Grotesque Walk

Photo – Mary Courtney

On an evening in early July, twenty or so of us went for a walk on the dark side of welcome! Seeking out the gargoyles, grotesques, green-men, lizard-women, tongue-pokers, face-pullers, demons, dragons, skulls, wounded statues and fantastical and monstrous beasts… half-hidden in Coventry city centre.

Local artist and grotesque hunter Mary Courtney, led us on this walk with a difference, with historian and trail-mapper Dr Daniel Reed, and Warwick University academic of Applied Imagination, Naomi de la Tour.

Mary said, “Grotesques often escape our notice. To spot them, you need to look in a different way. Look up, look behind, look closely, look under, or peer through the gloom. They seem to play hide and seek with us, which makes it so much fun to find them”.

Our tour started at the ancient St. John’s Church, courtesy of Father Dexter Bracey and Mike Polanyk. We found grotesques both inside and outside the church. The door at the back revealed a startling collection of carved faces, including green men with their foliage features, grotesques, faces that were part-man-part-beast, tongue-pokers, face-pullers and even men in clerical garb.

On seeing the church door, CovSoc member John Greatrex, who describes himself as a “would-be poet and playwright”, recited from memory a poem that he had written about green men.

We spoke of the mysteries of green men, how their meaning eludes us, and why they are so often found in medieval churches. They are said to be connected to rebirth and regeneration, fertility, or even to death and decay, creativity, our pagan past and the frightening off of evil spirits. Some say they are the luggage of our unconscious, our unfettered feelings, or that they are “a thing of sorrow”. Many of them do look sinister. John Piper, of the beautiful stained glass Coventry Cathedral fame, was fascinated with them, and made many green-men himself. (The conversation did veer away from the Church at one point, into naming where we could find pubs called “The Green Man”. One is in Dunchurch, another in Kenilworth by the way. It could be a whole new line of research!)

Back inside the church we found grotesques high up in the crevices and corners. It’s amazing what you see when you look up!

Photo – John Payne

Many of us also did something we wouldn’t do normally: a one-line drawing. Naomi said, “Drawing is another way of looking: a way of paying close attention”.  Here are some of our one-line one-minute grotesques.

One line drawings of some of the St. John’s Grotesques. (Photo Mary Courtney)

One fascinating fact was that virtually all of the figures are male, although the entrance to St. Mary’s Guildhall has one of the few green women in the country. On our tour however, we discovered a brand new green woman in Pepper Lane, created recently by Coventry artist Matt Chu.

Photo – John Payne

The tour also took in Spon Street and parts of the Precinct, including the Cullen mural. Do the dinosaurs and the benign looking dragon count as grotesque? Views differed. We stopped by the Dun Cow, again looking up, to spot its lolling tongue and rolling eyes. Verdict. Definitely grotesque!

Close up of the Dun Cow by Alma Ramsey in Shelton Square (photo Danny Reed)

Peering through the dim, some of us spotted the two grotesques at Ford’s Hospital. They do look creepy.

Grotesque at Ford’s Hospital (photo John Payne)

We passed the place on Cuckoo Lane that marked the spot where Mary Ball was hanged. She was the last person to be hanged in Coventry. Her death mask is in the Police Museum in Hertford Street. 

Then onto the bounty of grotesques high up on the outside of the old cathedral. So many marvels here. Mary Courtney says, “The lizard-woman scratching her head, bat-boy and the winged, smiling skull with missing teeth and paw-bones, are my favourites!”

We finished the tour by the big devil himself, the creation by Jacob Epstein on the New Cathedral, said to be modelled on his own face. But this is only the beginning. There is so much more to see. Plenty of grotesques in St Mary’s Guildhall when it opens again, and in Holy Trinity Church and outside Old Bluecoat School and so much more in other parts of the city that are just waiting for you to find them.

Geraldine said, “It’s incredible how many times I’ve walked past the cathedral and not noticed all the grotesques”.

The walk taught us the great value of looking up!

The tour is part of a wider creative project that the Coventry Society is undertaking in partnership with Mary Courtney and the University of Warwick. It will lead to the creation of an artistic map of the grotesques in the city centre and an online trail around the city.

Want more?

You can see some photos of our tour on the Coventry Society flickr site at https://www.flickr.com/photos/coventrysociety/sets/72157719501772954

Mary and Danny’s Instagram gallery of over 220 Coventry Grotesques can be found here – https://www.instagram.com/coventrygrotesque/

Green Man background information (Thanks to Philip Tutchings for the link): http://greenmanenigma.com

A short video from the BBC about the green man can be viewed at: https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20190104-the-surprising-roots-of-the-mysterious-green-man

Historic UK blog about the green man https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/The-Green-Man/

To get involved with the Grotesque Project (High resolution photographs, finding grotesques) contact marycourtneyart@gmail.com

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