A new hobby or two


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.

What’s included


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.


Be inspired


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.




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.