Wherever you go they stare down at you, their beady eyes fixed, their gaze immovable, a sinister smirk on their stony lips. Some of the characters they depict are mythic; some are based on real people. The oldest date back to the thirteenth century; the newest are being chiselled right now.

Gargoyles and Grotesques.

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The difference between a gargoyle and a grotesque lies in its function. Both are forms of ornamental punctuation, giving rhythm and drama to the aesthetic of a building. But gargoyles have a practical, structural role beyond this: they disguise drainage pipes, or act as spouts to project away rainwater which would otherwise run down the face of a wall causing damage and dicolouration. The name is onomatopoeic; it conjures up the sound of gargling or gurgling and is probably derived from Norman French, like so many masonry-related words: arch, chimney, foundations, mortar, chisel, trowel – and indeed mason.

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Simple enough you might think. But then it all got a bit out of hand. Somewhere along the way a form of medieval masonic madness was spawned. The result, never mind gargoyles and grotesques, is a veritable forest of knobbly gothic spires, crenellations, crocketed finials, pinnacles, and cornices: a skyline, in the words of John Betjeman, ‘prickly with steepled churches’.

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‘Of what use to the brothers reading piously are these ridiculous monstrosities, these prodigies of deformed beauty,’ raged one stern cleric, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153). ‘Almighty God! If we were not ashamed of these unclean things we should at least regret what we have spent on them.’

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Thank goodness no one heeded him. Gargoyles and grotesques are a much loved component of Oxford’s rich architectural heritage. They embody what Philip Pullman has described as ‘a long and proud tradition of rudeness, mischief and disobedience’, and they speak to everyone, irrespective of age or class.

A trip down New College Lane is a must for carved corbel connoisseurs. There you will behold a veritable menagerie – including an aardvark, dung beetle, baboon, otter, harvest mouse, starfish, and crab.

And there are plenty more animals and mythic beasts to spot nearby: a frog swallowing a fly, a pair of salamanders, myriad monkeys, satyrs and babewyns. Not to mention a snake-headed Medusa, choirs of angels, a busty mermaid, and Eve just about to embark on her fateful apple.

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There are all sorts of recognisable humans too: the portrait heads in the Bodleian Old Schools quad, the friar of Brasenose picking his nose, two lovers embracing at Magdalen, the Robin Day gargoyle in St Edmund Hall, the college servants at Pembroke, Tweedledum and Tweedledee looking out onto the Sheldonian, the seven virtues and deadly sins so vividly etched on the bell tower of New College …

Our favourite? It’s impossible to choose from such a cornucopia. But we do admit to a particular fondness for the carving below:

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The Revd Graham Midgley was Dean and Chaplain of St Edmund Hall in the late 1960s. Students recall that he was accompanied everywhere in college by one or more yellow labradors. Here, captured for ever in stone, is his beloved Fred. Both are wearing dog collars.

It’s all part of life in our protruberant parish.

Look up! Look up!

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At the turn of the millennium the schoolchildren of Oxford were invited to design nine new carvings for the Bodleian Library, an initiative which, at the time, caused some controversy. Jackie Holderness writes:

A friend recently reminded me of an article in the Oxford Mail, discussing the children’s competition for the new carvings on the Bod. I must admit I’d completely forgotten writing to or being interviewed by the paper. The winning designs were great – even if our 13-year-old son’s wasn’t chosen. Despite the fears of one particularly agitated conservationist, the excellent results are often pointed to by guides taking groups round – especially the carving of Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

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I stand by my comment at the time that ‘you cannot pickle culture, because culture changes.’ I think it’s important for carvings to reflect current life and actual faces. On a recent trip to Salamanca we spotted a little astronaut carved into the side of the medieval cathedral. A truly celestial vision. God keeps up with the times! – JH

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Morris Oxford takes this opportunity to thank Chris Andrews for his superb photography. Several of his images feature in the story above, and his very successful book Oxford Gargoyles has just been updated and re-printed. He writes:

