5.2 Nineteenth-century antiquarians

5.2.1 Robert Bell Wheler

Robert Bell Wheler (1785-1857) was a Stratford-based antiquarian and solicitor who spent most of his life researching Shakespeare and his home town. He published a series of works including, at the age of only 21, The History and Antiquities of Stratford-upon-Avon (1806), which was followed in 1814 by the abridged Guide to Stratford-upon-Avon and by regular contributions on Shakespearean subjects to The Gentleman's Magazine. He was a close friend of the antiquarian John Britton and, after his death, an unfinished quarto autograph manuscript entitled Collectanea de Stratford was deposited with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Wheler was only nineteen in 1804, when the Stratford Guild Chapel paintings first came to light during restoration works. Nevertheless, he used his burgeoning interest in historical matters to provide a detailed account of the discovery, and subsequent destruction, of the paintings, which was published in his 1806 volume:

'The walls were formerly ornamented with curious paintings, which were discovered during the reparation of the Chapel, in 1804; and upon carefully scraping off the whitewash and paint with which they were covered, many parts were found to be nearly in a perfect state. The most ancient were those in the chancel, which were probably coeval with that part of the Chapel, before conjectured to have been erected by Robert de Stratford, in, or soon after the year 1296: many parts of them, particularly the crosses had been evidently mutilated with some sharp instru- |98| ment by the ill-directed zeal of our early reformers; the ravages of time had also contributed to injure them so much, that the plaister upon which they were painted, was of necessity taken down before the reparations could be completed; so that those which were in the chancel, with a small exception, are now destroyed; the rest in the nave being painted on stone itself, yet remain, though again coloured over.'

This was followed by a detailed description of each of the images, repeated again in the Guide of 1814. Wheler clearly intended his written descriptions to complement Thomas Fisher's drawings of the paintings which he noted in 1814 were 'now in a course of publication; the paintings being printed from stone at the polyautographick press of M. Voluiler' (Wheler 1814, 66). He also corresponded with John Gough Nichols, the publisher of Fisher's account of the paintings, making comments on the proofs in 1838 (SCLA ER1/20/44 f.44-45). Wheler's account of the destruction of the paintings was confirmed by W. Smith's 1829 New and Complete History of the County of Warwick:

'Such of these paintings as were in the chancel were executed on plaster and were therefore with a small exception destroyed in the course of repairs; those in the nave were worked on the stone and have since been whitewashed'.

However, Puddephat's archive of slides in the SCLA suggests that some tantalising fragments of evidence may have survived this destruction.

Only 20 years after the discovery of the Stratford paintings, at Holy Trinity, Coventry, attitudes were beginning to change. Here, initial attempts to remove a newly discovered Doom above the chancel arch by scrubbing were swiftly followed by a programme of 'restoration' and protective coating of the image by local artist, David Gee (Gill 2011, 207).

Both Wheler and Fisher noted that there was a difference in the style and composition of the paintings in the chancel and the remainder of the Chapel. It was presumed that the former dated to the rebuilding of the chancel, c. 1443, and the latter to Hugh Clopton's rebuilding of the nave, in c. 1496. Wheler (1806, 97) observed that whereas the chancel paintings were executed on plaster, those in the rest of the church appeared to be painted directly onto stone. He noted that, 'A considerable improvement might be observed in the style of the pictures last painted; the earlier subjects being delineated in the most unnatural manner', whereas the saints at the western end, 'required no small portion of skill to represent tolerably', suggesting that by the end of the century, 'it is supposed that there were some good painters in England'.

Wheler's description of the paintings was systematic, commencing at the west end of the nave, on the south and then north sides, moving up the nave itself to consider the images in the niches between the nave windows, the paintings above the chancel arch, and then the paintings in the chancel itself, commencing with the north side and ending with the south wall of the chancel and finally, considering other images such as sculptures in the porch. The detail of Wheler's descriptions is further discussed elsewhere, but here it is important to note several key aspects of his account. Wheler was systematic in his approach, describing figures and narratives in detail, but also paying close attention to colour, heraldry and to the presence of inscriptions. Where the iconography of an image was clear, he discussed it, but in some scenes, such as the images now recognised as the 'Whore of Babylon' at the west end, and in some of the compartments within the Legend of the Cross, he was less certain. His account of 1814 mirrors that of 1806, but in some cases an attribution or suggestion of the iconography is appended to his original description. Second, although Wheler transcribed the verses of the 'Erthe Upon erthe' poem in the allegorical scene, and one or two of the details of scrolls in the Holy Cross images, on the whole he made little attempt to transcribe or translate these black-letter inscriptions, or to relate them to contemporary knowledge of Middle English literature. Third, although Wheler intended his descriptions to complement Fisher's drawings, his account was produced independently. This is most apparent in the Holy Cross scenes, where the order of the scenes is different in Wheler and Fisher's accounts, and in the 'Erthe Upon erthe' poem, where his transcription of the poem also differs slightly from that of Fisher.

