Archive for the Sculpture Category

The Grotto, Stourhead

Posted in Caves, Fountain, Gardens, Grotto, History, Landscape, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2016 by mysearchformagic

In the autumn I was lucky enough to visit the beautiful gardens at Stourhead in Wiltshire. With its pretty lake surrounded by wooded hillsides dotted with follies of all shapes and sizes, Stourhead has a dream-like quality about it, an eighteenth-century recreation of an ancient Roman paradise. It’s got its own version of the Pantheon, complete with grand portico, dome and marble sculptures, a medieval cross, and a even a quaint ‘Gothic’ cottage with rustic windows and a thatched roof.


The beautiful Georgian landscape of Stourhead, Wiltshire

But surely the most atmospheric spot at Stourhead is the Grotto, constructed in 1748 for then owner Henry Hoare, and designed by Henry Flitcroft. Wealthy Georgian gardeners, it seems, had something of a taste for magic, and a dark and creepy underground cavern was an important element in any grand garden of this period.

From a distance the Grotto at Stourhead, which sits right of the shore of the lake, looks like nothing more than a huge pile of mossy rocks. On closer inspection, however, a set of twisting steps can be seen leading down to a shadowy doorway.


The twisting staircase down to the Grotto at Stourhead

Beyond lies a dark – very dark – underground passageway, the only light coming from small apertures in the roof and the side, the latter offering wonderful views over the lake outside.


Looking out onto the Stourhead Lake

Lined with flint, pebbles and tufa, the interior of the Grotto is constructed to resemble a rough natural cave. Since Henry Hoare was rather taken with ancient Rome, the grotto is inspired by the poetry of Ovid and Virgil, both of whom wrote numerous tales of magical, poolside caverns, which were often home to nymphs, monsters or even gods and goddesses. Neo-classical sculptures in the Stourhead Grotto add to the atmosphere of ancient mystery, with a gushing spring and pool decorated with a water nymph and some poetry inscribed into the floor:

Nymph of the Grot these sacred springs I keep,
And to the murmur of these waters sleep;
Ah! Spare my slumbers, gently tread the cave,
And drink in silence, or in silence lave.

Further along, hiding out in a gloomy, water-filled cavern, sits a dramatic bearded river god, a spring from the River Stour pouring noisily from his urn.


The river god in the Grotto at Stourhead

I may have visited the gardens at Stourhead a little to late to see the amazing autumn leaves which attract thousands of visitors every year, but in a way I was glad to catch it at a quieter moment. Wandering alone through the tunnels of the Grotto, the weak November sun setting over the damp Wiltshire hills, it really was possible to experience the sublime wonder of this magical place, and feel the thrill that has been enjoyed by visitors to this place for over three and a half centuries.


The magical Grotto at Stourhead

Merlin’s Tomb and the Fontaine de Jouvence, Morbihan

Posted in Brittany, Fountain, King Arthur, Legend, Sculpture, Standing Stones, Uncategorized, Woods with tags , , , , , , , , on November 17, 2015 by mysearchformagic

My recent visit to the Fountain of Barenton in the mythical forest of Brocéliande was just the beginning of a long day filled with magic. My second stop on this mystical adventure was another site with Arthurian associations, namely the Tomb of Merlin on the eastern edges of this ancient woodland.


Merlin’s Tomb on the edge of Brocéliande Forest

Once a huge neolithic burial mound, this spot has long been known as the grave of the legendary wizard. In fact, it was probably this myth that led to the destruction of the mound, with its late nineteenth-century owner stripping it in search of ancient treaure. Today only two large boulders survive, hemmed in by a modern wooden fence. Despite this, the place is obviously well-visited and much-loved, the stones surrounded by autumnal offerings of berries, mushrooms and fruit.

Next I headed off into the forest, along a winding path which crossed a babbling brook. As I walked deeper into the woods, I noticed small piles of stones along the side of the track.


