Some years ago I took up photography. As I travelled around my homeland of East
Anglia looking for suitable subjects, I discovered village signs. Many of these
are so interesting and colourful that they make very good pictures and so I found
myself with a new hobby - village sign spotting.
While pursuing this hobby I noticed other attractive features along the way, such
as patterns in flint and stone on churches and other buildings, elaborate iron gates,
and thatched roofs with decorative straw ridges. So I broadened my collection of
photographic subjects to include these other ornamental works of art. As I did so,
I began not only to learn something about the people who commissioned them, but I
also developed a clearer understanding of the history and culture of my region.
This website shows a selection of the things I found. What they all have in common
is the superlative nature of their decorativeness, the decoration being an extravagant
addition to, rather than an essential element of, the artefacts they embellish. There
is surface decoration, relief work and three-dimensional work. Most of them are
also available for anyone to see. I say ‘most’ because I’ve included some subjects
inside churches and, although churches are usually open to the public, sometimes
a church is locked for security reasons. In which case it is necessary to obtain
a key to gain access and a notice-board in the church porch will give details of
how to do so.
Usually, artefacts described as ‘decorative artwork’ are functional items for use
at home, such as ceramics, furniture, fabrics and wallpaper. These are not included
here as they tend to be in private collections and are not normally on public display
except in museums.
East Anglian specialities
Specialities of the area include flushwork, which is a decorative use of knapped
flint. Flint has been used a lot in East Anglia as a building material because it
is plentiful here, whereas stone is not. Other specialities of the region are pargeting
(ornamental plasterwork) and thatching. East Anglia is one of the few places in
Britain where reed is still grown in large quantities and harvested for thatch.
An ancient custom
Most ancient civilizations decorated things for public show. The ancient Sumerians
of the Euphrates Valley in Mesopotamia built mud brick towers and temples that they
ornamented with mosaics and frescoes. The Ancient Egyptians are well known for the
decoration of their tombs as well as other buildings. One of the earliest kings
of Babylon, Hammurabi, had a black basalt monument erected on which was carved a
relief depicting himself with a god to accompany his ‘code of laws’ inscribed beneath.
The Greeks and Romans were also great decorative artists. Carved reliefs have been
found on numerous artefacts from triuimphal arches to the prows of ships.
The earliest East Anglian examples
The earliest examples of decorative work given here date from shortly after the Normans
arrived in the eleventh century. Most of this work is in stone. Undoubtedly there
was much earlier work that has not survived because it was in materials, such as
wood, which perish relatively quickly.
It is a costly business decorating things, not only in terms of money, materials,
tools and equipment, but also in terms of time and skilled craftsmanship. To bring
these together requires good organization, something at which the Normans were particularly
good. It is reasonable to assume there must be a strong motive behind it. During
the Middle Ages this was often to do with religion. The chronicles of Hexham Priory
tell us that in 1451 the prior and chaptor of Carlisle ‘inflamed by the zeal of pious
devotion...resolved...to cover and adorn the image or statue of the glorious Virgin
with silver plates, decorated with gold, jewels, rings and many other precious ornaments,
to the praise of God and the increase of the veneration, glory and honour of the
aforesaid glorious Virgin, and also to ignite the devotion of the Christian faithful
by some ingenious and costly work.’ * From this we can see that elaborate and costly
decoration was a way of attracting people’s attention. In this case, it was to encourage
people to visit a holy shrine. Many church buildings, particularly abbeys and cathedrals,
were richly embellished, not only to attract attention, but also as an expression
of the love of God or of the saints whose relics they treasured. The more highly
esteemed a thing was, the more it was embellished.
One religious motive behind decoration was the hope of being saved from an eternity
in Hell, which seemed a very real place to the highly devout person of the Middle
Ages. Those who had earned the position of power and wealth by annihilating or mutilating
their enemies poured money into the Church as a way of buying its forgiveness and
expiating their sins.
Other motives for decoration were to advertise status, superiority and power, or
to intimidate any enemies. It was Prince Augustus, son of George III, who in 1791
in a letter to his father (who was interested in architecture), pointed out that
the ancient Romans constructed a building ‘with the intent of making it last for
ever as proof of their grandeur’. ** To the eyes of the low-born Anglo-Saxon, unused
to stone buildings, living in a small timber-framed house in Norwich at the end of
the eleventh century, the enormous cathedral and castle with their elaborate decorations
newly-built in stone by the invading Normans must have been overwhelming. The picture
below shows Norwich Castle keep as it is today, but much as it would have looked
when it was first built.