The restoration work of 1804 did not affect the north and south walls of the nave, which were then obscured by pews (Figure 11). Nevertheless, the Stratford antiquarian Wheler (1806, n.2) referred to the note in Leland's Itinerary that 'about the body of this chaple, was curiously paynted the Daunce of Deathe' and suggested the north and south walls were the most likely location for these paintings. It is unclear whether Wheler actually meant to refer to Stow's Bodleian MSS , in which this interpolation occurs. Nevertheless, his hypothesis was proved correct when, in 1955, Wilfrid Puddephat identified the Dance of Death sequence on the north wall of the nave.

5.2.2 Thomas Fisher

Thomas Fisher (1772-1836) was an artist and antiquary. At the age of fourteen he was employed by the East India Company, East India House, Leadenhall, London (Dictionary of National Biography). In 1816 he was promoted to the newly created post of 'searcher of the records' in the examiner's department. Throughout his career, Fisher managed to combine his work with summers spent recording church monuments and other antiquities, particularly in his native Kent. He produced drawings for Richard Gough's (1735-1809) second volume of Sepulchral Monuments and exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1804-1808. He was elected to the Society of Antiquaries in May 1836, shortly before his death.

Fisher was adept at brass rubbing and the creation of scale drawings. However, he was also extremely interested in the use of lithography, or 'polyautography' as a means of reproducing his drawings; a technology that was fairly new in the early 19th century (Twyman 1970). In a letter to The Gentleman's Magazine published in 1808, Fisher noted that the use of lithography enabled the artist 'to execute his own ideas, without much loss of time on the one hand; and on the other without the expence [sic] which attends the employment of first-rate engravers, or the hazard of having his work spoiled by novices in the art' (Fisher 1808, 195 and see also a letter to The Gentleman's Magazine, dated 1815).

In an article written in 1919, O'Meara (1919, 241-8) suggested of Fisher that 'workmen at his instigation brought to light frescoes buried under plaster'. However, Wheler's local account of their discovery seems more likely to have been true. Surviving letters indicate that it was the antiquarian Richard Gough (1735-1809) who encouraged Fisher to record the Stratford-upon-Avon wall paintings (Bodleian Ms17790 f.323-326; we are extremely grateful to Dr Bernard Nurse for drawing my attention to these sources). Fisher's correspondence with Gough suggests that he drew on his patron for assistance with the interpretation of the subject matter and his proposals for publication.

Between 20 April 1807 and 1 January 1808, Fisher prepared his lithographs for publication under the proposed title 'A Series of Antient Allegorical, Historical, and Legendary Paintings Which Were Discovered in the Summer of 1804 on the Walls of the Chapel of the Trinity at Stratford upon Avon in Warwickshire'. Fisher arranged for 120 copies of his drawings to be printed at M. Volweiler's polyautographic press, with the intention of publishing them in parts to subscribers. A further eleven large paper copies were also produced. Each plate was then coloured by Fisher 'with his own hands' and advertisements for their publication were circulated as early as 1809. Fisher also intended to augment the publication with further research on the archives of the guild, including 'various historical evidences in facsimile', engraved on copper plates, and letter-press text on which he was still working two years before his death in 1834 (SCLA ER126/1).

