Review number 46- July 2008

Walsham’s Lost Wall Painting

In White’s Suffolk Directory for 1844,the entry for St Mary’s Walsham noted: the interior was cleaned and beautiful in 1843, when on washing off the whitewash on the south side, some fine ancient paintings were discovered upon the wall.Churches were whitewashed at the Reformation obliterating graven images (Exodus 20.4), and the 1843 cleaners had made an important discovery. Some evidence of this work still survives in two old photographs. Each shows a wall-painting in poor condition, next to a window with 15th century tracery. A label states: Frescoes discovered on the South wall, near what has been a side Chapel. No date to show when discovered. Unfortunately they were covered up again. Photos discovered by Jarman of Bury St. Eds. amongst old negatives June 1920. Walsham le Willows church. (Strictly speaking, these were not frescoes in the Italian sense, for English wall decorations were rarely painted on fresh(Fresco) plaster. When the label was written, the term was generally used for wall-paintings.)

Jarmans, a photographic firm in Bury, had aquired many glass negatives of Suffolk dating back to the 1860s. The 1920 label must have been based on a photographer’s notes rather than the 1844 Directory. Like the Directory however, it referred to the South aisle. This is strange, for the stonework in the photographs (window tracery and a pillar) conforms with that on the north, not the south aisle. Presumably the contributor to the 1844 Directory and, later, the writer of the label, were not Walsham residents. Like many visitors to St Mary’s they were confused over the north and south, for our entrance is, most unusually, on the north. The vast majority of church entrances are on the south side.

Recent research into the 1861 national census informs us that a Photographic Artist was living in a caravan in Walsham. He was described as a Prussian Jew named Benjamin David, married to Harriet, born in Haughley. It is attractive to think that this was the man who took the photographs.

On comparing the window masonry, it can be proved that one painting was where the World War ll memorial is sited, midway along the north aisle. The photograph shows a vaguely defined figure, the crowned Virgin Mary. Holding wide her robe, she shelters a crowd, their faces just discernible.

The theme, popular in the 15th century, was usually called Mater Miserecordiae, and is known in English as Our Lady of Mercy. Also, on our left, an ermine-caped figure with wings and a tilted beam represents St Michael the Archangel weighing a soul in his pair of balances. The person’s good deeds are bringing down the scale on our right, helped by Mary. The position of Mary is further confirmation that this painting was on the north aisle. Mary, interceding for mankind, is necessarily on the north side nearer the altar at the east end of the church. If the painting were on the south aisle, Mary would be on the far side, with Michael, quite wrongly, in prime position.

The other painting is now covered by the organ. Part of the subject concerned everyday tools, and there is a wall-painting on this theme at Hessett. There are in fact quite a few paintings in England and the Continent showing the jumble of implements, usually surrounding the figure of Christ, and now referred to as “The Sunday Christ”. Victorian writers called it “Christ of the Trades”, thinking that it referred to Christ blessing hard labour, whereas it meant something quite different. Medieval sermons stressed that no work should be done on Sunday, Remember the Sabbath-day, to keep it holy (Exodus 20.8). Sunday work added to the wounds of the Crucifixion. Walsham’s painting had an axe, to Werke the wood as stated on a scroll beside it, and it was shown striking at Christ’s pierced hand.

Other recognizable objects in our painting were shears, a sickle, and a baker’s shovel (peel) with three loaves. There was also, confusingly, an anchor, but this was not one of the prohibited tools. It referred to oath-taking, an oath being an anchor of the soul (Hebrews 6.19), and was concerned with another Commandment thou shall not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain (Exodus 20.7). Near the anchor and a pair of judgemental balances like St Michael’s were men in extravagent doublets, riding and perhaps fighting. They would have uttered false oaths, as implied on scrolls nearby, where the word ffals (false) can be made out. The subject, found in Chaucer’s Pardoners Tale as well as paintings and carvings, was classed as “Warning to Blasphemers”.

The fate of the two wall-paintings is not heartening. In an article on the restoration of St Mary’s in 1878, The Bury and Norwich Post for September 24 mentioned traces of a newly revealed Last Judgement painting on the chancel arch. While describing other features of the church in great detail, no mention was made of the aisle paintings, or even the photographs perhaps taken by Bemjamin David in 1861. The silence indicates that the aisle paintings had been long forgotten. Some twenty years later, in the Suffolk Journal of Archaeology, 1899, the Revd, Charles Dickens Gordon, lamented that the fragments of the chancel arch Last Judgement found in 1878 had been ruthlessly swept away in the course of that year’s (1899) spring cleaning. In a scholarly, sometimes rueful, account of St Mary’s artefacts he made no reference to the aisle paintings or the photographs. He would surely have done so had he known of them. The discovery of the glass negatives in 1920 seems to have been providential. Walsham’s Sunday Christ painting was described, with a few inaccuracies, by H. Munro Cautley in his 1937 Suffolk Churches and their treasures.

A series of grey undefined drawings on a light grey background.
click to enlarge

Subsequent building work on the north wall (setting up the war memorial, 1946; moving the organ, 1993) has ensured that none of the original plaster remains.

Brian Turner

Some Further Reading

  1. Babington C.et al:Our Painted Past; Wall paintings of English Heritage: London 1999
  2. Cautely H. Munro: Suffolk Churches and Their Treasures: Ipswich 1937
  3. Reiss A: the Sunday Christ: Sabbatarianism in English Medieval Wall Paintings: Oxford 2003
  4. Rosewell R: Medieval Wall Paintings in English and Welsh Churches: Woodbridge 2008
  5. Turner B: Patronage of John of Northampton: Westminster Chapter House: London 1985
  6. Turner J: A Story of Walsham Folk 1800-1850: Needham Market 2008

100 Years Ago – What The Papers Said

Extracts from the Bury Free Press

25/7/1908

A very interesting cricket match was witnessed at Stanton Park between Walsham ladies and Walsham gentlemen. The ladies, led by Dora Sturgeon made a respectable 41 runs. The gentlemen, who batted, bowled, and fielded left-handed, secured victory with a score of 104.

1/8/1908

The Walsham Flower Show took place in the pleasant grounds of The Grove with the permission of Miss Hales. Judging the cottagers and agricultural labourer section were Mr.J. Carter, gardener at Nether Hall, and Mr.C. Rush, gardener at Ashfield Lodge. The village Temperance Band under Mr. Wilfred Nunn played choice selections.

In the vegetable class the main winners were S. Frost and A. Pollard, and in the fruit it was J. Hubbard and J. Death. Prominent in the flower class was H. Filby and J. Hubbard. Special prizes went to Mrs. J. Frost for cooked potatoes, Miss Gladys Baker for knitted stockings, Mrs. Fenn for a loaf of bread, and Florrie Dew for a collection of wild flowers. Prizes for the best cultivated garden in the village went to: 1. W. Pollard, 2. J. Morley, and 3. H. Filby.

30/9/1908

A fine yield of potatoes was grown in Walsham by Mr. A.J. Goodman, gardener to Mr. H. Nunn. From 14lbs. He raised eight heaped bushels of “Webb’s Colonist” potatoes, an achievement seldom surpassed.

James Turner