Kathleen Basford, 1916-1998 – folklorist

Kathleen Basford, 1916-1998 – folklorist – Obituary

Carmen Blacker

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. (Let it also be remembered that all this research was accomplished without any of the grants and aids which today are so often considered a rightful essential.)

Nor did she confine her researches to England. In France and Germany, too, she found dramatic examples, and further afield in Turkey many more dating from the days of the Roman Empire.

For the last few years of her life, Kathleen was an invalid, scarcely able to rise from her bed, let alone pursue her researches in libraries and museums. Often she was in great pain. Yet she remained indomitably full of the primal energy of life, writing long letters in immaculate handwriting, which were always full of gratitude for the joy that folklore had brought her, and for the friendship of people from many countries who were inspired by her book. For those who received them, these letters carried the unmistakable sense of a blessing. This overflowing gratitude, which never failed despite pain and tragedy, frequently exploded into generosity she could ill afford. Friends would find lavish books delivered, which had given Kathleen pleasure she was determined to share.

Her last project for research, which inspired her with extraordinary energy, was concerned with the Shiela-na-gig figures in Ireland. Unable to leave her bed, she would telephone librarians, who unhesitatingly sent her copies of everything she wanted. “It is so good to work,” she wrote five months before her death. “Work generates such excitement that you learn to live with pain and even with luck forget it.”

The Society has lost an old friend, whose rare enthusiasm for folklore will continue to reassure us that there is more in our studies than mere analysis and comparison.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Folklore Society

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group