Kathleen Basford, 1916-1998

By Blacker, Carmen | Folklore, Annual 1999 | Go to article overview

Kathleen Basford, 1916-1998


Blacker, Carmen, Folklore


Kathleen Basford, who died last December at the age of 82, was the first scholar to produce a full-length book on the subject of that enigmatic foliate head with leaves sprouting from the mouth, nose and eyes, known as the Green Man. The Green Man (1978), reissued last year in paperback, was responsible for a widespread resurgence of interest in this figure, the meaning of which is still not fully understood. Before 1978, only desultory attempts had been made to investigate the subject. Kathleen's book, illustrated with her own superb black and white photographs, showed us that there were many more examples of the Green Man face than hitherto supposed, and that their distribution in time and space was far greater. But even she had to confess herself nonplussed as to the ultimate meaning of the strange face. Was it a demon? Was it a reminder to man of his dependence on the greenwood? Was it a pre-Christian nature spirit? The face, which at first glance seemed benevolent, often turned sinister on a longer look.

Until the 1970s Kathleen pursued a successful career as a botanist and cytologist. Then the accidental sight of one of these faces in Fountains Abbey fired her to look more closely at the problem, and to travel all over England to discover more examples. Her book testifies to the trove she found, not only in large cathedrals, but also in virtually unknown village churches in Northamptonshire, Devon, Lincolnshire and even Much Marcle in Herefordshire. Usually the faces were in high and inaccessible places--roof bosses, misericords, corbels, spandrels--which she was the first to spy among the carved leaves. She has recorded her difficulties--wasps' nests, pelting rain--but also her triumph at discovering a new and as yet unrecorded face. …

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