The Gargoyles and Grotesques I have photographed all appear in a little book we publish, which seems to have found its way all over the world. On my travels I see copies in the most extraordinary places. One of the most surprising and exotic locations was a beautiful private library in Cape Town. The owner proudly showed me the exquisitely carved oak bookcases and on the top of each stack was a perfectly copied wooden gargoyle! The owner explained that her African colleagues had seen the book and remarked ‘It’s the Tokoloshe Man,’ an African spirit used to scare off people, and in this case to deter would-be thieves from the valuable books. – CA

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Veronica Wootton refers us to an excellent book.

I wonder if Morris Oxford readers are aware of an excellent little book entitled Oxford’s Gargoyles and Grotesques: a Guided Tour. It’s by John Blackwood and was first published in 1986. The author offers this excellent advice (p.3): ‘A pair of binoculars is a great help in revealing the detail of more distant figures. There is much to see. You should go at your own pace and find your own friends and favourites; a guide can only point the way. Once you know the carvings are there, you’ll find them everywhere.’– VW

Recommended also is the Oxford Civic Society’s self-guided tour of Gargoyles and Grimaces – which is badged as ‘a walk in which you will see most with your nose in the air’.
An observation, a lamentation, a suggestion, and a remarkably generous invitation. We feel extraordinarily privileged to have received this feedback from the Master Mason, Alex Wenham:

The carved detail of Oxford’s stone buildings is, arguably, our city’s most lasting and significant contribution to Britain’s built heritage. From the Sheldonian heads to the ‘Hieroglyphics’ at Magdalen and the wonders of Queens Lane, carved stonework is all around us – and in constant need of conservation, repair, and renewal. It is sad to see so many carvings about the place (generally made in quite soft limestone) weathered to nothing more than lumpy haggises. Even more soul-destroying is to see carving reservations (reserved blocks of stonework intended for carving at a future date) left uncarved and with an uphill struggle for consent, despite the future intention to carve these areas being ‘baked in’ to the original design of the building. Such sadness can be witnessed at the University Museum, the Meadow Building at Christ Church, all over St Frideswide’s Church on the Botley Road, and either side of the red gateway of St John’s on St Giles – among many others.

We are fortunate that in recent generations Oxford has been blessed with a series of talented carvers keeping this important tradition alive.  In the previous couple of generations Oxford has known the likes of Bil [sic] Brown, Michael Groser (New College, St Edmund Hall et al), Michael Black (the present third generation of Sheldonian Heads), and Percy Quick (Christ Church, Magdalen, New College et al.)

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In previous generations, Oxford was fortunate to employ, for a time in the 1850s and 60s, the O’Shea brothers (University Museum). One of the principal British carvers of the Restoration period, Francis Bird, also has work in Oxford (University College inter alia). Indeed, the identities of many of Oxford’s principal carvers are known, right back to John Buce and Robert Carver who carved the ‘Hieroglyphics’ statues in Magdalen’s Cloister Quad in 1508-9. To my knowledge, no comprehensive study pulling together the identities of these craftspeople active in Oxford has ever been undertaken. This would make a wonderful subject for an academic article. Anyone interested in taking up this gauntlet would be welcome to contact me for various disparate scraps of information.

Today, this tradition of stone carving continues. In Oxford there are currently several stone carvers actively working: Piotr Gargas (https://www.piotrgargas3dsculpture.com/copy-of-digital-sculpting-design) Bernard Johnson (http://www.bernardjohnson.co.uk/Site/Home.html) and myself https://www.alexwenham.co.uk/. I warmly welcome visits (by appointment) to my workshop in Cumnor. I attach below some images of my work.

Anyone interested in seeing several local stone carvers working together should come to the live stone carving event I’m organising at Oxford Castle as part of the Oxford Open Doors weekend, 10/11 September 2022: https://www.oxfordpreservation.org.uk/content/oxford-open-doors