A babbling brook in the mystical Forest of Brocéliande

It wasn’t long before I reached the place known as the Fontain of Jouvence, or Fountain of Youth. It has been suggested that the name of this spring derives from the fact that it was a Druidical site where babies were baptised. If a baby missed the ceremony then they would be baptised as a new-born twelve months later, and thus effectively become a year younger. Whatever the roots of this magical moniker, the rather murky, leaf-filled waters were distinctly unappealling, and I decided not to risk a sip.


The Fontainte de Jouvence, Brocéliande

Keen to explore a bit further, I continued along the path, and noticed more of those peculiar little piles of stones. Suddenly the path opened up into a clearing, and I was greeted by an unexpected sculpture, an anthropomorphic figure created from pebbles and branches and decorated with fruits, leaves and funghi.


A strange stone sculpture in the Forest of Brocéliande

Beyond the figure lay a quarry. But this was no ordinary quarry, because it was filled with countless little piles of stones.


A mysterious quarry in the Forest of Brocéliande

I am not sure who or what made these odd little sculptures, or indeed why. Some contained notes giving thanks, or making dedications. I haven’t been able to find out anything about it on the internet, or any references to it in guidebooks. It remains something of an intriguing mystery. All I know is that it was a eerie, atmospheric place, and one that I won’t forget in a hurry.




The Venus of Quinipily, Brittany

Posted in Brittany, Castle, Fountain, Gardens, Landscape, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 4, 2015 by mysearchformagic

Nestling in a quiet valley in the middle of rural Brittany can be found the romantic ruins of the chateau of Quinipily, an ancient fortress now reduced to just a few sturdy walls and terraces. Today the remains of the castle have been transformed into pretty gardens which are open to visitors throughout the year.

The colourful gardens of Quinipily, Brittany

The colourful gardens of Quinipily, Brittany

It’s not the flowers that attract visitors to this place, however, because it is far better known for its strange statue, a monumental figure of indefinite age now known as the Venus of Quinipily. The 2.2 metre tall Venus stands at the centre of the terraced garden, staring out at the surrounding landscape from her position atop a huge fountain.

The Venus of Quinipily, Brittany

The Venus of Quinipily, Brittany

Until the seventeenth century both the Venus and the huge stone trough that is now situated below her stood in the Breton village of Bieuzy-les-Eaux, on the site of an ancient Gaulish city. Also known by the villagers as Ar Groareg Houar (the Iron Lady) and Groah Hoart (The Old Guardian), the statue was worshipped by the locals, who believed it to have magical curative powers. Pregnant women would visit the Venus, and later bathe in the trough (which can apparently hold up to 3600 litres of water) after giving birth. It was also thought that the figure could help boost fertility, and it is said that some couple indulged in some rather naughty practises beneath the statue. Finally the bishop of nearby Vannes decided to bring an end to such pagan rituals, and in 1661 he had the Venus thrown into the river. Before long, the locals fished her out, and resumed their old religious rites.

The huge stone water trough at Quinipily

The huge stone water trough at Quinipily

In 1670 the statue was attacked and thrown once again into the watery depths. At this point local gentleman Pierre de Lannion stepped in to save the Venus, and shipped her off to his castle at Quinipily, where she has stood ever since. He faced opposition from the Duke of Rohan, who claimed ownership of the statue, but after a long legal battle Lannion won the case and was allowed to keep her.

The monumental form of the Venus of Quinipily

The monumental form of the Venus of Quinipily

The true age and purpose of the Venus of Quinipily have stirred up debate for centuries. Some have suggested that she may be a representation of Isis first erected by Romans who had settled in the region. Another theory is that she is in fact a Gallic goddess, or perhaps Roman mother goddess Cybele. Some sceptics have proposed that this statue is not ancient at all, but a later copy made when the original statue was destroyed in the seventeenth century.

After such a checkered past, the Venus must relieved to have finally found a safe home in the beautiful gardens of Quinipily. Here she is surrounded by huge old trees which have grown up amongst the fragments of castle wall, and althought the spring which fed her fountain has now dried up, the former ponds and cascades are now a mass of foliage and flowers, a bit wild and overgrown, but wonderfully atmospheric. I said earlier that she attracts visitors to Quinipily, but on the day that I visited there was noone else around, and I was able to enjoy the magical ambience of this intriguing place in peace and quiet, a unique experience in an unforgettable place.

