Oxford’s Gargoyles and Goblins
"Unlike Tolkien’s characters, David’s goblins aren’t sinister. They’re mischievous not murderous"
Look up at the skyline as you stroll through Oxford and your eyes will meet those of stone carvings gurning and grimacing back at you, adding humour and character to a city known for academic study. Some of these frivolous faces and fantastical creatures have overlooked the streets for many years, but a surprising number are from the 21st century.
Artweeks artist Piotr Gargas carves gargoyles and grotesques, tucked away in his workshop at Witney’s Crawley Mill. In architecture, a gargoyle is created with a spout to carry rainwater away from a building’s masonry, whilst a grotesque is a mythical figure for decorative purposes – but the term gargoyle is popularly used for both beasts with spouts and otherwise.
Having studied architectural masonry in Poland, Piotr has carved gargoyles for buildings all over Europe, but on moving to Oxford ten years ago fell in love with the city instantly.
“I came for two years originally,” he says, “to be one of a team of six restoring the masonry along the top of Exeter College Chapel, and discovered that Oxford is a dream city for someone in my profession. The architecture is incredibly beautiful and it’s wonderful to think that the gargoyles and grotesques that I am carving, creatures from my imagination, will outlive everyone on the planet. It’s amazing to have the chance to leave a little bit of legacy like that in such a place.”
When restoring a piece, Piotr enjoys the creative freedom he has due to there being no record of its former. “We knew from what was left that one of the grotesques on Exeter College’s Chapel had started life as a curled winged beast, but I carved a jaguar with wings. I love the variety of grotesques.” Peering from the top of the chapel now, you can spot beaks and beards, devil horns and webbed claws, cloven feet and sharp canines that could have come straight out of a magical bestiary. “My daughters are very proud that their dad makes the monsters from their favourite stories. He carves straight into the stone. “People ask what happens if I make a mistake, but when there’s no exact plan for a beast, you can usually work it into the final look,” he grins. “Of course, that only works for imaginary beasts. I carve animals – like the elephant over the new gate at Harris Manchester College – flowers and people too.
“When my family come to visit,” he says, “I give them a guided tour of Oxford including the creatures I’ve carved – I’m so proud to be making a contribution to these wonderful buildings. It is terrific to see people taking pictures of buildings, like the spires on the roof of the Bodleian Divinity School, and knowing beasts I have carved are in those photos. “Stone carving is normally anonymous, so it’s a big step for me to take part in next month’s Artweeks. I’m very excited but nervous too. I’m having a small show in the West Ox Arts Gallery in Bampton alongside a dozen other artists. There’ll be a stonemason goblin a metre tall (sitting with a chisel in one hand and a mallet in the other), mantelpiece-replicas of a four-foot griffin gargoyle I made for Keble College, cold cast bronze plaques of favourite Oxford views, and more. I’ve increasingly started sculpting digitally as well as traditionally, and am experimenting with 3D printing too.”
For a whole population of goblins cast in bronze, from 12-20 May you can visit sculptor David Goode in Iffley village. He is opening his garden and gallery space in a hidden spot within the ring road with surprising views of open fields. Here characterful goblins in all manner of fun poses roam the lawn. At school David was always the child who was good at art, so it seemed inevitable he would go to art school. However it was the 3D that captured his imagination. When the Sir Henry Doulton School of Sculpture opened in an old redbrick factory in Stoke-on-Trent close to where he grew up, he was one of the first students.
“Then at the end of the course, I saw an advert for sculptors for Madame Tussauds,” explains David, “and after a three-day test, competing against five others, I was offered the job. I was over the moon. For the next six years, I sculpted many famous people, including Freddie Mercury, Joan Collins, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Ronald Reagan, Yasser Arafat, George Michael and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sometimes this involved travelling to meet the star for a sitting; my very first trip was to LA to meet Michael Jackson. However, the best thing to come from my time there was meeting my wife, Jo, who worked there as a hair inserter, colourist and eye maker.
“I then set up my own sculpture studio doing commissions and working on my own ideas when time allowed. I had a good idea of the kind of figures that I wanted to sculpt: I’d had a fascination for fantasy and folklore since my dad read Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings to me as a child. In my teens I was a keen Dungeons & Dragons player, and loved illustrations featuring elves, goblins and pixies. I created my first sculpture to my own design in 1995 – a mischievous goblin spreading snails.”
At that time David’s sister-in-law was designing a small garden for the Chelsea Flower Show and borrowed the sculpture as an extra feature amongst the foliage. ‘Snailmaker’ proved rather a star and was feted on TV as one of Alan Titchmarsh’s favourite things at the whole event. It was a pivotal moment for David who shortly afterwards started receiving phone calls from people interested in buying a ‘Snailmaker’ for their own garden.
David has now created over 50 characters, from tiny goblins to mermaids 12 feet tall. Each started life as a metal frame or armature, around which clay was added. “It takes several months to sculpt a character in all its detail,” he says. “I often remove the head, hands and feet to work on them separately. When the sculpting is finished, I cut the figure into parts and make moulds. Wax is poured into the moulds and the wax parts are covered in a ceramic material. When this is fired, the wax melts out, leaving a void for bronze to be poured in. The bronze pieces are then welded together to recreate the figure.”
Unlike Tolkien’s characters, David’s goblins aren’t sinister. They’re mischievous not murderous; although they do have a bit of a vendetta with inanimate garden gnomes – one of David’s least good-tempered goblins is a ‘gnome hunter’ who roams the garden with the heads of garden gnomes hanging from his belt. And as David is an avid skydiver and paramotor enthusiast, it’s no surprise that his favourite is the flying goblin, in an elastic band-powered aeroplane. He’s flying low to knock a garden gnome over with a mallet.
You can see Piotr Gargas’ gargoyles in Bampton (venue 64), and David Goode’s goblins in Oxford (venue 297), as part of Oxfordshire Artweeks.
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