However, throughout this period Fisher was wrestling with contemporary copyright legislation. This required authors wishing to register their works under the terms of the act to provide eleven copies for deposition with legal deposit libraries. Judging that the Stratford volume would have only a limited circulation 'chiefly amongst students in Antiquity', and 'convinced also of the impossibility of any profitable piracy', Fisher decided against registering his volume under the Act (Fisher 1817, 489-90). Unfortunately, further discussion about the nature of the Act in the Court of the King's Bench resulted in Fisher submitting an unsuccessful petition to Parliament to be exempted from its terms. Unwilling to break the law or 'submitting to an unreasonable loss of property', estimated by Fisher to be in the region of 136 guineas, or a seventh of his property and labour, Fisher stated in his petition that he would be forced to abandon his letter-press, 'to leave both works unfinished, and to desist from all further attempts to give his valuable and extensive collection of drawings to the world' (Fisher 1817, 491). Fisher had disposed of his lithographic plates in 1808/9 and most of the 120 copies by 1814. Nevertheless, in his letter to The Gentleman's Magazine in 1817 he assured subscribers that he still hoped to furnish them with the outstanding plates and was 'not yet so far advanced in life but that I entertain a hope of being enabled to complete my original design'.

Altogether, Fisher produced sixteen plates, which have been studied carefully and published by Davidson (1988, 12-13) from a surviving copy in the British Library (BL 1899.n.11). They include a scale plan of the Chapel printed in 1809. Another copy of Fisher's drawings is reputed to have survived in the private collection of George B. Dexter of Boston (O'Meara 1919). However, Fisher's dream of a Stratford publication was never realised. His notes on the guild were only published as a contribution to The Gentleman's Magazine, a year before his death (Fisher 1835). The 'Series of Ancient Paintings' were finally published by his friend and the editor of The Gentleman's Magazine, John Gough Nichols (1806-1873) in 1838. Correspondence survives between Fisher's sister, Sarah and J.G. Nichols' father, John Bowyer Nichols (1779-1863) that indicate concerns over the number and quality of surviving original plates, but also that in the intervening years, various copies of the plates had made their way onto the market (SCLA ER 126/8). The bulk of Fisher's archive, including correspondence and manuscripts, were sold in an auction of John Bowyer Nichols effects on 10 February 1843 at Sotheby's (we are extremely grateful to Julian Pooley, Director of The Nichols Archive Project, for providing these references).

Fisher's drawings, as represented by the surviving lithograph images (Davidson 1988) are an important example of early scaled drawings. The plan of the Chapel contains a scale and follows early plan conventions in showing the outline of the building, including projecting buttresses, window openings with mullions, internal mouldings around the Tower west door, chancel arch and north porch door. There is also an attempt to highlight the different phases of the chancel and nave in differential hatching. The position of pews in the nave and chancel, the pulpit and altar is also shown in faint dotted lines. A key is provided for scenes from The Legend of the Holy Cross in the chancel, while the position of the Doom is marked with the inscription 'Resurrection &c' across the chancel arch, and the location of an image of the 'Virgin' on the north wall and 'Crucifixion' and 'Modwena' on the south wall of the nave, as well as 'Becket' and 'St George' on the west wall, are also noted.

Fisher's elevation drawings were created systematically, started at the west end of the north wall, and showing scenes in the upper and lower tiers moving eastwards, then transferring to the south wall and moving westwards (see model). The detail of the Legend of the True Cross scenes is discussed elsewhere, but here again it is useful to reflect on Fisher's methods. These drawings also appear to have been drawn to scale. Fisher appears to be concerned with recording the state of preservation of the paintings, showing areas of damaged plaster and gaps, rather than filling in lost details, even where the iconography of the scene is clear. Some aspects of the scenes, particularly the texts, are unclear. Given Fisher's experience of recording inscriptions it seems unlikely that he would have struggled with deciphering legible scripts, so again the lack of clarity in some texts appears to be an attempt to replicate faithfully what survived, rather than reconstruct the texts from sources such as The Golden Legend, in contrast to Wilfrid Puddephat's approach to reconstructing the Dance of Death over a century later.

It is possible that Fisher's portrayal of areas of damaged plaster in the chancel scenes was designed to show the method by which the paintings were painted onto plaster, rather than being applied over a sealant directly onto the walls, as appears to have been the case in the Last Judgement and nave images, according to Wheler (1806, 97). However, it should be acknowledged that Fisher made little attempt to show this alternative method of painting in his depictions of these later scenes, in contrast to E.W. Tristram, a century later.

