Iolo the Ovate 1: the bones of the earth

Sandwich Door M

Green is the colour of the Ovate, and under the sign of this colour are placed all the sciences of awen and reason and cogency, as distinct from what belongs to the principal sciences of Bardism, and all the improvement of sciences of whatever kind they may be, so that they are good. That is to say, they are assimilated to the green vegetation of the growth of earth, woods, and fields, which delights the heart and eye of those who behold them.
Barddas: The Triads of Privilege and Usage.

Iolo Morganwg was a stonemason. Most people who know anything about him could tell you that – but I suspect very few of them could tell you what it meant. Indeed, I suspect that, if pressed, people would guess it meant something like a bricklayer – a relatively unskilled manual job, of low social status.

In fact, in those days before power tools, being a stonemason was a highly skilled role, which required its best practitioners to profoundly understand the nature and use of different types of stone. They had to be literate; they needed an artist’s eye, and they had to sustain focus and disciplined attention whilst performing physically demanding work. This was Iolo’s main source of support for himself and his family for most of his life; this alone should dispel the image of Iolo as a drug-hazed dreamer – such a man could never have been a successful stone-cutter.

This experience – and other aspects of Iolo’s knowledge, which we’ll cover in this series – fed into the conception of the Ovate in Iolo’s bardic system. In his writings, he outlined a system in which, within the Gorsedd, the three grades – Bards, Ovate, and Druids – were of equal status. A Druid, however, was required to have become a qualified Bard before embarking on Druidic training. An Ovate, however, could be accepted as a member of the Gorsedd with no Bardic training at all.

Why is that? Over the course of his life, Iolo had experienced life very deeply, and the system he developed reflected that experience. He understood that Bards were the primary agents for maintaining culture and the basic fabric of society. Druids, who dealt with justice, philosophy, and human relations with the Divine needed to be experts in understanding society and custom if they were to be able to adjudicate cases and to intercede with the Gods. However, a primary role of the Gorsedd is to seek Truth, because without knowledge of truth there can be no true liberty. This is the function of the Ovate: to inquire, to research, to increase our knowledge and our understanding of the world around us and the cosmos within which we exist – and to report their findings back to the Gorsedd, where it may be discussed, tested, and disseminated. Thus, a new Ovate may be admitted to the Gorsedd on the basis of their scientific knowledge alone. However, Iolo urged that such an Ovate should commence a study of the Bardic arts, lest a time might arrive when all Bards and Druids were lost, leaving only Ovates to rebuild the Order. (He would have been thinking of an event such as the Roman destruction of Môn).

A stonemason was required to undergo a formal apprenticeship lasting for many years. In Iolo’s case, his  father was himself a skilled craftsman: a mason and stone-cutter, but also a builder of cottages and farm buildings, and an expert tiler, plasterer, and a joiner.  Iolo, as well as his three brothers, all learned their trade from him, beginning at an early age and working on larger projects as a family team. Iolo used to say, in fact, that he learned to read and write by watching his father carve tombstones and other inscriptions, both for churches and for private homes (only inscriptions in the latter case, not tombstones!). Iolo was already carving tombstones himself by the age of nine, and had completed his apprenticeship by the time he was fourteen.

He became a specialist in the art of carving letters, and in creating statues; these were at the higher levels of the stonemason’s art.

Iolo was deeply affected by his mother’s death in 1770, when he was 23. Needing to get away from home, which only reminded him of his loss, he made his way to London. This was the beginning of his first London period, and he made the most of it by studying the work of the foremost masons of the day. London was expanding greatly at the time, and masons were in high demand. This led to the establishment of a number of stonemasons’ workshops – teams of masons working on a mass-production basis in what were essentially early factories – many of which were located near Hyde Park. It is very likely that Iolo worked in one of these for time. This would have given him experience, and an exposure to the best and most demanding standards of work, to a standard he could never have got at home in Wales. It also gave him exposure to the emerging political and religious Dissent of the skilled working men of the metropolis – but that’s for another post.

After London, Iolo became an itinerant mason, seeking work wherever it was to be found. He wandered across most of southern England and south Wales, working in Bristol, Bath, and London, as well as other towns and villages in Dorset, Devon, Somerset, and Kent. In the latter county, he was one of the workmen who built the new neo-classical facades in the town of Sandwich – where he also became the foreman of a team of English workers, which they much resented.  The featured image for this post is of a neo-classical doorway in Sandwich; who knows – perhaps Iolo carved it, and chiselled the letters?

Being an itinerant mason was poorly-paid, insecure, and highly demanding. It was also highly competitive. Iolo’s surviving letters from this period show that he often had difficulties with obtaining payment for his work. He also had to ask his brothers to write letters to him only in Welsh: as stonemasons themselves, they would pass on tips about where work could be found, and Iolo complained that one of his English rivals was intercepting his mail and reading it in order to steal work!

Eventually, a mason would reach a level of skill at which they would want to settle down and open up their own workshop as a master Mason, supervising one or more journeymen. Iolo, having married and returned to Wales, tried several times to do this. In 1779, and again in 1783, he tried to set up workshops near his home, but the venture failed each time. In 1785, he took over the workshop established by his brother, Thomas, in Wells, Somerset. Thomas was emigrating to Jamaica, joining their other brothers, John and Miles, who had left in 1778. Now, of the four brothers, only Iolo was left in Britain.