* From ‘The Priory of Hexham: its Chroniclers, Endowments and Annals’ I (Ss,44) pp.xcvii
& xcviii - as quoted in ‘Pilgrimage in Medieval England’ by Diana Webb. (Hambledon
& London 2000)
** ‘George III and the shift to Gothic’ p.521 by David Watkin
The peacock’s tail
Whatever the conscious reasons for a public show of decoration, I can’t help feeling
that there is something more deep and basic that drives the will to do it. My favourite
theory is one recently proposed by Geoffrey Miller in his book ‘The Mating Mind’
(published by William Heinemann) suggesting that all art (be it music, dance, painting
or any other) is the human equivalent of the peacock’s tail. His argument is that
the male peacock’s display is an indicator of his fitness, a display that evolved
biologically to attract a mate. This makes sense not only because art is universal,
evident in all cultures across the globe and in all historic periods, but also because
it is usually intended for some kind of audience. What we often appreciate most
is the evidence of the artist’s skill, that which reveals patience, careful execution
and the overcoming of technical difficulty. That evidence can often be seen in symmetry
and rhythm, such as you might get in perfectly repeated decorative motifs. Art is
fundamentally an outward expression of the strength and personalities of the artists
and the people who commission their work. Or to put it more crudely, a way of showing
off and saying ‘come and get me, I’m the greatest’.
The eye of the beholder
The fact that we do not all respond in the same way to works of art does not invalidate
Geoffrey Miller’s theory. As individuals, we are not all attracted to the same person,
and so likewise, our response to art is individual. Not everyone likes an extravagant
display. Even in the Middle Ages, when many people felt that the more decorated
a thing was the better, there were those who preferred simplicity. Bernard of Clairvaux
was one. In response to his seeing the newly rebuilt abbey at Cluny in 1124 he commented
on ‘ the sumptuous decoration and strange images that attract the worshippers gaze
and hinder their devotion...’ ‘O vanity of vanities,’ he exclaimed,’ yet no more
vain than insane.’ He regarded decoration as a distraction from worship. The Cistercian
movement to which he belonged was exceptional in its time for its preference for
the plain and austere.
Function and art
Today we have a phrase, ‘less is more’, among those who prefer simplicity. At the
end of the nineteenth century the architect Adolf Loos campaigned against decoration
on any building except a tomb or monument. He believed that ornamentation was unnecessary
and a waste of manpower.
It was not that Adolf Loos disliked ornament per se; he was just against using it
when it was unnecessary to the function of a building. The reason he felt that function
and art did not belong together was because he viewed art as something that arouses
emotions. In 1910 he wrote, ‘The work of art is revolutionary. (Man) hates everything
that wants to draw him out of his acquired and secured position and that disturbs
him. Thus he hates art. Does it follow that the house has nothing in common with
art and is architecture not to be included in the arts? That is so. Everything
that fulfils a function is to be excluded from the domain of art.’ His campaign
marked the start of a fashion for simplicity in architecture.
Connecting with the past
However, art is not always disturbing, but can be aesthetically very pleasing, and
function and art have often combined well. Ornamentation can be of real benefit
in many ways.
For example, when outdoor works of art, whether on buildings, street furniture, monuments
or signs, are built to last, they give us the means to be in physical contact with
our ancestors. Today, for example, I can visit a church built by the Normans in,
say, the twelfth century, and touch the stonework around its doors, the very same
stones that were handled by the craftsmen and other workers who mined them, cut them,
carried them, carved them and put them into place hundreds of years ago. But what
for me is more interesting still is what the shapes of those stones and their overall
design tell me about the people who commissioned the work. The building may tell
me something about its function, but the ornamentation tells me more about the people
themselves, just as the types of clothes we wear tell others something about the
sort of person we are. Rather than being frivolous and extravagant, artwork is an
important means of communication.
I hope this website will give you an insight into the wealth of decorative work that
is available for anyone to see in East Anglia, and that it will inspire you to do
some exploring for yourself.
TO THE FIRST CATEGORY OF ARTWORK:
The dominant feature on this sign at Cantley is the pile of sugar beet roots. It
represents the sugar beet processing factory that dominates the landscape here and
processes thousands of tonnes of beet a day. There is also a pheasant, a grebe on
a nest and a wherry on the River Yare. In the background there are the three church
towers of Cantley, Limpenhoe and Southwood.