An Interesting Dish or Two.

It seems like forever since we were able to visit and walk into museums, art galleries and historic buildings, but fortunately this dry spell of cultural visiting is drawing to a close. Next month, from May 17 onwards, more and more of these special places are reopening as lockdown ends.

Octagonal table with a slightly bizarre glass decoration in the bay window of the dining room. Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk. A manor house with a moat.

I have been so desperate for cultural inspiration I have been trawling through my old photos. And, here is something to whet the appetite and ready us for the return of the visit.

Now, when I visited Oxburgh Hall, some five years ago, I paid little attention to the vast selection of pieces on display as I had specifically gone to see one display, the Oxburgh Hangings (the famous embroideries sewn by Mary Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick). However, once you’ve paid your entrance fee you might as well make the most of a visit and I dutifully snapped the various interiors open to the public at this National Trust property. Amongst the random collection of stuff which I photographed were these ceramics above the grand fireplace in the library. Recently as I scrolled through those old photos the two dishes at either end of the mantelpiece display caught my attention. They did not look like the usual 19th-century Royal Crown Derby or Royal Worcester versions of Japanese ceramics.

Stone fireplace complete with carved wooden overmantel in the library. Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk.

At the time I hadn’t been able to get close enough to photograph them individually as that half of the library was cordoned off. However, on entering the next room, the dining room, I could see there was more china on display including another one of these dishes.

Heavily carved panelling from the 1830s makes this a dark room. Dining Room, Oxburgh Hall.

As is frequently the case with many rooms in heritage buildings, the dining room was barely lit with the lowest of lighting. This was no doubt great for intimate dinner parties in the past and nowadays for protecting the antiques against light damage, but awkward for those of us attempting to photograph the collections. Nevertheless at least in this room I was able to get a lot closer to those mysterious plates and with the widest aperture on my camera, a slow shutter speed and holding my breath I achieved one reasonable image.

Imari or Imari-style dish on display at Oxburgh Hall.

This is a very beautiful and intriguing ceramic dish. This design has a stylised central chrysanthemum and a floral border all painted in the classical Imari colours of blue and orange with highlights of gold. But what is that beneath the chrysanthemum? Is it a tortoise or a turtle, or is it some strange, vegetal design?

I have spent sometime trying to find out more by visiting online ceramic collections and scanning auction site catalogues in an attempt to locate any similar pieces. Naturally, I have checked the Oxburgh Hall National Trust listing and searched the National Trust Collections database, but these dishes have not been considered worthy of record. It might be because they are not genuinely part of the history of the house nor either of significance in a broader national context. However, there is one Japanese Imari bowl listed for Oxburgh Hall, but not of the same design.

Japanese Imari bowl, earthenware, dated 1700-1900. Oxburgh Hall. (Given to the National Trust in 1985 by Violet Hartcup, Lady Sybil Bedingfeld’s niece. Some of the Bedingfeld family still occupy part of Oxburgh Hall.)

From perusing the National Trust’s Collection database more generally, it would appear that no stately home was without a piece or two of Imari. That is not surprising as collecting Japanese ceramics during the 18th and 19th centuries had been popular and Imari ware was made specifically for the European market.

Examples of Japanese Imari dishes. Left possibly 18th century. Right 19th century.

This interest in collecting was a business opportunity and it was not going to be missed by the famous Staffordshire ceramics manufacturers operating in England during the 19th century. Firms such as Royal Crown Derby, Royal Worcester and Spode made the most of Imari ware passion and they amongst others produced Imari-style products. In fact English Imari is still made today with Royal Crown Derby producing an ‘Old Imari’ plate that’s even dishwasher safe.

Examples of 19th-century English Imari-style dishes. Left Chamberlain Worcester. Right Spode.

From comparing the images of the Japanese and the English examples it is almost as if the Oxburgh ‘turtle/tortoise?’ dish is a hybrid. An idea which brings me to consider the possibility of it being Chinese. At the time when the European fashion to collect Imari ware was booming, ceramics imported from the East also came from China. So, perhaps this is a dish made with the techniques and skills of the East, but with a Chinese interpretation of a Japanese original? Or, maybe it’s just part of a set of slightly weirdly decorated Staffordshire ironstone, date unknown, bought by the National Trust as a job lot to dress the hall when the moated, but distressed manor house was donated to the nation.

