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