Gothic fantasy

To-day’s five top tips for finding Random Treasure among the dross:

  • Be open-minded – any object might turn out to be treasure, whether you know something about it or not
  • Be open-eyed – train your eye to spot quality, age or uniqueness in every class of object that you might encounter
  • Back your hunches – a few successes will more than compensate for a lot of failures, whether in terms of profit or any other measure of satisfaction
  • Treat failure as success – if you find that it’s trash rather than treasure, you’ve learned something valuable for next time
  • Build up your knowledge – try to know just a little more about the stuff you’re looking at than the other people looking at it.

OK, those are my five top tips for today. Ask me tomorrow and I’d probably give you five entirely different top tips. One of the wonderful things about the ephemeral world of blogging and social media is that nobody seems to mind if you’re inconsistent and self-contradictory from day to day. It’s so much simpler and less effortful than taking a rigorous approach – and if it’s good enough for POTUS, why shouldn’t it be good enough for me?

9_The SaintA few years ago I backed a hunch and bought an object about which I knew absolutely zilch – except that it was the most beautiful and out-of-the-ordinary item that I had ever seen in a local auction. I had never owned or handled or even seriously looked at sculpture or woodcarving before. But I bid for it and won it, and so began one of the most exciting and emotionally turbulent adventures of my (albeit rather sedate) life.  The whole story of my statue of the Flavigny Saint John is told in my book Random Treasure but I mention it here because it’s what got me interested in old carved wood.

There’s a fair amount of it about in the auction rooms that I frequent, but most of it comes in the form of dark oak chests and other large pieces of furniture.  If I were starting to furnish the house again from scratch, I might even be able to afford a few middle-grade pieces, because you can easily buy a lovely Charles II chest of drawers in decent condition for not much more than the cost of an equivalent piece of Ikea furniture. But our rooms at home are already fully furnished (OK, over-furnished), and it would seem rather arbitrary to try to shoehorn in any Jacobean pieces among the Victorian and Georgian and mid-century modern themes.

In any case, attractive as I find the 17th century furniture described by dealers as “country oak” and “period oak”, my real love, developed entirely from my close encounter with Saint John, is for carved wood from the mediaeval period, a good century or two earlier.

Most of this was produced for church interiors.  Trouble is, that not much has survived, and what little still exists is mainly in the churches where it started out or in museums to which it has been moved.  Surviving mediaeval woodcarving is more abundant in Catholic countries, but here in Britain, many richly carved ecclesiastical interiors were destroyed during the Reformation or during the Civil War and Commonwealth period.  Then, much of what remained was changed drastically or ruined by well-intentioned Victorian improvers of two kinds:

  1. architects who replaced worn-out mediaeval interiors with fabulous but inauthentic Gothic Revival fantasies, and
  2. democratically-minded clerics who opened up their churches to all classes of worshipper by removing the barrier between the nave (where the common folk prayed) and the choir (reserved for the clergy and the gentry).

From around the 12th century, the congregation had been segregated by a physical division across the centre of the church, in the form of a rood screen or choir screen.   In Gothic cathedrals this was usually made from intricately carved stone, but in smaller Gothic churches the normal material for the screen was oak. In cathedrals, the size of the nave, the beauty of the screen and the superiority of the clergy made it unlikely that anyone would wish to democratise the interior by demolishing the rood screen. Thus many of our surviving mediaeval cathedrals still retain their wonderful carved stone screens which almost completely cut off the business end of the place of worship (including the high altar) from the space reserved for the rabble.

southwell rood screen
Rood Screen at Strelley All Saints Church, Nottinghamshire, around 1490. Image borrowed from

By contrast, in smaller village and town churches, if your 19th century parish vicar or rector was of a democratic, low-church, man-of-the-people turn of mind, then the conversion of his church interior into a single open space was easily achieved by taking a saw and a hammer to the ancient oak screen. This didn’t happen in all churches – there are still many, particularly in East Anglia, which have retained their beautiful Gothic screens. But often the screen either disappeared from the church altogether or the upper section was removed, leaving only the lower part up to about waist height. Which exercise left a few chunks of Gothic carved timber available to be turned into picturesque furniture.

20170908_115920This brings me to to-day’s piece of random treasure – in this instance perhaps more random than most.  It has something of the appearance of a Gothic carved oak stool. When I bought it a few months ago at a local auction in Portobello this use was confirmed by an upholstered seat, covered by an excessively worn canvas panel embroidered in cross-stitch with a geometrical design in tones of dirty orange and dirty brown: a colour palette that I associate with the 1930s. I removed it and found that it had been fitted over a previous cover made from old cracked oilcloth with a printed pattern. Beneath that was some canvas and padding, all partly held on by rusty tacks ill-concealed by frayed braiding.  My conclusion was that the upholstery had originated in the late 19th century. But it was yucky, so I got rid of it all, and cleaned off the upper surface.

My intention at the time was to reinstate its use as a stool by re-upholstering it myself. But of course, despite a lot of talk, I never actually get around to undertaking this kind of project. So the stool was in imminent danger of being consigned to one of the many spaces where I keep uncompleted (or more usually unstarted) d-i-y projects, when it occurred to me that it would perform just as well if used as a low table. Meaning that I could happily abandon the re-upholstery project without experiencing the usual feelings of inadequacy.