The more I have looked at these photographs the more I am wondering whether it might not be a turtle or a tortoise at all. Perhaps it’s me seeing something that isn’t there. Anyway I posted the main picture on Instagram to see if anybody had any ideas and a Japanese lady replied. She wrote that there is a saying in Japanese ‘the crane lives 1,000 years, the turtle 10,000’. She continued recounting that from this expression the turtle is considered one of the auspicious patterns and as such is not represented in this form in Japan. She then went on to say it would be hard for a Japanese person to recognise this blue/grey pattern as a turtle.

Perhaps somebody reading this post may recognise these slightly odd dishes and have more information, if so please leave a comment. I am not entirely sure why, but I’m definitely interested to know more.

How times change!

Recently I have been sorting and collating and trying to delete some of my thousands of photographs. It’s what I call a New Year’s task and as usual I have already been completely sidetracked!

This time it was all St Gabriel’s fault or rather should I say the talented Victorian stained glass artist who created this work. I think it could possibly have been painted by somebody who worked for James Powell & Sons. It has an Arts and Crafts feel, and, the overall design of the complete window has a look very similar to the late-19th/early-20th century works by that famous, London-based stained glass makers.

It wasn’t so much the beauty of the window, although I really do love the restrained aesthetic of this style of glass, but I wanted to know who had made it and so the hunt began. I was sidetracked.

Disappointingly, I was not successful, however, I did come across a little thread of discord from 2005 regarding the taking of photographs within National Trust properties. The above stained glass window, that had captured my attention, can be found in the chapel on the Oxburgh Hall estate in Norfolk.

The Chapel of the Immaculate Conception and St Margaret. Architect J C Buckler. 1835

Inside the chapel there are a few artworks worth attention. There is the tomb of the 6th Baronet, Sir Henry Bedingfield, complete with a fine, marble effigy and alabaster tomb chest.

Marble effigy of the 6th Baronet, Sir Henry Bedingfield. 1800-62

There is also a further stained glass window by Thomas Willement, this time featuring heraldic motifs and . .

Heraldic stained glass window by Thomas Willement. 1838

there is an oddly, overblown altarpiece arrangement. This is not the original 1839 altarpiece. In fact the painted and gilded wooden structure we see today is a retable with wings that was purchased sometime in the late-19th century. It is unclear when and who put together the full arrangement with the upper retable, the sacrament tabernacle and the bottom, carved altar table.

As you can see from my photographs, when the wings are opened displaying scenes from the Passion and the life of St James of Compostela, the whole effect is unbalanced and out of proportion within such a small chapel. Flemish altarpieces from the sixteenth century are often seen these days in museums and art galleries, but originally they would have been erected in cathedrals or larger churches set beneath high vaulted ceilings and tall windows. Perhaps the entire Oxburgh construction was purchased during a moment of Victorian religious zeal. Strangely, according to the official guidebook ‘The retable was acquired by the National Trust in 1982 with the aid of grants from the Art Fund, the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Victoria & Albert Museum’ thirty years after Oxburgh Hall had been given to the National Trust. If you are at all interested in the baffling and convoluted arrangements for keeping some art accessible to the public you can read about the retable provenance here.

Now, after that minor digression, I come back to the issue of taking photographs, such as mine of the Oxburgh Retable, in National Trust properties. Back in January 2005, Simon Knott, who has made a fine photographic record of much of East Anglia’s church art, was visiting Oxburgh Hall. And, in 2005 photography was not allowed inside any National Trust properties for ‘security reasons’. However, Mr Knott attempted to photograph inside the chapel and was caught by the room steward. Mr Knott subsequently recounted this episode on his website. He was mildly critical of the NT’s over zealous no photography policy and then latterly received a sharp slap down in reply. Below is a glimpse back to those pre-selfie, pre-Instagram days!

Postcript, June 2005: Teresa Squires, House Steward at the Hall, was alerted by, as she put it, ‘a concerned National Trust volunteer’, and contacted me [Simon Knott] : I am most concerned about your puerile comments regarding the “sneak” photography. The National Trust has a No Photography rule for a number of good reasons, of which one is security. If you had taken the trouble to enquire of the steward, you would have found out that the No Photography rule only applies during public visiting hours, and an arrangement can be made to photograph for bona fide reasons at another time. Your irresponsible attitude is likely to cause others to think they can buck the system with impunity. Remember, the National Trust is a conservation charity, not a subsidised Government organisation. Yes, it is most unlikely that someone will steal this particular altarpiece, but art crime is on the increase everywhere. If you are truly concerned with recording and disseminating knowledge of church history, I would expect you to show a little more respect.

