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Standing stones in Salisbury

by
16 May 2014

Katy Hounsell Robert sees John Maine's work in the Close

Shapes to ponder: Cleft piece by John Maine RA, in his exhibition at Salisbury Cathedral

Shapes to ponder: Cleft piece by John Maine RA, in his exhibition at Salisbury Cathedral

IN THE chilly, misty early morning, the green close of Salisbury Cathedral resembles an eerie space strewn with huge primeval stones, as though giants had lifted them here from Stonehenge near by.

Together with the medieval stone edifice of the cathedral, they inspire a feeling of awe. In the sunny afternoon, crowds are sitting on the stones, using them as tables for their picnics, and children are jumping on them and hiding inside them, and there is now an atmosphere of peaceful enjoyment, because people can touch, embrace, and relate to them.

They are also a gift for the partially sighted; for, although the art connoisseurs of the Renaissance decreed that sight was the most important sense in appreciating art, Helen Keller observed: "I sometimes wonder if the hand is not more sensitive to the beauties of sculpture than the eye. I should think that the wonderful rhythmic flow of lines and curves could be more subtly felt than seen."

These stones, weighing between two to three tons each, are carved from rock more than 150 million years old, and are part of an exhibition by John Maine, "Sanctuary", in the sense of giving spiritual comfort, healing, and security. With the four pieces actually called Sanctuary is Enclave, made of rough quarry blocks of Portland stone, while the flat stone rather like a bird-bath is Ukrainian granite. Some pieces are polished and some left rough, and have an inner core and outer enclosure that you can enter and sit inside.

Maine has positioned them at certain specific geometric points, so that, while being in the presence of one, you can also see another at a harmonious distance. "They punctuate the space," he says. Aware that the 123-metre-high cathedral would dwarf any attempt to compete in height, he uses stone horizontally rather than vertically, and well below the tree line.

Adjoining the pieces called Sanctuary is After Cosmati, made for a previous exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2011. This was inspired when Maine acted as an adviser to Westminster Abbey on the restoration of the 13th-century Cosmati pavement before the high altar where the sovereigns kneel at their coronation. It is a complicated geometric design of intertwining circles, triangles, and squares, made of glass and semi-precious stones set in Purbeck marble. and representing the correspondence between the macro- and microcosm.

Maine, a tall, jovial, and kindly man with white hair, who obviously enjoys discussing his work and giving information, has spent a lifetime working on monumental environmental stone sculptures installed all over the world. His famous pieces in London are the Arena next to the National Theatre (also an inner space and outer enclosure), and Sea Strata at Green Park Underground station, in Piccadilly.

He travelled extensively in his early days, and was very influenced by the carving in Mexico. Later, when working in Italy, Australia, and especially India and Japan, he found that his approach to carving changed. Rather than use the Western method of implanting his own concept of a shape on the piece, he allows the natural shape and features of the stone to come through, and sometimes polishes it or leaves it rough. "A split in the surface reveals so much," he says. One of the pieces of South African sandstone clearly shows its fossils and prehistoric existences.

In the cloisters, there are slightly smaller pieces, and just at their entrance stands Two Part Invention. "This", Maine explains, "is usually a musical term, often favoured by Bach." These two separate pieces of American granite, carved next to one another with the same flowing vertical lines, are placed one on top of the other. The top is highly polished to enhance the grain. Maine finds it very calming.

In the west cloister is Definition in Five Parts, a procession of five multi-faceted pink, muted-green, cream, and grey polished granite stones. They glint in the morning light and blend beautifully with the vaulted roof, while the south cloister houses a line of Three Carved Rings also in granite. Only a small child could seek "sanctuary" inside one of these, but Maine hopes that people will fill them mentally. Although they are pleasing to the eye, they are not figurative, narrative, or even functional, but pure geometry, and the aesthetic pleasure is much stronger when using all senses.

In the cloister garth stands Strata, an impressive white pillar, 2.5 metres high, made up of 25 disks of Indian granite. In the morning chapel, there are three pavement slabs hanging on the wall of various interlinking, swirling patterns, also inspired by the Cosmati work, and similar to Islamic designs in Spain under the Arabs: the Shrine Pavement of travertine marble, Foundation Stone of African granite, and Fragments of Indian granite. In the north choir aisle is another patterned slab of Scandinavian granite, Tree.

The exhibition continues in Sarum College, where one carved stone ring is placed on a table near the window in the hall, in a domestic setting as opposed to ecclesiastical, giving a completely different feeling. Here one can also see Maine's drawings, and photographs of the exhibition. On the way there, one passes the Correnie Cone of Scottish pink granite. It looks delicate, but weighs about three tons. You can give it a hug. . . 

"Sanctuary" by John Maine RA is at Salisbury Cathedral until 23 July.

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