24 July 2016

Llandaff Cathedral: ‘Off with their heads’

Back in May I blogged about the history of LlandaffCathedral but today I want to expand on that blog a little to show you one of its oddities, a row of sculpted heads of the kings and queens of England and Wales that sit like gargoyles along the side of the cathedral.

They are meant to depict all the British monarchs since William the Conqueror, though I don’t seem to have enough images for that (perhaps I missed a few when I was taking the photographs). Many of the heads are easy to identify (the forceful jaw and square face of Henry VIII; Elizabeth I with her trademark ruff; Edward VIII without a crown), but I’m having trouble working out some of them, not least because a couple have been badly affected by weather erosion over the years.

The idea for their design came from John Prichard, who, along with J. P. Seddon, supervised the restoration of Llandaff Cathedral in the 19th century, but the sculptures themselves are the work of various members of the Clarke family, ecclesiastical sculptors in Llandaff for five generations. 

The first of the Clarkes was Edward (1821-78), who set up the masonry business and was actively sculpting from 1835 to 1878. His son William (1853-1923, and active as a mason and sculptor from 1871 to 1915), came next, and was in turn followed by his two sons, Wyndham Jenkins Clarke (c.1881-1943) and Thomas Guy Clarke (1882-1942). The fourth generation to run the business was another William Clarke and the fifth, and current owner, is William Michael Clarke, a civil engineer.

Image from ebay
E. W. Williamson, author of the 1921 book The Story of Llandaff Cathedral, attributes the sculptures to Edward Clarke’s son William, though at least one head – that of Edward VIII – was completed by another member of the family, as this 1937 press photo shows. The caption reads ‘Wynham [stet] J. Clarke, whose father and grandfather executed the other busts of the kings and queens of Great Britain on the exterior of Llandaff Cathedral, puts the finishing touches on that of Edward VIII, the present Duke of Windsor.’

I’m not sure who sculpted the head of Queen Elizabeth II – perhaps it was the second William Clarke. Like her great-great-grandmother Victoria, she does not look amused. I wonder, too, what will happen when they run out of space for the heads of future sovereigns – but that’s a problem for future generations to solve.