From commentary by Simon Knott

How times have changed! Fortunately, in 2009 the National Trust changed their policy regarding photographs. It is, of course, still no flash photography (so damaging to delicate artworks), but the sensible decision to permit paying visitors to photograph and share their experiences can only help attract more visitors to National Trust properties. Furthermore, sharing pictures of minority interests such as the needlework of Mary, Queen of Scots, can only be a positive addition to our shared culture.

Now it’s time for me to return to my original task and get deleting those underexposed, overexposed and just slightly out of focus photographs.

Stag – from ‘The Cavendish Hanging’ more information at Oxburgh Hangings

The Oxburgh Hangings

Stork-The-Shrewsbury-HangingOf course, the outstanding exhibit at Oxburgh Hall is the needlework hangings embroidered by Mary Queen of Scots, Bess Hardwick (Elizabeth, Countess of Shrewsbury) and their ladies-in-waiting between 1569 and 1584.  These hangings were NOT actually sewn at Oxburgh Hall, but arrived some time in the 18th century along with Mary Browne of Cowdray Park, a wife for the 4th Baronet, Sir Richard Bedingfeld.

Kings-Room-Oxburgh-Hall-1973-shows-hangings
The King’s Room, Oxburgh Hall circa 1973 showing the Marian Hanging above the fireplace and the Shrewsbury and Cavendish Hangings on the four poster bed. The hangings are now in a special room with no daylight and hang in sealed, moisture controlled display cabinets.

These embroidered panels are a visual and cultural expression of Mary’s time spent during her imprisonment by Queen Elizabeth 1. As such these embroideries are of a wider historical interest and significance than any part of the fabric of Oxburgh Hall or any other content of the hall, but, sadly, sewing is not such a crowd puller as a moat!

The-Marian-Hanging-with-Marys-cypher
The Marian Hanging – so-called as many of these panels have either Mary Queen of Scots’ initials or cipher.

Virescit-Vulnere-Vitrus-Marian-Hanging
The centre square of the Marian Hanging shows a hand cutting down the unfruitful branches of the vine, with the motto ‘Virescit Vulnere Virtus’ (Virtue flourisheth by wounding).

Marian Hanging monogram octagon
This octagon above the centre square on the Marian Hanging shows the monogram ‘Marie Stuart’ crowned, with thistles, Mary’s cipher and motto ‘Sa Vertu Matire’ (In my end is my beginning).

In March 1569, three months into Mary’s stay/incarceration with the Earl of Shrewsbury and his wife, Shrewsbury wrote of Mary

‘This Queen continueth daily to resort to my wife’s chamber where with the Lady Lewiston (Livingston) and the Mrs (Mary) Seton she useth to sit working with the needle in which she much delighteth and in devisisng works.’

From this we learn that both Mary and Bess worked together in the design as well as the execution of the embroideries. Many of the designs have motifs and Latin mottos taken from emblem books that were popular across Europe during the middle of the 16th century. It appears inspiration was taken from woodcuts printed in a selection of natural history books including ‘Icones Animalium’ by Conrad Gessner (1560), ‘Devises héroïques’ by Claud Paradin (1557) and ‘La Nature et Diversité des Poissons’ by Pierre Belon (1555).

Designs were drawn onto linen canvas and then embroidered. Coloured silks, silver thread and silver-gilt thread were used, employing both cross-stitch and tent-stitch, to create the finished pieces.

The present arrangement of embroideries at Oxburgh, mounted on green velvet, is believed to have been made sometime in the 18th century to create the three hangings. They are called the Marian Hanging (after Mary, Queen of Scots), the Shrewsbury Hanging (after Bess Hardwick) and the Cavendish Hanging (after Mary Cavendish, Bess’s youngest daughter). Individually, each embroidered panel may originally have been used for cushions and were sometimes given as gifts.

Some of the designs have hidden meanings for the imprisoned Queen, such as the despair of the yellow rose eaten by ‘canker’ (bottom right-hand corner of the Marian hanging but, sadly, it was too dark for me to get a photo in focus without a tripod!). Quite a few different birds are featured. They make interesting shapes to embroider, but, also, of course, a bird can always take to the sky, fly away, escape.

