In this editorial for The Daily Telegraph, published on 23 March 2016, Suzannah Lipscomb suggests that a ‘compass’ for Arthur’s roundtable is not the way to go.
I do feel for local craftsman Peter Graham. He spent three months carving the “face of Merlin” into the rock, where the sea meets the land at Tintagel, and the furore it has created probably makes the wind and waves that beset him seem warm and welcoming.
English Heritage wanted to give the huge crowds that visit Tintagel in search of the legend of King Arthur something to find. The carving is to evoke the story that Merlin helped Uther Pendragon, king of Britain, shape-shift into the Duke of Cornwall, and impregnate the duchess, Ygraine, who gave birth to Arthur, future king of Britain. The myth of Arthur only adds romance and mystery to the wild beauty of the landscape, and the punters lap it up.
Cornish historians have reacted with charges of “vandalism!” and there is, no doubt, in this as much a reaction to the Englishness of English Heritage as there is to the desecration of heritage. None the less, as a curator at Hampton Court, I saw Historic Royal Palaces introduce many controversial interventions in the palaces they look after. These included a wine fountain at Hampton Court based on a 1540s painting and sited where archaeology has shown that there was a sort of conduit, though there is little evidence it flowed with wine.
Maybe I should be all for the family-friendly, crowd-pleasing installation at Tintagel. But what has happened there reminds me less of the wine fountain and more of the refurbishment of the Great Hall at Hampton Court carried by Edward Jesse in the 1840s when the palace was first opened to the public. He wanted the place to look medieval and chivalric, so he put in a highly coloured string-course of Tudor roses and portcullises, suits of armour, stags’ heads, banners and stained-glass schemes. Most of this was fanciful, designed to capture the imagination of the public. But while banners and armours could and have been removed, the stained glass, the stags’ heads and the string-course have become historical in themselves. Now they’re here to stay, and lovely as they are, they’re a problematic 1840s exercise in imagination inscribed on a 16th-century Great Hall.
What’s happening at Tintagel makes Jesse look like a paragon of historical virtue. The Merlin face is just the start. Future plans include a 12ft phallic standing-stone carved with King Arthur’s imaginary face and bolted to the castle, a sword in a stone, and a “compass” said to represent Arthur’s round table.
Clearly, the story of Tintagel has to tell the Arthurian myth. That itself is an important part of our national history – King Arthur was evoked to break from the Roman Catholic Church and to justify the “British Impire” in North America. But Arthur should only be one strand of the interpretation. There are important historical and archaeological stories at Tintagel: it was the home of the dark-age Kings of Dummonia in 400-700 AD and the ruins that remain were built in the high medieval period by Richard, Earl of Cornwall.
Above all, surely,surely, these installations should not be permitted to be permanent – carved into the actual rock. To do so not only tames the very wildness and romance that English Heritage are trying to capture, but these ill-considered interventions become historical in themselves – and then we’re stuck with them.