The Rattleskull Genius and the Storeyed Urn

The church of Llanilltud Fawr in the Vale of Glamorgan (Llantwit Major to the English – St Twit, who he? Is that where Roald Dahl got the idea?) has an outstanding collection of what we now call Early Medieval Inscribed Stones – ‘Celtic’ crosses, carved pillars and inscriptions commemorating the great and the good of early medieval Glamorgan. As if that wasn’t enough, there are medieval tombs, a number of post-Reformation cross slabs, wall paintings, a Jesse tree and a stunning late medieval reredos with niches for all the saints you can think of.

Given this wealth of artistic heritage, it seems strange to get excited about this rather ordinary marble wall monument.

jones_compressed

It commemorates Anthony Jones, who died on 29 September 1755 aged 24 and was buried ‘in the belfry under the third bell’. But the monument also mentions his sons Anthony Jones, clerk, and Daniel Jones, esq., and Daniel’s wife Louisa, all of whom are buried with Anthony and Daniel’s mother Mary in the nearby village of Llandow.

These details suggest a date of about 1800 for the actual monument. But why is it so interesting? True, Gunnis’s Dictionary of British Sculptors describes it as ‘exactly like the contemporary work of T. King of Bath’, and King was one of the best of the provincial marble-masons. But the exciting thing about this wall monument is at the bottom, the name of the mason.

ewilliamssig_compressed

E. Williams, Cowbridge, was also known as Iolo Morganwg, antiquarian, forger, inventor of the Welsh Gorsedd of Bards and the whole Eisteddfod ceremonial, and self-styled ‘rattleskull genius’. His activities as historian, poet and inventor of much of Welsh tradition and culture have been covered by the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies in their ‘Iolo Morganwg and the Romantic Tradition in Wales’ project – http://www.iolomorganwg.wales.ac.uk/ . But for most of his working life he was also Williams the stonecutter. It was his work as a stonemason that supported his research and his writing (though they didn’t support it very well – he was always in debt and even spent time in prison).

Because of Iolo’s fame as a poet and cultural figure, the account books and papers of his stonemason’s business have been kept and are now in the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth. In his chapter ‘Iolo Morganwg: Stonecutter, Builder and Antiquary’ in Geraint Jenkins’s A Rattleskull Genius: the many faces of Iolo Margannwg, Richard Suggett uses these papers to give us an insight into the life and work of an ordinary jobbing mason. He and his brothers were trained by their father, a master mason whose business included limewashing and plastering as well as new building, repairs and making and inscribing tombstones. The Wathen monument on the outside of Llanilltud church is probably one of his

wathen_compressed

and there is another wall monument inside the church at Gileston which may be by him (http://www.iolomorganwg.wales.ac.uk/bro-silstwn.php ).

Iolo worked in London and the West Country, gaining experience and developing his intellectual interests, then returned to Glamorgan where he tried to set up as a high-quality marble mason. His business advertisements claimed that he could produce ‘all sorts of chimney-pieces, monuments, tombs, headstones  …’ in marble and freestone, ‘in the newest and neatest manner’, as well as cleaning and polishing old marble tables and cutting inscriptions on old monuments. As well as the Llanilltud wall monument, there is a ledgerstone by him at St Mary Church (http://www.iolomorganwg.wales.ac.uk/bro-llanfair.php ) and possibly a chest tomb in the churchyard at Gileston (http://www.iolomorganwg.wales.ac.uk/bro-silstwn.php ). His prices were moderate: words cost 2d per letter, edge mouldings were 1s. a foot and some sculptured ornaments cost a guinea. But the business did not prosper and in 1786 he was imprisoned as an insolvent debtor. The inventory of the tools in his workshop – grits, polishers, marble carving tools, freestone firmers, saws, compasses and rules – came to just under £2. This included 3s. 6d. for his copy of Darley’s Book of Ornaments for Carvers (a book which I can’t now trace – not online, not in the British Library catalogue).

Iolo was critical of the vernacular poetry on many of the tombs he produced: ‘on how many grave-stones I have inscribed vile doggerel’, he said. His interest in landscape and the natural world led him to explore the potential of the workable stones in Glamorgan and elsewhere in Wales. When it became difficult to import marble from elsewhere in Europe during the Napoleonic wars, he suggested using the limestones of the Glamorgan coast. He was particularly taken with the Bull Cliff liassic stones. We found some tomb carvings using those at Cadoxton and Merthyr Dyfan and we need to do more work on them – that will need another blog post after our field visit at the end of the month.

 

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