The overgrown ponds in the gardens at Quinipily

The overgrown ponds in the gardens at Quinipily

The Jeremy Bentham Auto-Icon, London

Posted in Ghosts, History, Legend, London, Sculpture with tags , , , , , on July 13, 2015 by mysearchformagic

Jeremy Bentham was apparently quite a character. As well as being an influential philosopher and jurist, he was probably the first ever Englishman to donate his body to medical science when he passed away in 1832. Even more unusual was his request that his body should then be turned into what is known as an ‘auto-icon’. This is exactly what happened, and Bentham’s auto icon can now be found in the cloisters of University College, London.

The Jeremy Bentham auto-icon, London

The Jeremy Bentham auto-icon, London

Sitting in a rather smart wooden case, Bentham’s auto-icon may looks like the kind of waxwork figure that you might expect to find nearby at Madame Tussaud’s. In fact this is Bentham’s actual body, with his articulated skeleton hidden below his smart outfit and his real hair sticking out from underneath his wide-brimmed hat.

The head which currently sits on the figure is indeed wax, but Bentham’s real head still exists. It used to be exhibited at the feet of the auto-icon, but curators recently decided that it was just too fragile to leave on display, and it is now safely kept in temperature-controlled storage. I must say I was rather glad to hear it – if you think the figure is kind of spooky, wait until you see the head…!

Jeremy Bentham's head, UCL

Jeremy Bentham’s head, UCL

A number of strange tales have appeared over the years concerning this bizarre figure. One relates that Bentham’s body was put into storage by the College in 1955, with creepy consequences. It seems that Jeremy was not too happy about being hidden away, and his vengeful ghost went on regular rampages throughout the college until he was finally put back in his rightful place in the cloister.

Another story tells that the head was only taken off public exhibition after its theft by rowdy students from Kings College, who ended up using it in a game of football. It is also said that Bentham is still taken into meetings of the College council, and that it is recorded in the minutes that Mr Bentham is ‘present but not voting’.

The latter two are apparently just myths. As for Bentham’s ghost, well I will leave it up to you whether you believe that one.

The Jeremy Bentham auto-icon, London

The Jeremy Bentham auto-icon, London

The Arthur’s Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

Posted in Caves, Edinburgh, History, Legend, Museum, Sculpture, Witches with tags , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2015 by mysearchformagic

If there is one thing I love more than a spooky mystery, it is an unsolved spooky mystery. I recently discovered one such mystery on a brief visit to Edinburgh, where I wandered into the wonderful National Museum of Scotland. There I found the intriguing Arthur’s Seat coffins, a spooky mystery if ever there was one.

The Arthur's Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

The Arthur’s Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

Discovered in 1836 by some boys in a cave on the side of Arthur’s Seat, the impressive craggy hill that dominates the city, these tiny handmade coffins were arranged carefully in three tiers. Each one is intricately carved, and wears custom made clothes with little painted boots. To this day nobody knows who made them, or when, or even why, but there are a few interesting theories.

A detail of the Arthur's Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

A detail of the Arthur’s Seat Coffins, Edinburgh

Some people have suggested that the coffins were used by witches to cast spells on their victims, rather like a Scottish form of voodoo. Another theory is that they were kept by sailors as good luck talismans. There is even conjecture that these strange little dollies represent the seventeen victims of notorious Edinburgh grave robbers Burke and Hare, and that local inhabitants made them in order to allow the stolen and dissected bodies a decent burial.

Interesting ideas indeed, but of course the real purpose of these rather cute (but also rather creepy) coffins will probably always remain a perplexing, but definitely very magical, mystery.

The Fountain of St Nicodème, Brittany

Posted in Brittany, Church, Fountain, History, Legend, Sculpture with tags , , , , , on February 1, 2015 by mysearchformagic

With its huge tower topped by an elaborate spire, the impressive church of St Nicodème seems rather out of place, sitting as it does in the middle of the Breton countryside surrounded by a tiny village of just a few houses.

