A wide and fascinating variety of styles, patterns, motifs and subjects have been used as ornamentation in East Anglia over the centuries.  Ideas have spread from one medium to another, such as from wood to stone, and from place to place as for example with the Flemish gable.


The earliest work we have is that of the Norman aristocrats at the beginning of the twelfth century with their stone-decorated cathedrals, churches and castles.  It is geometrical work rather than representational, but there is rhythm in the repetition, order and uniformity.  It suggests efficiency, control, obedience to rules and good organisation.  Though the basic elements are simple, the overall effect is impressive.  Whether or not the Normans naturally had a good understanding of what looks appealing from a distance, it’s the sort of work that stops us in our tracks.  There is a military-like discipline that echoes the fact that the Normans were invaders and relative newcomers who subjugated the local people.  The work is impersonal and lacks individuality or humour, but it has an impressive grandeur and shows perhaps that what was meaningful to the Normans was power and self-promotion.


Where we see the psyche of a people most clearly is in the art of the Middle Ages, especially in the Age of Chivalry with its coats of arms.  There is much colour, individuality and sometimes humour in the artwork of the period.  We can also see that the medieval mind was highly metaphorical compared with modern-day literal thinking.  The medieval artist used symbols to convey difficult concepts, and saints, too, were represented by symbols.  We can also see by the amount of artwork found in and on churches that the people of the Middle Ages were highly religious.  The Christian faith takes centre stage.  Enormous sums of money were spent on embellishing church buildings.  There is elaborate flushwork in flint and stone, beautifully painted rood screens, skilfully carved wooden bench-ends, colourful stained glass windows and effigies of knights lying on large tombs.  

There are hints here, not just of pride in the past, but of nostalgia too.  Nostalgia seems to play a large role in the choice of subjects generally in modern wayside art, especially on village signs and weather vanes.  Sailing ships, steam engines and horse-drawn ploughs and carriages feature frequently.


Another reason for choice of subject may have something to do with familiarity breeding contempt.  Commonplace things are conspicuous in their absence.  Ordinary houses, school buildings, furniture, household items, tools and all the trappings of daily life rarely feature.  The horse-drawn plough, once a common part of everyday rural life, didn’t feature much as a subject until the modern tractor replaced it in the second half of the twentieth century.   


Nostalgia is what happens when things that were once common are no longer so and they are suddenly missed.   When city life replaced rural life during the industrial revolution, there was a yearning for the countryside.  At the end of the Victorian era the Arts and Crafts Movement of the 1880s and 1890s expressed a liking for the flowing lines of naturalistic subjects.   A good example of which in East Anglia can be seen in the Royal Arcade in Norwich.





Almost every village in East Anglia has a church somewhere in its parish, but religion is no longer the mainstay of a community in the way that it once was.  However, the church is often the most prominent and oldest building in a village and is still treasured by most villagers, whether religious or not.  A high percentage of villages have chosen to depict their church on their village sign.  Of the signs I know about, approximately a quarter in Norfolk and about a third in Suffolk depict a church.  It’s as if the church building itself was once the subject saying ‘Hey, look at me’, but now has become the object with parishioners saying. ‘Hey, notice our old church’.   

Left: The village sign at Pulham Market in Norfolk is reminiscent of the culture of the Middle Ages with shield motifs, gold lettering and holy figures.  The figure behind is Jesus.  He is having his feet washed by Mary Magdalene, as depicted in a stained glass window in the local church.  The four shields show the signs of the local pubs, The Crown Inn, The Falcon,

The Queen’s Head and The Duck’s Foot (the latter two now private houses).

The village sign at Stratford St. Andrew in Suffolk (dating from 2002) shows the parish church with St. Andrew’s Cross behind (white cross on blue background).  The scroll represents a treatise written in 1187 by Ranulph de Granville, Lord Chief Justice of England, who was born in the village. His coat of arms is depicted above the scroll.  The swan represents a coaching inn called The Black Swan which once traded here, but no longer exists.  Pig farming, a local industry, is represented by the pigs in a green field.

Finningham is another village sign that depicts its local, fifteenth century church.  The roe deer, bee orchids and swans on a lake represent Finningham Hall, home of the Freres family who have played a dominant role in the village since 1598.  Their coat of arms is also represented. The white horse represents the local pub.   

The Stratford sign was researched and designed by Derek Jarvis.

This village sign at Sudbourne in Suffolk, dating from the year 2000, is an example of modern wrought ironwork.  The running deer represents nearby Rendle Forest, and the horse represents local farming.  The tank represents Army occupation here from 1942 to 1947. The sign was designed by Mary Lacey and made by Trevor Rumsby.

There’s no doubt then that craftsmanship is alive and well in East Anglia.  But is wayside art, art?  Is the picture on the village sign (below left) at Lackford not as good as what you would hang on your living-room wall?  Is the painted lady (below right) not as fine as any portrait hanging in the National Gallery?  She adorns a building in Hadleigh.  

Mass-production had the advantage of making things more affordable.  Evidence can be seen in the tiles that cover floors and walls of churches and public buildings, and in the cast ironwork of balconies, gates and railings, for example.  The downside was that skilled craftsmanship became scarce and therefore expensive.  It is partly for this reason that architect Alfred Loos saw ornamentation on buildings as wasted manpower and inappropriate because it isn’t functional.  As James Trilling says in his book ‘The Language of Ornament’ (Thames and Hudson 2001), ‘the all-important continuity of experience and training has been broken.  Craftsmanship is now in the hands of the few and the elite.  The old way of making things by hand is impractical in an economy based on machine-production.’  The general look of a lot of artwork dating from the machine age is felt by many people to be less attractive than earlier work.  Nikolaus Pevsner, for example, in his books on the buildings of England, makes it quite clear that he dislikes Victorian art.  Commenting on a window at Banham Church in Norfolk, for example, he writes, Long Dec chancel, unfortunately with a Victorian E window’.


But craftsmanship hasn’t died out altogether.  Village signs, each being unique, are testimony to that.  Under the heading of blacksmiths and forgemasters, many of whom do hand forged ornamental ironwork, such as gates, railings and weathervanes, eighteen are listed in Yellow Pages for the Norwich area.  There are also about thirty thatchers advertised.

For information on a charity that repairs and revitalises church buildings go to the website of the National Churches Trust at:    http://www.national