We know so very little about him.
And yet through the ages we have carefully garnered the detaied lives of our great artists: we know about Van Gogh’s turmoil, about the death of Barbara Hepworth’s son in a plane crash, about Da Vinci’s unquenchable curiosity.
Time is dispassionate. And scrabble as we may, it washes away patches from the lives of men so that there are some we may never learn about.
Yesterday afternoon I went to a favourite haunt, one I know intimately; but one which will always afford another surprise. Winchester Cathedral is an Aladdin’s Cave for a historian. It is studded with detail, picture and story. It is a veritable box of jewels. And I was pottering round, explaining this and that to my daughter, and we found ourselves standing in the choir stalls.
I have sung evensong in these stalls. I have wandered past them myriad times. But I have never looked with yesterday’s eyes. And for the first time I looked carefully at the time-black wood carving of the choir stalls.
And there he stood. The Falconer; a wooden frieze set in between two ornamental arches of the stalls.
He might have been standing next to me, he was so real and present, though these carvings date back to the fourteenth century. He has a clear and present-ness, an immediacy. He stands there as the Mona Lisa hangs at the Louvre, with greatness about him. The man who carved the falconer was a very great artist. Even now, his figure’s sense of unity with his bird, with nature, his accord with the time which has been allotted with him – it is there in the set of his hat, the folds of his clothes, the lines of his face, the crook of his arm.
The Falconer is a masterpiece.
It is more startling because this man does not stand holding his falcon in the 1600s but in the 1300s. His dress is that of our English fairytales, and belongs to a time about which, frankly, we fantasise and navel-gaze. To find one so real when we are used to poring over mediaeval manuscripts for minute details – well, it is almost unsettling.
But his artist? Of him, we know so little, and that we do know comes from a letter from the Bishop of Winchester to the Bishop of Norwich.
“Since William of Lingwode, carpenter, your tenant in your manor of Blofield, has already begun a work of his craft in the choir of our Cathedral Church of St. Swithun at Winchester, which, without his continuous presence, could not be finished within the due time, we cordially ask, by your sincere friendship, about which we have special confidence, how long you think it right, in as far as you are able, to have the absence of the said craftsman, your tenant, excused for a good reason…”