Sunday, July 10, 2016

What's With Medieval Tombs? Part 21: Brass Rubbings - Perfect Facsimiles?

  In 1973, on my first visit to England, I did over 80 brass rubbings from medieval tombs. A major reason for doing them was that my husband had recently begun teaching medieval history in Australia and realised that students there did not have the familiarity with medieval heritage remains or an awareness of how they fitted into the ordinary landscape of folks in England. It was part of an ongoing project that included increasing amounts of photography over the years, and eventually some multimedia shenanigans. It meant much of our luggage was guide books, OS maps, Pevsners, cameras, paper and wax. We did take the odd change of undies. We were there for eight months on that occasion and I was towing a two year old child around at the time. Most of the rubbings were done around Yorkshire, Derbyshire and East Anglia, which were not so heavily populated with tourist brass rubbers as the more popular areas such as Kent. It was possible to fit each project into a two year old's timetable. The bulk of my luggage coming home comprised four large plastic cylinders solidly packed with rolled up paper. Don't quite know how we got away with that.
  I didn't do any more brass rubbings on our various extended trips after that. The tide had turned somewhat against it among the clergy and besides, how many cylinders full of rolls of paper that can only be got out for occasional special occasions does a girl need?

  This is one of the first rubbings I did, one of several in a strange little isolated church in the village of Harpham on the East Yorkshire wolds, of a knightly member of the St Quentin family. Yes, it's a scruffy phone pic, done under guerilla circumstances. One day I guess I must hire a small hall for a day and photograph them all properly.

  Here is a photograph of the same tomb. The proportions look different because I didn't have a hovercraft to get directly above him, so the rubbing is a more accurate depiction in that regard. A piece of his dagger has been broken off at some stage, which is apparent in the photograph but not the rubbing. He clearly had a livery collar in the past, inlaid in a different material to the brass. The slab he was set in also had four separate heraldic shields in the corners, only three of which have survived. These were most probably originally inlaid with coloured material, but that is gone. The colour of the brass itself is a dingy brown, weathered with age, and the whole arrangement is monochrome, a characteristic only emphasised by the stark black and white of the rubbing.

  The slab into which the brass is set lies in the floor of the St Quentin family chapel, amid a miscellany of tombs including other brasses, an incised alabaster slab on a table tomb under a canopy, a beat up old limestone effigy and some later wall monuments, not to mention bits of woodwork and old heating pipes. Whether it is in its original place or setting is impossible to know. These things got moved around and reorganised a lot.
  There were once many more medieval monumental brasses around than there are today, and despite the favourite villains of history often getting all the blame, there have been steady losses over the centuries from natural circumstances, religious change, pillage, church refurbishment and gradual wear and tear. The most vilified despoilers include Henry VIII and his henchmen, Puritans, Civil War soldiers who melted them down for cannons and corrupt churchwardens of later days. Those that survive tend to be battered, worn and often relocated, but they still provide a fascinating visual projection from that romanticised past.
  16th and 17th century antiquarians took a great interest in tombs, including brasses. Their particular focus was on recording epitaphs and heraldry. Detailed and accurate depictions of the figures on tombs and brasses are rare, although their records do indicate the existence of many tombs since lost or damaged. The first direct prints from brasses were taken in the 18th century, by flooding the incised lines in the brass with ink and pressing paper over them. I can't quite see this being approved of by church authorities today. Nevertheless, it produced very accurate monochrome, linear prints of the designs, but reversed of course. Easy to pick if there are inscriptions because these are written back to front. These were used to produce monochrome engravings for publication, and some are the only evidence for brasses which are no longer extant.

  This figure from a brass to Robert Attelath in the church of King's Lynn is known only from such a print by Craven Ord, later published as an engraving in J.S. Cotman and D. Turner 1838 Engravings of Sepulchral Brasses in Norfolk and Suffolk, Vol. 1. The image here is taken from Wikimedia Commons. King's Lynn has other surviving amazing Flemish brasses, and this is only part of the one that was lost, but it gives us some beautiful visual information.
  The use of black wax to take impressions of brasses became very popular during the mid 19th century. It produced sharp durable impressions which were the right way round. They were black, because the wax used was black heelball wax, used by cobblers to blacken the heels of shoes. Brass rubbing wax is still often referred to as heelball wax to this day, although folks have generally forgotten why.
  Collections of these historic rubbings survive in such places as the British Library, Bodleian Library, Ashmolean Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum, and in some cases they document brasses which have since disappeared or been mutilated or damaged. They are historical records, and at the level of reproducing linear design, they are accurate.

    This is my rubbing from 1973 of a brass in Cowthorpe, Yorkshire, showing one Brian Roucliff precariously balancing a church on one hand. Various other disordered bits and pieces of the design are scattered around. From memory, he was mounted on the wall at the time.