The chapel of St Nicodème, Brittany

The chapel of St Nicodème, Brittany

Partly dating from the sixteenth century, legend has it that a vision of St Nicodème himself instructed the local people to follow some oxen and build a chapel where they came to rest. A more likely reason for the church’s surprisingly remote position can be found in the small dip next the tower, at the foot of a wide flight of stairs.

The stairs leading down to the fountain of St Nicodeme

The stairs leading down to the fountain of St Nicodeme

The elaborate gothic fountain which lies at the bottom of these stairs is in fact dedicated to three saints, Nicodème, Gamaliel et Abibon. The statues of the saints which once decorated the structure are now gone, but much of their carved decoration remains. Although the date of 1608 is etched onto the back, it is now assumed that this records a restoration of the structure, which could in fact be almost a century older.

The fountain of St Nicodème, Brittany

The fountain of St Nicodème, Brittany

The water from the fountains, now rather green and slimy, is said to have magical properties. Until the end of the nineteenth century men would use the water to shave off their beards on the day of the local ‘pardon’ at the beginning of August, in the belief that it was good for the skin. It was also traditional to offer butter to St. Nicodème, and small empty pots were distributed on the Sunday before the pardon so that everyone could fill them for the big day, which subsequently became known as ‘le dimanche des pots’. Although this was once a place of pilgrimage, nowadays its legends are largely forgotten, and St Nicodème is once again a quiet, lonely and rather magical corner of rural Brittany.

The Gardens of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

Posted in Cotswolds, Gardens, House, Sculpture with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 30, 2014 by mysearchformagic

Following my last post on the slightly faded but rather magical Chastleton House, this time I am going to take a closer look at the intriguing gardens that surround it. As the fine Jacobean house fell into decay during the twentieth century, its extensive grounds also became overgrown and wild, nature sneaking back in after centuries of careful planting and landscaping. Since the National Trust took over the property in the 1990s, they have been carefully tidying up the gardens, making them accessible once again, but still retaining their magical atmosphere.

The grand exterior of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

The grand exterior of Chastleton House, Oxfordshire

The gardens at Chastleton are filled with ancient trees and pretty flowerbeds. A kitchen garden has been re-established, and long-overgrown sections are gradually re-emerging following decades of neglect. Undoubtedly the most striking aspects is the formal topiary garden, a circular area filled with weird and wonderfully shaped bushes. Each bush was once carefully trimmed into a recognisable form, but now they are shadows of their former selves, their original designs hard to decipher.

The entrance to the topiary garden at Chastelton House, Oxfordshire

The entrance to the topiary garden at Chastelton House, Oxfordshire

One bush apparently represented a galleon in full sail, another a Greek vase, and yet another a teapot. Time has worn away the edges of the bushes, and now most of them are amorphous lumps giving only the tiniest hints of their past grandeur. Wandering around the topiary garden at Chastleon House, it is hard not to think of the surreal setting of Alice in Wonderland with all of its crazy characters and dreamlike locations.

The weird and wonderful topiary shapes in the gardens of Chaslteton House

The weird and wonderful topiary shapes in the gardens of Chaslteton House

A plan is available which identifies each and every bush in the garden, although guessing which was which is much more fun. It’s amazing how your mind can imagine just about anything once you get going. Just like the interior of the house, the gardens of Chastleton House were on the verge of rack and ruin when they were rescued just over twenty years ago, but while they have been preserved for future generations, their wonderful sense of faded opulence and intriguing mystery has also been retained.

Can you decipher the strange topiary shapes in the garden of Chastleton House?

Can you decipher the strange topiary shapes in the garden of Chastleton House?

Exploring Chastleton House and gardens is a wonderful experience, and the property offers a great example of how a place can be conserved and maintained without losing its unique magic. Let’s hope this approach is taken elsewhere, and more of that magic, hidden in quiet, dusty rooms and shadowy, overgrown corners, can be retained and enjoyed for years to come.