Not all the designs featured birds and animals from the wild. A few panels show domesticated animals and farm activities.

Whilst one or two panels depict mythical beasts in all their intricate glamour such as this cockatrice.

A-Cockatrice-Marian-Hanging
A cockatrice from the Marian Hanging. Such a mythical beast was said to be able to kill with a look!

This is only a small selection of all the beautifully embroidered panels. The hangings are in a small room with restricted lighting, but they do look so much better in real life than in photos. Well worth a visit.

The-Cavendish-Hanging
The Cavendish Hanging

Note – for any Art Historians who stumble across this post. There are currently two books available on the Oxburgh Hangings, ‘Emblems for a Queen: The Needlework of Mary Queen of Scots’ by Michael Bath (2008) and ‘The Needlework of Mary Queen of Scots’ by Margaret Swain (1973). For detailed technical information the V&A Museum is a great resource.

Scissors-owned-by-Mary-Queen-Scots
A pair of scissors once owned by Mary, Queen of Scots displayed in the King’s Room at Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk.

Oxburgh Hall Part 3 – Gatehouse interiors and roof

three-erasIt’s always interesting to go visiting and have the opportunity to climb up a medieval spiral staircase and take in the views from the roof. The original gatehouse of Oxburgh Hall has just such a staircase. Apparently, it used to be possible on a clear day to see across to Ely Cathedral some 20 miles distant before trees obscured the view.

The climb to the roof top begins by taking the North Staircase lined with some amazing and unusual embossed and painted leather wall-coverings.

On the first floor of the gatehouse is the King’s Room. It’s called the King’s Room as some time during the late 15th century King Henry VII slept at Oxburgh Hall, but not actually in this room. Just off this chamber is the King’s Room Closet with a small garderobe (medieval loo).  In the corner of this small space there is a brick-topped trap door concealing the entrance to a tiny priest hole hidden beneath.

Queen of Sheba tapestry.
Tapestry of the Queen of Sheba made at the Mortlake Factory in London. 1623 On loan to Oxburgh Hall hanging in the Queen’s Room – why, to match the 17th century furnishings perhaps.
Now it’s up the spiral staircase to directly above the King’s Room where we find the Queen’s Room . The Queen in question was Henry VII’s wife, Queen Elizabeth of York. The spiral staircase along with the external appearance of the gatehouse is the one part of the Hall that survives from the 15th century without being substantially remodelled and gives us an indication of the superior quality of the original building.

15th-century spiral staircase
The spiral staircase is constructed of brick. It has a handrail that is made from purpose-made moulded bricks set into the wall. This staircase is a clear example of fine 15th-century workmanship and quality materials chosen to make an impression.
When you reach the top the spiral staircase opens onto the roof. More 15th-century details are visible such as the machicolations in the turret walls and a trio of gothic window arches. Machicolations are openings in a wall or floor through which missiles could be thrown down in the event of an attack on the house.

And here are the views looking out into the Norfolk countryside. The photograph on the right is the view to the south-west in the direction of Ely Cathedral. Looking at the near line of trees and the more distant wooded land I think it’s been many decades since anyone glimpsed Ely Cathedral in the distance.

Perusing the National Trust’s guidebook to Oxburgh Hall the recurring theme, we are told, is loyalty. That is, over the centuries, the Bedingfeld family’s loyalty to their Roman Catholic faith and their loyalty to royalty. Obviously, these ‘two loyalties’ have not always been compatible hence the priest hole. I’m not sure what the NT think of their paying visitors, but the tone of their guidebook towards this house and family is bordering on reverential.

heraldic trumpet banner
A Victorian heraldic trumpet banner. This was used by the trumpet players as they accompanied the 7th Baronet, Sir Henry Paston-Bedingfeld (1830-1902) in his role of High Sheriff as he opened the County Assizes in Norwich during 1882. The arms depicted are Bedingfeld quartering Paston with Clavering in pretence.
Sometimes I think the NT finds it difficult to fully accommodate some of the properties they have been donated and these days with modern marketing they have to have a story to sell, sorry, tell. I don’t envy them this tricky task when promoting Oxburgh Hall. Essentially, Oxburgh Hall is presented as Tudor with its original gatehouse and moat, but in reality, thanks to extensive 19th-century remodelling it is mostly Mock Tudor, sorry that is Gothic Revival. I appreciate that any building existing on the same site for over 500 years has evolved, however I personally feel that authenticity matters when selling ‘heritage’. This house’s story is definitely about survival though how we find it today is probably more about wealthy Victorians and their rose-tinted view of the past.