20170908_090434.jpgThen I needed to find a place for it.  It’s the right height and size to act as portable low table for visitors seated on the sofa to rest their teacups upon, but it isn’t suitable for that use because of its exceptional weight – much heavier that you might think possible for a piece of timber of its compact size. Eventually it came to rest as a plinth for the cable TV box, sitting in our living room beneath a late Georgian mahogany foldover tea table which supports our television. Useful if slightly incongruous.

OK, so let’s finally take a look at the object itself. On first inspection it’s a late Victorian solid oak stool, shaped in the form of a column capital in the neo-Gothic or aesthetic taste. But then you look more closely …

First observation: the stool is not a single piece of furniture but is formed from the capitals of two half-columns or pilasters fixed together back-to-back.

Second observation: the two pieces are not quite matching, not quite level with each other. Could they have been sawn separately from something larger?

Third observation: each half-column is carved with two leaves (perhaps ivy leaves), one on either side of an oddly flat uncarved front surface. Could these flat fronts have been joined to other elements of a larger construction, for example as corners of a frame which was designed to be viewed from both sides?20170908_120011

Fourth observation: the wood shows signs of great age. Victorian carved oak has sharpness and precision which are not present here. This timber is wormed and fissured and patinated in a way which takes a very long time to develop and which can’t be manufactured.

Conclusion: someone in Victorian times has preserved two fragments from an earlier decorative object and has fixed them together to form this picturesque stool.

Now, what might the earlier object have been? Could have been anything really – for example the fragments might be parts of window frames from a timber-framed Tudor manor house; or parts of fittings from the more respectable parts of an oak ship.

I doubt that we can ever know for certain – but my conjecture from such evidence as is available to me is that the stool is made from leftover sections of an oak rood screen removed from an English church.

The next question is – if that’s what it is, how old might it be? More guesswork required. But once you have convinced yourself firstly that the stool is made from a Gothic rood-screen, and secondly that you’re not looking at something produced by Pugin or any of his mid-19th century Gothic Revival followers and imitators, then you are brought to the inevitable conclusion that the object is mediaeval in origin.

Why? Gothic buildings were being erected in Britain from the late 11th to the early 16th century.  During these 400 years or so, decorative styles and construction techniques developed considerably, and the stages of development were neatly categorised by Victorian architectural history writers into periods such as The Early English Style, The Decorated Style, The Perpendicular Style, etc. Of course the reality was much more fuzzy (as it always is), and much depends upon whether you are looking at vast and magnificent cathedrals or at modest parish churches, at castles or at civic buildings. But the buildings remained recognisably Gothic – until the early part of the sixteenth century, when Gothic went steeply out of fashion thanks to the spiritual and liturgical influence of the Reformation and the aesthetic and cultural influence of the Renaissance. From about 1500, rood screens are very different in appearance, and by the time that the Baroque style was all the rage, it was unusual to have any barrier across the centre of a church.

So if my stool is Gothic and is part of a rood screen and is too timeworn to be Victorian, then it’s most unlikely to have been made after about 1500. Which means that it is more than 500 years old! How much older, I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable to say.  There are experts in museums who can say if the carving is typical of early or late Gothic, or is attributable to a particular century or geographical region; but I don’t have ready access to any such experts and have severe doubts whether my stool would merit any specialist attention even if I did.

Lacking expertise, I need to find some evidence to support my claim of a Gothic origin. It would be helpful, for example, to be able to compare the design of the carving with that on other objects of known age. Inevitably, I’m thrown back – as so often – on to Google, but unfortunately that mighty resource isn’t too helpful on this occasion. Searching to discover surviving oak rood screens with a similar architectural profile has proved fruitless. There are plenty illustrated online, and many with apparent overall similarities, but usually you get a photo of the whole screen, and close-ups of design motifs and construction details are frustratingly lacking. Google does however provide access to a wealth of drawings and engravings of Gothic designs, chief among which are those produced by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin in his book Gothic Ornaments, first published in 1854.

My stool has carved upon it four leaf shapes (one is isolated below left), which I have identified as ivy, but which might be stylised forms of oak or vine or something else altogether.  If you look at Pugin’s engravings, you see many similar shapes, although nothing quite the same.  Below (second left) is one example from many.  Turning away from the computer towards my own crowded bookshelves, I find this (second right) in my modern reprint of The Grammar of Ornament by Owen Jones (originally published 1856) and this (right) in my copy of An Introduction to Gothic Architecture by John Henry Parker (fifth edition 1877):


I don’t know if you are satisfied, but I am.  I’m convinced that the two pieces of carved timber which comprise my stool are from the fifteenth century or earlier. That doesn’t necessarily mean that as an object constructed from fragments it’s worth much – perhaps a few hundred at most – but for me, here’s a remarkable piece of treasure. And I get a real kick from sitting my 21st century TV cable box on a piece of furniture that’s at least half a millennium old.  Yes, I know how childish that is.




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