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British Academy publication about Cornish Sculpture wins book prize

Blog • Archaeology • Ann Preston-Jones

Early Cornish Sculpture by Ann Preston-Jones and Elisabeth Okasha has won the Holyer an Gof Cup, awarded for the most outstanding publication about Cornwall or in Cornish. The book is the eleventh volume in the Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture series, a British Academy funded research project.

The Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture, a series which began with the publication of counties Durham and Northumberland in 1977, has been gradually spreading its scholarship across England and in 2013 reached the far south-west with the publication of Early Cornish Sculpture, the eleventh in the series. In July 2015, Early Cornish Sculpture was the outright winner of the Cornish Holyer an Gof book awards, an honour which brought much delight to the team involved[i].

The annual Holyer an Gof Awards are run by Gorsedh Kernow and originated in 1996 in memory of Redruth publisher and Cornish bard Leonard Truran. Their aim is to raise the standard and awareness of books published in or about Cornwall. Len Truran’s  bardic name was Holyer an Gof – ‘Follower of The Smith’: the smith in question being Michael Joseph or Michael An Gof from St Keverne, one of the leaders of the Cornish Rebellion of 1497, now acknowledged as one of Cornwall’s heroes.  Clearly, then, these book awards have a strong Cornish cultural bias and it was therefore an especial honour that Early Cornish Sculpture, with its sub-title Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture volume 11, should have been chosen as the overall winner from a very strong field. This which field included Philip Marsden’s Rising Ground: a Search for the Spirit of the Place (Granta 2014), the recently revised and much-extended Cornwall Pevsner (Yale University Press, 2013) and the Maritime History of Cornwall (Exeter University Press, 2014).

The Anglo-Saxon conquest of Cornwall began in the eighth century and was complete by the early tenth.  Cornish sculpture begins in the late ninth century and did not stop at the Norman Conquest but continued, the progeny of the earliest high crosses being the remarkable series of simple wayside crosses still evident in parts of the county. From the start it demonstrates ‘a complexity of cultural entanglements’[ii]. The earliest group, which includes a monument probably commemorating the last-recorded Cornish king, Doniert, shows parallels with contemporary sculpture in Wales. On the other hand, a group in the far west of Cornwall has acknowledged parallels with sculpture in Yorkshire and Ireland, while in mid Cornwall are stones resembling Viking hog-backs as well as an example of almost perfect, southern English, Winchester style decoration.

This enriching cultural influence, and the diversity represented and fused in the stones, is of course an almost inevitable result of Cornwall’s geographical location, a peninsula open to sea-borne communication at the extremity of the kingdom of Wessex, . However in the current political climate, when the county’s identity as a Celtic nation and the case for devolution is being strongly argued – most recently in the Case for Cornwall[iii] – this is not necessarily a palatable message. Early Cornish Sculptureis a professional product and an academic volume, part of a series published by Oxford University Press and the British Academy. Moreover the book was created by a team which was spread from Durham to Cork in Ireland, to London, to Gloucestershire, to Devon and to Cornwall. However, it is precisely because of the fact that it is part of a series, that the book demonstrates how special Cornwall is in the national arena, with many examples of early sculpture in a relatively small area and, despite their blend of cultural influence, a very distinctive, Cornish, character.  The carving may not demonstrate great finesse but the sculptors in Cornwall blunted their chisels in tough granite and metamorphic rocks, not the fine free-stones in which some of the more intricate examples of early English sculpture were cut.

So it is not simply an honour that we received the award for this book, but an acknowledgement that its significance and importance for the county is recognised in Cornwall. In fact, although the book is part of a series, Early Cornish Sculpture includes small differences that make it distinctive and a work in its own right. The differences from the standard volumes in the series include the title, Early Cornish Sculpture, and the photographs inside of two Cornishmen who have made important contributions to the study of that sculpture: Arthur G. Langdon, author of Old Cornish Crosses (1896), and Professor Charles Thomas, author of many books on Cornwall’s early Christian history and archaeology. The inclusion of a colour cover and a number of colour plates, which show the stones in their rural settings, also helps to showcase the importance and unique character of Cornwall.

[i] http://www.holyerangofawards.org.uk/index.html

[ii] Mark Hall (2015), review of Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture, Volume XI: Early Cornish Sculpture, by Ann Preston-Jones and Elisabeth Okasha, Archaeological Journal, 172:2, 474-475,

[iii] https://www.cornwall.gov.uk/media/11539861/Case-for-Cornwall-March15-web.pdf

See also the campaign for a Cornish Assembly: http://www.cornishassembly.org/

Ann Preston-Jones is an Independent Scholar. She is co-author, with Elisabeth Okasha, of Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture, XI, Early Cornish Sculpture