minster. Original creative artistry must have something to do with it! We are not simply the cultural slaves of the date we happened to be born.Nor can such things be explained as part of the theory about Gothic architecture being primarily a response to engineering problems ("If it's not vaulted, it's not Gothic"). I visited Southwell once many many moons ago - perhaps I should go again.