Thursday, June 11, 2020

Summer Books: 2

Andrew Ziminski: The Stonemason: A History of Building Britain
Published by John Murray

Here’s something different. A book about British buildings written not by an architectural historian, nor a travel writer, nor a generalist historian, but by a stonemason. Andrew Ziminski, who has been repairing old buildings for years, has written an enthralling study of the varied nature of our buildings, throughout prehistory and history, but especially in those eras when stone was the dominant material: the stone, the structures, their visual impact, and their aesthetic qualities. He tells the story chronologically, beginning with prehistoric monuments like Avebury and working his way towards Bath and beyond. The book is also chronological in another sense, in that the buildings and Ziminski’s encounters with them are described over the period of a working year, from the prehistoric West Kennet long barrow in November to a trip up the Thames about a year later.

It’s a unique perspective and for several reasons. Most obviously, Ziminski writes with the authority of someone who knows from personal experience how buildings are put together. The book is full of insights into the way a mason works, the qualities of different building stones, the ways they have been worked. He often points out the visual evidence for all this, noticing adze marks, for example, on stonework done before the chisel became ubiquitous, or finding stones laid not with mortar but with a layer of clay. A lot of these observations are a direct result of his working experience, as are his accounts of his tools and how he uses them. Inevitably he works with traditional techniques, and he’s willing to take this to extremes, for example, by trying out what it’s like to work sarsen – the hard-as-nails stone of which the big uprights at Stonehenge are made – using hand tools. At first this seems impossible – you end up covered in fine dust and in danger of giving yourself silicosis. The secret that helped the ancient stonemasons, Ziminki realises, was probably to work the stone when it’s fresh out of the ground and still has some moisture in it, the moisture to which stone workers still give the evocative name ‘quarry sap’.

Such insights are a frequent pleasure. Further shafts of light come from the way the author travels around. He has a penchant for taking to his canoe, and this gives him a special viewpoint, so that he can see how the landscape changes as you paddle up the Thames, or how, in travelling along a river you are also following the routes along which building stone was transported in the Middle Ages. When he’s not working at the top of a cathedral tower, Ziminski is usually close to the earth or the water, and this gives him a clear sense of the character and spirit of the places to which his work takes him. The descriptions of places, from Somerset to the City of London, are among the great pleasures of this book.

The author is full of admiration for the buildings he encounters and the skills of the men (and occasionally women¶) who worked on them. He’s appreciative too of his colleagues and their work, people who share with him hard won skills, a love of good craftsmanship, satisfaction in a good repair, even if it will only be noticed or truly appreciated by those in the know. His only scorn is for shoddy work as when he finds some appalling pointing on a part§ of Bath’s magnificent Royal Crescent: ‘It is as though a chimpanzee had been let loose on Audrey Hepburn’s face with a lipstick in the dark.’

But there’s little such scorn in the book. Mostly it’s a testimony to sensitivity and deep knowledge, to a vivid sense of place and to long experience on the ground. Whenever I talk to people about old buildings, someone will say, ‘Of course you can’t get skilled craftsmen these days; there are none of them left.’ Untrue, as the work of Ziminksi, many talented colleagues, and a couple of handfuls of cathedral masons’ yards all show. It’s good to have this tribute to the work of such exemplary craftspeople, ancient and modern.

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¶ There are of course female stonemasons today; one of Ziminski’s insights is that there were women masons in the Middle Ages too, to at least one reader’s surprise.

§ A part only: this crescent also exhibits very fine conservation work.

1 comment:

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

One might suspect that some medieval stone carving has what one might call feminine detail. If someone said the nodding-head apostles on the porch at Malmesbury Abbey had been produced by a woman's hand, I wouldn't be at all surprised.