  The Victoria and Albert Museum catalogue of 1915 has this picture of a rubbing of the same brass, done before somebody ran off with his wife, not to mention the church tower, and the whole ensemble got disarranged. So we know a lot more about the monument than the surviving fragments can tell us.
  The stark blackness made these simple to reproduce at a time when books were largely printed in monochrome, and provided a much more detailed and crisp image than photographic images of three dimensional tombs could provide. The stereotype of the flat, black, negative, monochrome design patterns the mind into thinking that was what brasses were like.

  Flat, black and battered, this knight from Gorleston in Suffolk would have been a handsome fellow in his day, back when he had legs, and a canopy, and some colour in his heraldic shield. As for the brass itself, it may have been polished, or gilded or made shiny and interesting in some way. This rubbing was done on red paper, but as I recall that was a practical decision because the red paper was softer than the white and he was placed vertically on the wall, so it was easier to get a clean print.

  With the fancy brass rubbing waxes that were being produced in the 70s it was possible to get a shiny, metallic finish, as in this rubbing of Sir Robert de Bures from Acton in Suffolk. The colour is entirely false though. It is an artifact of production and still provides only a monochrome outline of what was probably a much more colourful affair. Interestingly, the purveyors of brass rubbing supplies back then said that some rubbers preferred the metallic waxes because they looked more brassy, and others preferred the "authentic" black and white look. In other words, the visual characteristics of the old rubbings were determining authenticity, not those of the original brasses. The little Shire Library book S. Badham with M. Stuchfield 2009 Monumental Brasses has lovely colour photographs that illustrate a number of brasses with spectacular survivals of colour.

 Something else that can be lost is texture. This little figure of a priest from West Tanfield in Yorkshire, here shown without his inscription, shows blank spaces where the brass was clearly scraped out and roughened for some sort of inlay, probably representing fur, on the garment below his cope. Similar things are seen on the collars and cuffs of ladies in elaborate gowns.

  This knight from Aldborough in Yorkshire looks to me like one that would once have had some colourful adornment, with both his jupon and shield covered in heraldic designs. Both this example and that from Gorleston were mounted on the church wall, which brings up another issue. The engraved sheet of brass and its base stone, even with shields, inscriptions, canopies and other adornments, were not necessarily the totality of the monument. Brasses could be on tomb chests, under canopies, part of larger compositions. The brass rubbing isolates the design of the engraved brass from its setting, once again creating a stereotype that does not reflect the complexity of the original.

  This canopied tomb chest in Higham Ferrers church supports a very famous brass to a priest, Laurence de St Maur, which cannot be seen from this angle. It appears that somebody has put a vase of flowers on him. (Ulp.) The whole arrangement may have served as an Easter Sepulchre as well as a tomb, which is something that cannot be deduced from looking at the many black and white illustrations of the rubbing of the brass.
  Back in 1973 some facsimiles taken from moulds of monumental brasses were being sold. These were taken up by brass rubbing centres as a way of taking the heat off churches while letting people have the brass rubbing experience. The actual sellers of these appear to have changed several times over the years, but it does seem that the core repertoire of brasses treated in this way has remained fairly constant. Some brasses have become more famous than others.

  This picture, taken in 1988 in the Norwich Brassrubbing Centre shows people getting up close and personal with some medieval heritage using these facsimiles. We also bought a bunch of them over the years so that Australian students thousands of miles from the place they were studying could have a bit of the experience. They were very popular at end of year parties as cash strapped students used their rubbings for Christmas presents. 
  Now these were claimed to be absolutely accurate, producing a rubbing that was unable to be differentiated from one produced from the original. Certainly they look pretty good. One indignant lady at a university open day accused us noisily of pillaging churches. However, for practical reasons many are miniature versions, and some extract details rather than show complete compositions. Our crosslegged knight from a full sized effigy is only about half a metre high. There are even some that are based on historical figures who never had brasses made. This is fine if they are accepted for what they are, homage to brass memorials not reproductions of them.

  This little facsimile is of a small group of daughters of the main figures on a brass from Dinton, Buckinghamshire. There is a brief description on the back, but no image of the complete composition. It's a little memento, not a recording, but that is also what you find out in the field.

  Sometimes all that is left is the ghosts, as in this indent of a lost brass in Chichester cathedral. You just have to use your imagination, and not just think in black and white.

  A couple of times we have pulled them all out to display some of the best ones for university open days. I still get a thrill when I open up one of the tubes to look at the shiny precision of them, but then it takes about an hour to roll them back up again for storage. They are precise copies of original art works at one level, but at another they are mere shadows.

1 comment:

Sandy said...

Fascinating post... thanks!