Romanesque Sculpture in the Chalk Belt 2

The Westhall Group of doorways

A group of a dozen twelfth-century doorways in Suffolk, extending from Herringfleet, near Lowestoft, in the north to Theberton, twenty miles to the south, and all within ten miles of the coast contains clunch doorways that can be stylistically linked to a single workshop.

I have called this the Westhall group, since the church of St Andrew, Westhall, is one of the most elaborate examples and stands at the centre of the cluster. It has a west doorway and a window above it, both of clunch and both protected by a later tower, and a south doorway of limestone. The west doorway is of five orders with chevron, billet, beakhead and beaker clasp decoration in the jambs and arch, and multi-fluted and cushion capitals.

St Andrew’s, Westhall, west doorway.

The carving is well preserved except at the apex of the arch, where an overlooked water leak has resulted in the replacement of a few stones. The west window forms the central element of a triple arcade and contains similar motifs.

The other doorways of the group are clearly the output of several workshops operating over a long period. The occurrence of chip-carving and sawtooth at Herringfleet suggests that this is among the earliest of the group, perhaps c.1130, while the lozenge decoration and flat-leaf capitals at Cookley point to a date in the 1170s or ‘80s

Chevron and its variant, lozenge ornament, is the commonest motif; found everywhere except the south doorway of Wissett, which is otherwise the closest to Westhall in using beakhead and beaker clasp decoration. Both of these sites also have a second doorway that is carved from imported limestone rather than clunch.

At Badingham there are four loose or reset stones, all carved from clunch. One is a chevron voussoir and there are two more voussoirs depicting a rabbit and a hair puller (or possibly an exhibitionist). The fourth stone is a scalloped nook-shaft capital. This evidence suggests that there was a clunch doorway here with figural beakheads or beaker clasps, an order of chevron, and scalloped capitals related to the work at Westhall and Wissett.

No record has so far been found of the quarrying of the chalk cliffs in this area in the medieval period, but the distribution of the sites involved is highly suggestive.

The materials available to medieval masons and sculptors in the chalk belt were, at first glance, unpromising in the extreme, but they have left us with a built heritage that is both distinctive and a monument to their ingenuity.  They also leave us with a range of questions that merit further study.  One worry is that the received opinion about the use of clunch in building and the relationship between quarries and specific building projects depends largely on evidence from Cambridge colleges in the late Middle Ages and the early modern period.  These were buildings of high status, where the use of clunch was a positive choice based, as far as we can tell, on its whiteness and ease of working, and not solely on its cheapness and local availability.  For lower status buildings in an earlier period, like the Romanesque parish churches discussed in these two blogs, the economic drivers were clearly different. Certainly the infrastructure of stone supply was less sophisticated in the twelfth century. I have been at pains to point out the geological relationships between chalk, flint, Carstone and puddingstone, but this does not mean that all were available in the same quarries. At a church like Fryerning the alert investigator cannot fail to come away with the sense that the masons were scavenging for their diverse materials, and the evidence from Corpus Christi college in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is of little help in elucidating the precise relationships between quarrymen, masons and sculptors.

Further reading

All of the sites discussed here have entries by the same author on the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture website, which also includes a bibliography for each site. The works recommended in the first blog of this series, Romanesque Sculpture in the Chalk Belt 1, may also be useful.

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