Discovering the stories behind Gloucester Cathedral’s six new gargoyles
PUBLISHED: 15:09 10 December 2019 | UPDATED: 15:09 10 December 2019
© Thousand Word Media
Candia McKormack met master stonemason Pascal Mychalysin to find out about the new works of art, which each represent a different area of the county – think rugby players, a cheese roller and trailblazing women
Gargoyles have had a bad rap over the centuries. The name stems from the charming Old French word 'gargouille', meaning throat - their function is to direct rainwater away from buildings - but they've come to be associated with the hideous, the horrific, the monstrous and the macabre. The reason for their frightening appearance, it's believed, is to ward off evil spirits… standing guard on both sacred and secular buildings, and even coming to life at night, taking flight over the landscape to protect the sleeping and vulnerable.
A picture recently appeared on Gloucester Cathedral's Twitter feed of the 'angry young man' gargoyle (sited in 2013) spouting water in the torrential storms we've had recently. And it was doing its job magnificently, looking much like a youth leaving a city centre pub, three sheets to the wind, and not quite making the bathroom in time. Spectacular, projectile rainwater vomit. This fine young fellow is the work of the Cathedral's master stonemason, Pascal Mychalysin, who has been based there nearly 30 years, training nearly 40 masons in its workshop during his time. The workshop is one of only nine attached to cathedrals in England, and the quality of the work produced is held is exceedingly high esteem.
And now Pascal and his team have been given the opportunity to produce six new gargoyles for the cathedral - each one based on a different area of the county - all to be installed on the North Ambulatory roof as part of a £530,000 restoration project.
On entering the workshop and meeting the gargoyle that's to represent Gloucester - a particularly fierce-looking Cherry and White Kingsholm rugby player named, of course, 'Glaaaawster' - I mention the absence of teeth to Pascal. "The idea is," he smiles, "is that he hasn't got many teeth, but he can still bite!" The player also features 'cauliflower' ears, which Pascal has cleverly and playfully incorporated the 'ball flower' motif seen in stonemasonry across the region.
The considerations when designing and constructing the gargoyles are immense; there's the practicality of fitting into the coursing of the wall, so limiting the size they have to work with, as well as its functionality of diverting water away from the building. But Pascal is putting his dedicated team to work on the masonry, with established mason James Bayliss working on 'Glaaaawster', under the watchful eye of the master mason.
The second of the gargoyles in the Gloucestershire series is 'The Freeminer' (Forest of Dean), being worked on from Pascal's maquette by Paul, while Ollie Critchley lovingly carves away at the form of 'The Sheepshearer' (Cotswolds). Following closely behind are 'The Cheeseroller' (Tewkesbury) and 'The Jockey' (Cheltenham), the latter of which Pascal playfully refers to as 'Bryony' after Bryony Frost who made history in March as the first female jockey to win a top-level Grade One Cheltenham Festival race.
There is just one special sculpture that Pascal wants to work on solely, as it's of particular importance to him, and that's Stroud's 'Suffragette'. She has a different feel to the others - slightly less grotesque, perhaps, but immensely powerful. "Stroud is a town that grew out of the work of primarily women and children, but this should be more well known," he says, with obvious passion. "I think the Museum in the Park tried to address this with an exhibition on the factory workers, showing how many women contributed to the war effort, but apart from that there is not much acknowledgement in the community. The fact that Stroud is a bit 'quirky', I think, is down to its working roots and so I wanted to illustrate that in my work. Without these women, there would be no Stroud."
Several Gloucestershire companies have already come on board to support the project with sponsorship, and they are just awaiting funding for The Cheeseroller and The Cheltenham Jockey. And as for the cheeserolling sculpture, it's a wildly wonderful tangle of limbs, incorporating probably three different entwined figures though, just as the race itself, it's difficult to interpret which bodily parts belong to which body. "My idea was very simple," smiles Pascal, "it was to try to represent the madness of it!" And the mad, the monstrous and the downright medieval are associations that endure with the creation of gargoyles and, though Pascal has his own distinct twist on the form, he pays homage to the craftsman who worked hundreds of years before him.
"A feature of medieval gargoyles was that of a figure kneeling with some sort of monster between his legs," says Pascal, who obviously thoroughly enjoys being playful with the tradition, "If you look at medieval art, they were very blunt. For example, in the Last Judgement paintings, you will see king, bishop, royalty and aristocrat falling into hell. It's quite shocking to us to see how blunt they were, but it's a way of saying, 'Well, maybe you are the king today, but tomorrow…'." It's all very sobering.
Not everyone has been a fan of gargoyles historically, and many of the country's stonemasons are tasked with replacing statues removed from our historic buildings many years ago. "The Victorians didn't like gargoyles," Pascal explains, "because they thought it was very messy, the way they splashed water on the ground. Frederick Waller, the first Victorian architect of the Waller dynasty, tried to remove as many as possible, and it was he that removed all the gargoyles from the North Ambulatory that we're working on today. All he left were two stumps."
The system that was put in place to replace the gargoyles just didn't do the job nearly as well and, with the additional rainfall we're currently enjoying, the building's stonework is being damaged as a result. The South Ambulatory is particularly experiencing a lot of rainwater damage as the guttering fails to do its job properly, and so it's planned to reinstate "at least nine" gargoyles there. "Watch this space," Pascal confirms.
Having a full-time team of masons at the cathedral may seem like an indulgence to some but, as well as being the best way to protect our incredible heritage, it also saves a lot of money in the long-term. "I would argue that to have a small team of craft people working constantly costs less than waiting and having to call a commercial company to sort it out when things get bad," says Pascal. "It's a case of knowledge and skills, too, which is invaluable, and it's important to pass that on to the next generation. "I'm not getting any younger," he smiles, "and will have to retire in a few years. I've got to make sure that all I know is passed on to my younger colleagues. That's the game!"
Find out more about Gloucester Cathedral here.