Everlasting Stone

Patrick Wormald

  • The Enigma of Stonehenge by John Fowles and Barry Brukoff
    Cape, 126 pp, £6.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 224 01618 0
  • British Cathedrals by Paul Johnson
    Weidenfeld, 275 pp, £12.50, September 1980, ISBN 0 297 77828 5

A Mr Jay, of Nettlecombe, near Watchet, Somerset, wrote c. 1670 an essay modestly entitled ‘A Fool’s Bolt soon shott at Stonage’ (i.e. Stonehenge). It begins:

A Wander Wilt of Wiltshire, rambling to Rome to gaze at Antiquities, and there skrewing himself into the company of Antiquaries, they entreated him to illustrate unto them, that famous monument in his Country called Stonage. His Answer was that he had never seen, scarce heard of it. Whereupon, they kicked him out of doors, and bad him goe home and see Stonage; and I wish all such Aesopicall Cocks, as slight these admired Stones, and other domestick Monuments ... and scrape for barley Cornes of vanity out of forreigne dunghills, might be handled, or rather footed, as he was.

On the whole, Mr Jay’s point has been well taken. Since the 18th century, the English, or at least their intelligentsia, have developed a fierce, almost incestuous pride in their national monuments, to which there is no real parallel among their neighbours – not that this has prevented some ‘Wander Witts’ from indulging an equally fervent passion for the Italian Renaissance. Both the books under review, different as they are in subject-matter, scale, format, ambition and price, have this tradition in common. Both are labours of love in English fields well-trodden by Englishmen. Both books, though copiously illustrated, deserve a place on shelves as well as coffee-tables: they have something to say, as well as something to display. Both are by ‘amateurs’, with a professional knowledge that commands respect, and both have original and unorthodox cases to put. Both, in short, are the offspring of the educated English eccentric’s ongoing affair with the English heritage.

Mr Johnson’s volume on British Cathedrals may be in a well-established tradition, but it has unusual features. His criterion of selection is simply that a building must have been, or become, the seat of a bishop. Thus St Albans and Peterborough, Norman abbeys ‘episcopalised’ respectively in 1877 and 1541, get in, but Fountains and even Hexham do not; Manchester, Derby and Blackburn are admitted, but St Mary Redcliffe or Lavenham are not. Such a criterion may smack of arbitrary inconsistency, but it does have the virtue of enabling him to discuss nearly all the substantial British churches that survive intact, and several that do not.

Moreover, Mr Johnson adopts neither the building-by-building, county-by-county structure of Professor Pevsner’s Buildings of England (his guide, and not infrequently his target), nor the style-by-style approach of most other architectural historians. In fact, he combines the two. He has a different chapter for each style, in the normal way. But each style is illustrated by an exhaustive discussion of all features in the cathedrals where it is dominant. All elements of Norwich, including the later medieval, are analysed in ‘Cathedrals of the Norman Age’; heterogeneous Canterbury is treated in full under ‘The Coming of Gothic’; Ely, with its admittedly continuous medieval architectural history, is accommodated in ‘Splendours of the Decorated Style’; Winchester, for all that one is encouraged to begin with its Norman transepts, is used as an example of Perpendicular, and so on. The results are occasionally bizarre. Hereford is an architectural Vicar of Bray, as Mr Johnson shows, but is discussed in the Norman section, because of its fundamental structure; whereas Southwell, whose abiding impact on any visitor is surely one of majestic Romanesque, features in the Decorated chapter, because of the gorgeous late 13th-century carving in its chapter-house. Yet there is a certain logic in Mr Johnson’s chosen path. Cathedral visitors need comprehensive guides to all they see, but may well also feel the want of more information about the major styles involved than Professor Pevsner’s peremptory abbreviations: E.E., Dec., Perp. etc. The Babel of architectural traditions in most medieval cathedrals makes rigid consistency well-nigh impossible, and alternative allocations would be open to the same objections as Mr Johnson’s, for the same reasons.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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