Most of us are so wrapped up in our everyday pressures we often fail to stop and appreciate little gems in our familiar surroundings. Pulls Ferry marks the site where a channel from the River Wensum was made into a canal during the building of Norwich’s Norman Cathedral. High quality limestone was brought from Caen in France to build the Cathedral. Limestone shipped from France was ferried up the River Wensum and along the canal to the cathedral site. The flint archway and gatehouse tower in the photograph were built over the canal in the 15th century, and the house (obscured by summer foliage but visible in Victorian sketch) in the 16th century. The canal was eventually filled in sometime in the 1770s.
During the 12th century it was important for Norwich as England’s second city to have prestigious buildings. The Cathedral together with Norwich Castle were conceived of as a pair and, significantly, as such a pair, they were both dressed with Caen stone. This is the same Caen limestone that was used for Canterbury Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London. It is possible to view the erection of such buildings, in an almost modern ‘corporate identity’ manner, as the powerful stamping of the Norman mark across the country during the 100 years that followed the taking of England by William the Conqueror and the Normans.
Earlier this year a contemporary, stained glass triptych was installed in Norwich Cathedral. First thought – what makes stained glass different to oil paintings, watercolours, sculpture, bronzes and most textiles, well, it lets light THROUGH. It is not just about surface reflection, but translucence. The most stunning stained glass windows work with this quality. Now here comes the second thought do we commission artists to design windows in glass or do we commission stained glass artists to create windows?
In the past William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones both successfully designed windows as part of a broader view of art which was less sniffy about craft. The Arts and Crafts artist Christopher Whall worked in stained glass. He originally trained as a ‘traditional’ artist at the Royal Academy, but he learnt and practised glass cutting, painting, firing and glazing so he had control and understanding when he began creating stained glass windows. In a similar way to architecture and site-specific sculpture, stained glass should work within its context and architectural setting.
The new triptych in Norwich cathedral was designed by the abstract expressionist painter John McLean. The three large windows on the north nave according to the cathedral’s literature,
‘form a single work of art, conceived as a a vibrant journey from the solemn dignity of the Nave into the architectural excitement of the North transept’.
The designs for the windows were developed over the course of seven years as the artist developed his knowledge of working with glass instead of paint. The finished windows are installed in three bays on the north aisle with northern light flooding through glass into the Romanesque cathedral. I have seen quite a few contemporary coloured windows in medieval churches most are not particularly successful. Here, I see that the shapes and colours of these three windows work well when viewed directly with the even northern light pouring through. As yet I’ve only seen them on a bright, sunny summer’s day.
However, remember these are windows shining light into an interior space. A tall, narrow, stone Romanesque space and the effect of the coloured light shining on the interior is striking, but for me too obvious. I will be interested to return in the middle of winter to see if the reduced light levels result in a more subtle illumination of the aisle. I am not adverse to colour, or the contemporary placed within a 12th-century building, but the orange and purple haze sequence combines to make the aisle look more like a fairy grotto.
Just a final thought – I would be fascinated to glimpse the process of commissioning such large scale works in the twenty-first century for such a significant Norman cathedral.
I know I’m not the first and I certainly won’t be the last to comment on the nature of public commemoration during this year, 2014, that marks 100 years since the beginning of the First World War. A public, ritualised remembrance for the dead has long been available to the powerful elite, but the terrible carnage of World War One brought widespread change to how the death’s of ordinary folk dying for their country was remembered. The sheer numbers of the fallen from virtually every town and village of the United Kingdom instilled a need in the general populace to act together within their communities and communally mark their losses. This was done through the village memorial, a stone cross bearing the names of the fallen.
Although the stone cross memorial is the most frequent site of commemoration stained glass windows were also commissioned and installed in churches and public buildings. Similar lists of names of the fallen can be seen written on stained glass panels. Commemorative stained glass filling the windows of churches across Great Britain has been traditional for hundreds of years. Most were sponsored by prominent families or religious bodies and depicted Christian imagery. Often a discrete biblical quotation accompanied by the patrons name reminded the congregation to offer up prayers’ for the departed soul.
At the end of World War 1 with the large loss of life many institutions also chose to collectively mark the loss of their colleagues and friends. Not only were the dead from specific regiments commemorated, but companies, wealthy organisations and even schools commissioned large stained glass windows listing all their fallen.
The Baltic Exchange in the City of London commissioned a set of memorial windows for its semi-circular apse when it was based at 30 St Mary Axe. These windows by the stained glass artist John Dudley Forsyth were severely damaged by an IRA bomb which exploded on the 10 April 1992. Since then they have been restored and are now installed at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London. As this set of windows is now at standing height if you look carefully you can spot depictions of various WW1 war machines.
In Southwark Cathedral, London, two three light windows by Hardman & Co were installed in memory of those who had died during the conflict. One window commemorates the 386 employees of the South Metropolitan Gas Company and the other window the staff from the Oxo company who also lost their lives.
Of course regiments commissioned memorial windows and the King’s Own Regiment has a large, three-light window in the north nave aisle of Norwich Cathedral. It shows a central image of St George, but it has paintings of soldiers in the trenches in the panels either side. One is shown cleaning a rifle and the other shows a stretcher-bearer waiting for casualties.
It hasn’t been just fighters and machinery that have been depicted in these First World War memorial windows. In the small village of Swaffham Prior in Cambridgeshire, their local church, St Mary the Virgin, has a light that shows women working in an armaments factory.
But despite all these long lists and large community windows every now and then a simple, small single light dedicated to two brothers can be found in a tiny village church – reminding us that each name on a long list had been an individual life extinguished by war.
Sir Thomas Erpingham was a fifteenth-century English nobleman who distinguished himself when in charge of the King’s bowmen at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. As an important and significant Norwich figure he made substantial donations to the city’s religious institutions. Charitable donations during the medieval period were more than just duty, they allowed an individual to display their status, but, more importantly, financially supporting the church purchased a speedy journey through purgatory and up to heaven. A wealthy knight like Thomas Erpingham made a very significant earthly and heavenly mark when he provided the funds for the building of a new gatehouse at the entrance to Norwich Cathedral.
The gatehouse was built between 1420 and 1435 and has a single arch supported on each side by semi-hexagonal buttresses. The arch is divided into two decorative schemes, the inner order is the twelve apostles (probably) set in a series of niches, and the outer is a series of twelve female saints. The carved foliage, used as a visual linking device running up the arch, has been weathered over the centuries, but you can still see that it is oak leaves and acorns. The buttresses are covered with shields and devices of the families of Erpingham, Clopton, and Walton (those of Sir Thomas Erpingham’s wives), but I couldn’t pick out the forget-me-not design which apparently also makes up part of the Erpingham heraldic achievement.
I was disappointed that I couldn’t see the forget-me-not sculptural detail so I’ve had a good hunt round the Internet. One of my past Art History lecturers, now retired, has spent six years accompanied by his photographer wife, surveying the public sculpture of Norfolk and I’ve studied her excellent, up-close and detailed photographs and I’ve found the forget-me-nots. It is a single flower motif carved above a shield, above a falcon rising on the outer front columns of the buttresses – second panels up in this early nineteenth-century etching by Cotman – still a bit difficult to see though not as eroded as now.
Below is a ring from MagpieHouse showing a contemporary version of the single, more architectural form, of the forget-me-not motif. When you are looking at weathered architecture it certainly helps to know the basic design shapes you are looking for, but it is only when the scaffolding goes up for repairs that accurate recording and high quality photographs can be achieved.
Single forget-me-not flower motif.
The fifteenth-century forget-me-not sculpted motif is in the middle of the upper niche in this photograph on the right.