Monday, May 20, 2019

Replication of Civil War graffiti at Pontefract Castle

The Key to the North Project is a £3.5 million project at Pontefract Castle which includes conservation work to the monument, a new visitor centre, café, gift shop and museum, and site developments that open up parts of the castle not seen by the public since 1649.  As part of the project new information panels have been added to the site.  One of which features a replicated piece of graffiti left by Civil War Soldiers as they were held prisoner.  This is a guest blog, by Peter Maris, a sculptor who created the piece of graffiti

Guest blog by Peter Maris

The dungeon wall at Pontefract Castle is really quite alive with names carved by prisoners incarcerated during the English Civil War. Access to the dungeon is very limited for safety and security reasons and so only a few visitors on guided tours are able to see the amazing collection of graffiti for themselves. However, so that more people could be informed about the prisoners, I was invited by the Wakefield Council Museums Service to recreate a section of graffiti that could be placed in a new display for visitors to see at the Castle.

My task, as I understood it, was partly to replicate how Captain Robert Brier carved his name in 1648 and also to replicate how it appears today.

The names carved into the wall are quite well preserved and form important historical evidence identifying particular people actually within the very small gloomy space that they were kept in. I was able to visit the space myself to take a number of good photographs for reference and also to realise  and absorb the very limiting and poor conditions the prisoners would have lived in.

It is very dark in the dungeon and it would not have been particularly comfortable especially as it’s a relatively small space which possibly held 20+ prisoners at any one time. The quality of the carvings are, therefore, all the more remarkable too given the lack of appropriate cutting tools and the lack of sufficient daylight in such a basic and over-crowded space.
The crowded graffiti wall
Certainly, the carving that Robert Brier made shows considerable evidence of a determined and skilled effort to make a really proficient job of the lettercutting. The original carving is partly eroded but it is still possible to see how the letters were constructed. Close scrutiny reveals that the letters were far from just scratched purposefully into the wall. In fact, one can see that the letters were cut to make a ‘v’ shaped groove as is the case with traditional lettercutting methods. Additionally, one may assume that the ‘tool’ used to cut and scrape the graffiti was probably also used in a rotary motion to make small rounded shapes to help form and give character to particular letters, especially the ‘i’’s, numeral 1 and with the vertical, stand-alone line forming part of the capital ‘R’.

Despite the discomfort that Robert would have felt, one can see the desire to produce some quite elegant letters as there are attempts to make some consistently smooth shaped curves to help form his name. It is also quite impressive to see that many of the prisoners tried very hard to carve letters complete with serifs as they would have known them from handwriting and printed letter styles of the time.

The dungeon wall though, is very congested with graffiti and so space to add another name was very limited. However, in an attempt to mark himself out from the others, Robert has also added a loosely drawn and achieved border line to give his name and rank some individual prominence within a kind of frame.

Prisoners in the dungeon would obviously not have had access to anything other than the few belongings that they had about them and so would have had to improvise tools and methods. For me, as a professional sculptor and letter-cutter, this made for quite an interesting exercise and project as I had to basically ‘unthink’ the way that I would normally go about carving letters and put myself into that same ‘improvisation mode’

Rough dressing to change the stone surface.

I was initially supplied with a piece of stone though which I needed to ‘dress’ very roughly with a mallet and chisel in order to transform the machine-sawn appearance but also to crudely emulate the uneven wall surface in the dungeon. However, for the actual lettercutting, traditional hammers and chisels needed to be put aside.

Tracing over a photo of the original.
Once the stone surface was prepared, I started to make a stencil of the lettering arrangement re-sized and traced from my photographs. This was then laid onto the stone so that I could draw out the design.

I then set about selecting a variety of ‘found’ implements that I thought could be useful for cutting, scraping, scratching etc. These comprised a few bolts, screws, nails, washers, a small brass tube, a couple of metal brackets and a modelling knife.

A selection of potential tools.
I tried them all out initially but quickly settled upon using a 4 inch nail which proved to be the most effective. It was probably the closest object and shape comparable to that part of a belt buckle which, I had been informed, the Civil War prisoners may have used as a scribing and cutting tool.

The nail was very good for scraping and pushing the stone material away to make the basic letter shapes especially when used with water – the prisoners would have used saliva. The stone though, is sandstone which is an abrasive material and wears the metal away quite quickly. However, because of this facility, it can also be used to sharpen up the metal as well and prisoners would have been well aware of that as a common method to sharpen knives, swords etc. Consequently, I was able to sharpen the end of the nail to form a small blade which made cutting far more effective and, with the addition of a small block of wood to hit it with, became more like a chisel rather than a scraper. The prisoners could quite possibly have used something similar too or perhaps used the heel of a boot as a hammer or a small rock from the wall or floor.

Work in progress.

This photograph shows the carving in progress with the stencil still attached, the drawn and part-cut graffiti with the nail and wooden wedge block

The completed replication.
As can be seen in this image of the completed carving, the nail was also perfect as the rotary tool to make the aforementioned rounded shapes, most noticeable on the letter ‘i’ and then, as a sharpened blade, to give a crisp, distinct line at the bottom of each ‘v’-cut line forming the letters.

As a project, this was also quite an interesting exercise reminding me just how much can be achieved quite simply through improvisation and determination when the ‘right’ tools aren’t available.

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way”

Peter Maris
April 2019

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