Sculptor leaves his imprint on the stones of Oxford

March 07, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau of The Sun

OXFORD, England -- Gargoyles and grotesques glare, grimace and grin from the hallowed buildings of this old university town like a horde of uneasy spirits trapped forever in stone.

Hundreds, even thousands, of these twisted faces and writhing figures punctuate the collegiate facades like footnotes to a long architectural thesis. They line the walls of Balliol and All Souls and Brasenose and Christ Church and Magdalen and New College -- weathering galleries of wild things and weird beasties.

They all seem very old. Oxford University has its roots in medieval Christianity. The oldest buildings date from the 14th century.

And these strange and often brutally ugly stone creatures may be survivors of even earlier pre-Christian eras, pagan images recruited "to guard the very religion that subdued them," in the words of John Blackwood, the most diligent chronicler of Oxford's grotesques and gargoyles.

But hundreds are not ancient at all but quite modern, some even vaguely cubist. They come from the hands of Michael Groser, a friendly but reserved and unprepossessing sculptor and stone carver, now 75 and still hard at work cutting these fearsome and fantastic figures.

His skill was needed after the original carvings eroded, succumbing not so much to age as to 20th-century pollution. His figures are not exactly replacements in that they do not generally reproduce the earlier grotesques.

While he has literally left his mark on the stones of Oxford in a way few other people have, he remains almost as anonymous as his medieval forebears. His carvings are unsigned, except for the marks of his chisel.

"People very often think my carvings are medieval," he says. "The other day, a friend of mine saw some copies being sold in an Oxford market and he said: 'Have you got permission to do these? The copyright is private.' "

"Oh, no, but they're very old," the dealer said.

Such "reproductions" annoy him: "They very often copy them in a very amateurish way. And I feel ashamed anybody should think I've carved things like that."

His carvings, he says, are now "weathered and dirty so they fit in with the buildings."

But he doesn't think that should cause confusion.

"Although I imagine to anybody who really knows much about the history of carving it would be obvious mine are 20th century and not 14th century. But they're not all that different."

In Mr. Groser's definition, a grotesque is a carving of a creature distorted in some way to make it more expressive, a term he uses often.

A grotesque might be an animal head or a human head or both, or something monstrous, mythological or demonic. Mr. Groser has carved two that are caricatures of former President Ronald Reagan.

"Usually a grotesque head has a back to it which is being built into the building behind," he says.

A gargoyle is simply a grotesque with a drain pipe, or in olden days a gutter, which makes it a water spout.

Grotesques flourished in the Middle Ages when they were a kind of signature of the Gothic stone carvers who cut them, often sly jokes aimed at the churchmen or priors or scholastics who hired them.

Some are ribald, some just vulgar: bare butts or people picking their noses. Mr. Groser has carved dung beetles rolling their dung balls.

Medieval stone carvers recorded disease and deformity in monstrously distorted stone images. Evil spirits snapping and clawing at tormented faces depict the fears and anguish and perhaps the mental illnesses of the Middle Ages.

"I don't think new buildings very often have that sort of thing on them," Mr. Groser says. "For one thing it's expensive.

"No doubt in past years when labor was cheap and when there were really rich patrons who could afford these things -- and if they reckoned it would get them a place in heaven to build a splendid church -- then they could do these things."

Mr. Groser came to Oxford 45 years ago. He's a pacifist and conscientious objector who spent World War II as a coal miner near Leeds.

"I enjoyed the work," he says. "but I don't know that I'd want to be a miner all my life."

He had time to enroll at Leeds College to learn sculpture. He also studied later at St. Martin's College of Art in London.

During his first years in Oxford, he supported himself and his wife singing countertenor in the New College choir. Throughout his life he has followed twin careers of sculpting and singing.

"A very satisfying life," he says.

When he got his first commission to do grotesques, he sketched copies of 14th-century carvings as working drawings.

"They weren't successful at all," he says. "So I did some drawings just from my own imagination and they were accepted.

"After that," he says, "on nearly all the jobs I did in Oxford I was given a free hand and I just invented. I didn't try to do a pastiche of old carvings. I just carved freely."

He did a series of carvings for Balliol which represented the benefactors of the college. But he didn't have any models, pictures or anything to work from.

"I looked up the names of various people who were benefactors and invented faces for them," he says. "In fact, for one 17th-century divine who gave lands or property or something, I put my own father's head. He was a parson himself. He was appropriate."

The work of carving grotesques will go on, but not very many will be carved in Oxford for the next 500 years or so -- depending on the amount of air pollution.

"In Oxford, there's not much opportunity anymore," Mr. Groser says. "All the work's been done."

And he did most of it.

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