Queens-room

 

Oxburgh Hall – Part 1, A Legacy in Brick

Oxburgh-Hall-full-viewOxburgh Hall is a moated manor house in the depths of rural Norfolk. It has been ‘owned’ by the National Trust since it was donated by the Bedingfeld family in 1952. The donation of this interesting building to the National Trust has allowed it to be saved and maintained for the nation. In that quaint, slightly snobbish English way, the terms of the donation also allows for two generations of the Bedingfeld family to reside in half of the property. Apparently, maintaining the continuity of the family’s presence is . . . . . no, not sure what it is, but that’s the deal.

moated manor house Oxburgh Hall
View of the east front of Oxburgh Hall. Left tower was gutted by fire in the Civil War and later substantially remodelled by Victorian architect J C Buckler around 1860.

The well-maintained manor house we see today is mostly a Victorian interpretation of medieval Gothic. The only substantially originally medieval part is the magnificent gatehouse that comprises both the King’s Room and the Queen’s Room, and a noteworthy Priest’s Hole.

In 1482, with royal permission for crenellations (originally a licence to construct a fortified property), Sir Edmund Bedingfeld oversaw the building of a brick manor house including a crenellated gatehouse. This combination of gatehouse and moat gives Oxburgh Hall an overall impression of a fortified building, but during the late-fifteenth century moats and gatehouses were more about the conspicuous display of wealth and status than defending the family against bombardments.

As with any site that has been occupied by a substantial building for over 500 years there have been many changes, additions and improvements as different architectural ideas, together with the family’s fortunes, waxed and waned over the centuries. As was traditionally the custom for any notable medieval house, Oxburgh Hall once had a Great Hall, but, unfortunately that was pulled down by the 4th Baronet, Sir Richard Bedingfeld, in 1775.

moated manor house
View from south-west corner of Oxburgh Hall showing gap between the corner towers (the right of the photo) where the Great Hall, kitchen and store rooms used to be before they were demolished in 1775.

It is difficult to make more than a cursory summary of the broader, social circumstances of the many different lives lived over the centuries at Oxburgh Hall without making a detailed, in depth study of the historical record.  As usual we only get the faintest hint of the many hands that built, maintained, worked and served at Oxburgh Hall. Of the Bedingfeld family we learn more. They remained a Catholic family after the English Reformation and as such fell from royal favour, but 100 years later found themselves back enjoying comfortable times with the Restoration and the arrival of King Charles II to the English throne.

Oddly, the National Trust’s guide to Oxburgh Hall has a somewhat one-sided, almost hagiographic approach when discussing the role of the family as though by simply being born a Bedingfeld one had achieved something of note. Their medieval beginnings featuring the acquisition of land and status is a familiar story of fighting, scheming and beneficial marriage alliances. And, apart from being Royalists during the Civil War, the Bedingfeld’s main claim to fame is that they have remained resolutely Roman Catholic. From the heritage point of view, rather disappointingly, we don’t find any of them were renowned patrons of the arts or great collectors or even sponsors of some of Norfolk’s distinguished artists such as John Crome or John Sell Cotman.

Oxburgh Hall west front tudor chimneys
The west front of Oxburgh Hall. J C Buckler’s 1830’s Victorian Gothic interpretation of a Tudor moated manor house. The architect changed windows adding new brick mullions and also created bay, dormer and oriel windows to the facade. Finally, topping the roofline with decorated, Tudor style chimneys.

Oxburgh-Hall-full
A fine example of how the Victorians romanticised the past.

Furthermore the only truly exceptional art works of national interest at Oxburgh Hall – the Oxburgh Hangings – were brought to the hall by Mary Browne of Cowdray Park on her marriage to Sir Richard Bedingfeld in 1761. These captivating Elizabethan needlework pieces consist of many embroidered panels sewn by Mary, Queen of Scots and Bess of Hardwick (full post on the Oxburgh Hangings).

However, if you are interested in experiencing the cool, lofty space of The King’s Room within the gatehouse, or undergoing confinement in a priest’s hole, or simply the pleasure of wandering through a ‘time capsule’ Victorian library, then Oxburgh Hall is worth a visit.Romance-of-a-moat