Unfortunately, this venture also failed. Unable to pay his rent, Iolo returned again to Wales, and in 1786 was imprisoned in the debtor’s prison in Cardiff. He remained there for a year.

Why did Iolo’s efforts fail? It wasn’t for lack of talent. Some of the monuments known to be his work still survive, and are acknowledged by experts to rival the work of any contemporary mason working outside London; some go further, and assert that his work matched even the standards of the capital. He seems to have had a good reputation, as well: some of the best marble-cutters of the time, considered to be amongst the best craftsmen in the whole country, were subscribers to his books of poetry. He was also, as a surveyor, called upon at times to ascertain the appropriate price for other craftsmen’s work, which could not have been done unless all parties involved respected his professional knowledge and judgement.

It would seem simply to be the case that, for all his other talents, Iolo had no skill with accounting and economics – the same problem that would later doom his efforts to become wealthy through his literary talent.

It’s all the more of a shame because, as noted above, Iolo’s skill with stone went far beyond his ability to shape and craft it.

One one hand, in terms of the origin of the stone, Iolo became a very talented geologist. He knew the physical geography and geology of south Wales in exceptional detail, and was able on several occasions to discover deposits of valuable minerals that could be quarried. Unfortunately, they were on other people’s land: members of the gentry who were delighted to learn of these valuable assets – but who all declined to reward Iolo for finding them. Eventually, an irate Iolo was driven to announce that he knew of further locations, but he wasn’t going to tell anyone where they were.

Iolo’s knowledge of stones and their properties also allowed him to identify forms of limestone which could be used as substitutes for marble, when the wars in Europe cut off the supply of the latter. Alas, once again, he didn’t manage to make any money from his innovation.

On the other hand, in terms of the uses of stone, Iolo was also an expert. From childhood, he had helped his father to construct buildings of varying sizes, and he continued to develop this skill. Surviving documents show that he was a skilled draughtsman, able to produce detailed architectural studies. He was familiar with a variety of architectural styles; he had a preference for the Gothic style, but could also draw plans reflecting Roman, Greek, and even Chinese buildings (Westerners had been present in China since the mid-1500s, so there was plenty of material available for Iolo to have studied). He drew up plans for proposed buildings that would provide pleasant homes for working families, and he also  planned civic architecture, including a proposed extension to the Town Hall in Cowbridge, the town nearest his home. Intriguingly, there is also evidence that he was commissioned to design a home for “a gentleman in Canada”, in the vicinity of Quebec – but we don’t know if it was ever built, and there is no evidence that he ever got paid for it. In fact, none of his architectural proposals seem to have ever led to paid work.

Similarly, as an experienced joiner, he seems to have possessed at least some skill in furniture-making. Like many more recent architects, his designs covered not just the buildings, but the furniture that would go within them.

Iolo’s expertise may not have led to its deserved benefit to him, but it informed his work as an antiquarian, and thus provided benefit to the field of learning. Some of the leading antiquarians of the time simply theorised. Iolo performed rigorous excavations – and, as at Dunraven Fort on the coast of the Bristol Channel, he performed expert analysis of the mortar that those ancient builders had mixed to build their defensive walls (he found it to be of excellent quality). He used his skills as an expert surveyor to map and measure Neolithic tombs, Iron Age ruins, Roman forts and roads, and the archaeological and architectural remains of later ages. Experts today regard him as a “reliable pioneer” of scientific archaeology.

In all of this, as in so many things, Iolo missed the window of opportunity simply by being born at the wrong time. A generation earlier, and a mason-builder of his skills and talent might have lived a prosperous and comfortable life. By Iolo’s time, though, the traditional mason-builders were being edged out by a new class of professional architects – educated younger sons of the gentry who were unlikely to inherit anything, and who leapt at the chance to prosper from the building trade sparked by Britain’s imperial ventures in the Americas and the East Indies – and by the vast rivers of money generated by the slave trade.

Still, if we’re going to understand Iolo Morganwg properly, it’s critical to understand that he wasn’t a laudanum-fuelled dreamer. His laudanum use was not recreational: it was an essential treatment for his lifelong asthma, which was much worsened by inhaling fine stone dust in the course of his work. Nor was he only an armchair-based poet and antiquarian. He spent much of his life tramping from town to town, looking for work – and the work that he did was of the highest quality, amongst the best in the country, in a difficult and demanding craft, and was acknowledged as such by the leading craftsmen in the country.

Thus, when Iolo writes in Barddas, of the importance of the Ovate, of those who seek, and possess, knowledge “according to awen, exertion, and circumstance” he was very much speaking from personal experience of what was required to be a master craftsman, and an early form of scientist.

(Of course, there’s more: with Iolo, there’s always more. Iolo wasn’t just a master mason-builder – he excelled in other forms of practical knowledge as well. We’ll come on to that in the next two posts).


My primary source for this material has been the chapter ‘Iolo Morganwg: Stonecutter, Builder, and Antiquary‘ by Richard Suggett in ‘A Rattleskull Genius: The Many Faces of Iolo Morganwg‘ (ed. Geraint H. Jenkins), University of Wales Press, Cardiff (2009).

Image credits:

Sandwich, Kent by Nick on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons licence.

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