While acknowledging the importance of Fisher's record it is also important to note that he did not attempt to convey a sense of the chronological or stylistic differences within and between the scenes in the chancel and nave (see model). All his drawings a given a rather uniform stylised character which seems, to the modern eye, rather un-medieval, particularly in its portrayal of facial expressions. This sense of aesthetic coherence is further emphasised by the hard black outlines used to delineate the images within the scenes, which was a necessity of the recording and lithographic reproduction and colouring process. This contrasts markedly with Tristram's approach to recording the Doom, in which there are few outlines, but is quite similar to Puddephat's methodology, where the outlines are softer, but still present. Fisher's hand-colouring of the plates also created an interesting effect in some images, such as the flames of hell over-painted on the right-hand side of the Doom scenes, or the drops of blood spilling from St Thomas à Becket's head wound in the nave (see model). This may well have been an attempt by Fisher to represent the distinctive medieval use of vermillion, red lead and red lake pigments to represent 'fresh' blood, which has been revealed by recent conservation analysis of the Doom paintings at Holy Trinity, Coventry (Gill 2011, 215). Finally, the absence of an account or description of the paintings by Fisher is a great loss, particularly given the differences that exist between his account of the sequence of the Legend of the Holy Cross scenes and the text of the 'Erthe Upon erthe' poem and those of Wheler.

5.2.3 Captain James Saunders and David Gee

Captain James Saunders (d. 1830) of the Warwick Militia appears to have witnessed the discovery of The Legend of the Cross paintings in 1805, and his collection of topographical papers in the Shakespeare Centre Library and Archives contains a watercolour sketchbook within which miniature images of the paintings in the Chapel, with the exception of the Doom and one of the saints in the nave, are bound (SCLA ER1/69-71). Although his images are not included in the model, it is important to note that, with one exception, probably due to a binding error, his drawings follow the sequence established by Fisher.

David Gee was a Victorian artist, based in Coventry. In 1825 he published a detail of The Stratford Doom as Plate 6 in T. Sharp's study of the Coventry Mystery cycle (Davidson and Alexander 1985, 71, fig. 29; Gill 2011, 207; Sharp 1825). This drawing is intriguing, because it was published prior to Nichol's edition of Fisher's plates in 1838. Since Gee was a local artist, it is therefore possible that he observed The Doom at first-hand in Stratford.

5.2.4 John Gough Nichols

John Gough Nichols (1806-1873) was part of the Nichols family, a long line of printers and publishers, known especially for their antiquarian and local history volumes and editorship of The Gentleman's Magazine (Dictionary of National Biography). John Gough Nichols was the son of John Bowyer Nichols (1779-1863) and grandson of John Nichols (1745-1826). The archive of correspondence and other records of this remarkable dynasty is the subject of an archive project by Julian Pooley.

John Gough Nichols played an active part in running the family's printing business and took over as editor of The Gentleman's Magazine from 1826. From the age of twelve he accompanied his father to meetings at the Society of Antiquaries, where he was elected a fellow in 1835. He helped to found the Camden Society (1838) and the Archaeological Institute (1844), and was a prolific scholar, publishing regularly in Archaeologia on a wide range of topics including autographs, county histories and decorative tiles. He was best-known as the compiler, editor, author and printer of archaeological and heraldic works.

A series of letters survive in the SCLA, dating from 1834-7 between Thomas Fisher and his sister and John Gough Nichols (SCLA ER 126). These are important because they shed light on the process by which Nichols finally brought Fisher's drawings to publication in 1838. It is clear that by 1834 Fisher had realised that he would need a publisher's assistance with the project. Indeed, it may well have been Nichols who persuaded Fisher to abandon his more ambitious plans for a volume on the guild's history, consigning his archive research to The Gentleman's Magazine in 1835 and concentrating on the drawings for the publication.

Fisher appears to have destroyed the original plates, or 'stones' from his lithograph process in 1809 and thus the copperplate engravings that form the basis for Nichols publication lacked some of the finer detail of Fisher's originals. Davidson (1988, 13) also notes that the machine-made paper onto which the drawings were printed was also inferior to Fisher's originals. Nevertheless, Nichols appears to have been as faithful as he could be to Fisher's drawings. This can be seen in details, such as the reproduction of the over-painted flames of Hell and drops of blood in the Doom and St Thomas à Becket images. Reflecting his own interest in antiquarian scholarship Nichols also added an introduction and commentary to the volume, along with a series of appendices. These included a section of the Invention and Exaltation of the Cross, from Julian Notary's 1503 edition of William Caxton's The Golden Legend which included woodcuts of St Helen and Constantine's vision, as well as an image of St Thomas à Becket's martyrdom.


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