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The Mysterious Stone Heads At Greenwich

April 16, 2019
by Rosie Dastgir

Novelist Rosie Dastgir ruminates upon the significance of the old stone heads at Greenwich

In the Undercroft of Queen Anne’s Court at Sir Christopher Wren’s Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich lies a collection of stone heads from the early eighteenth century. Depicting Neptune, Galatea, and other denizens of the deep, they were intended for display upon the south elevation of the Painted Hall, but a decision by the architects to use brick instead of stone meant they were abandoned. For three centuries they have languished out of sight and remain hidden, tucked away in the shadow of the newly restored Painted Hall.

Last summer, I descended into the undercroft to visit the stone heads, in the company of artist Camilla Wilson who had been commissioned to paint them for an exhibition at the Old Royal Naval College. I found myself mesmerized and, gazing at their expressively wrought stone faces, wondering what their story might be.  Lapidary worry is etched in their features and they are a little battered: a broken nose here, a chipped veil there, their quiet ruination a reminder of our ultimate return to dust. There is a quality of the old heads that is redolent of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: anguish, bewilderment, a waiting for something that may never come to pass.  They exude mystery yet appear to say something, a communication from a primordial time.

‘Omissions are not accidents’, wrote poet Marianne Moore, and I wanted to rescue the stone heads from the obscurity of their interment. I dug around for anything I could find about the carver who had sculpted them, Robert Jones of Stepney, and discovered little. He worked on Greenwich Hospital for Retired Seamen from the beginning of its construction until his death in 1722. He was paid for carving around fifty heads and was probably also responsible the ornate carvings on the Trinity Green Almshouses in Stepney.  I found a ghostly facsimile of his will in the National Archives at Kew but its few more ragged details shone no light upon the carvers’ forgotten work.

The enigma of the heads exists in the patchy narrative of their origin and abandonment, and I sought a suitable idiom to capture their story. Sifting through a stack of eighteenth century chap books in the British Library, I became smitten by the rough hewn quality of these vibrant yarns and gossipy playlets embellished with simple woodcut prints. Cheaply made booklets that were sold on the street, they were published widely in England in the seventeenth and eighteen centuries. At the peak of their popularity, they sold in thousands, passed from hand to hand, and featured a trove of subjects from fairytales and folklore, to politics, crime and magic tricks. They offered a vital medium for the dissemination of popular culture and entertainment, a digest of unreliable history for the common people of England. Like social media, they were textual exchanges occupying the fragile space between truth and fiction, cheaply made and easily disseminated.

My version of an eighteenth century chap book, The Heads’ Lament, conjures an imaginary WhatsApp conversation among the old stone heads at a moment when our nation teeters on the cusp of instability. We have been here many times before – of course – yet it is worth noting the historical parallel with our own times in the early seventeen-hundreds, around the time the heads were carved. Sir James Thornhill had been commissioned to paint the Great Hall at the Royal Naval College to commemorate the tumultuous political moment when the United Kingdom was taking shape. Denizens of the deep, the old carved heads bear witness to the gyre of history, keeping watch over our islands’ waters and the people who cross them. Sidelined for centuries, they yearn to be seen.

Drawings © Rachel & Yasmin Gapper

Photos of the heads © Camilla Wilson

Chapbook photography © Sarah Ainslie

ABOUT THE HEADS, an exhibition at the Heritage Gallery, Queen Anne Court, Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich runs from Thursday, 18th April to 24th May with a private view this Wednesday, 17th April, 6-8 pm

Rosie’s chapbook will be on sale at the exhibition

You may also like to take a look

At The Painted Hall

At the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich

6 Responses leave one →
  1. Jill Wilson permalink
    April 16, 2019

    Great carvings and even better that the heads are going to have their long awaited moment in the limelight.

  2. John Barrett permalink
    April 16, 2019

    Lets put the best of the heads on show permanent – after all they are part of our heritage, inside of course. Make them a feature of Greenwich. Sorry that’s my take. Poet John Poetry Soc & Bus Pass Poets Bristol.

  3. John Barrett permalink
    April 16, 2019

    More from Poet John Bristol – send some of the heads to Art collages on loan for student activities.

  4. April 16, 2019

    The person who may know a bit more about this is professor Fred Lindop who was a lecturer in history at the Royal Naval College in Greenwich . I used to know him years ago . He retired in 2003 so I don’t know if he is still around though.

  5. April 16, 2019

    These graven images join with the smoldering gargoyles of Paris. Art will continue to lift
    and inspire the world. “May the beauty we love be what we do.” – Rumi

    Onward and upward.

  6. Barbara Hague permalink
    April 16, 2019

    They should be somewhere to be seen. So expressive.

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