The conservators’ initial inspection of the north transept reredos revealed indications that there was once an elaborate canopy over the north transept reredos, projecting outwards from the structure we see today. The cataloguing of the fragments has subsequently added more pieces to the puzzle, with several fragments identified as parts of the lost canopy.
During the cataloguing work in June this was explored further by comparisons to examples elsewhere in Wells.
From Nick Phelps, Volunteer Documentation Assistant:
“On Tuesday 28th June I spent the day with Jerry Sampson. We spent the morning at Wells Cathedral photographing the Lady Chapel reredos and chantry chapel canopies of honour so we could compare them with that at St Cuthbert’s. We also looked at the stonemasons’ marks and found that there were stonemasons that worked at both the Cathedral and St Cuthbert’s. When we returned to St Cuthbert’s Jerry explained the different phases of building within the church and how it can be seen in the windows of the church. In the afternoon I started researching in the medieval wills looking for people who had made a donation to St Cuthbert’s. One will I found belonged to Thomas Tanner who left money for a tomb to be built under the window to the right of the Jesse reredos. When we looked at the wall there were various marks and Jerry believes these to be the remains of Thomas Tanner’s tomb.”
From Jerry Sampson:
On the Tuesday morning with Nick, one of our volunteers, we went to the cathedral to take some photographs of the surviving canopies of honour on the chantry chapels of Bishops Bubwith (d.1424) and Bekynton (d.1464), and treasurer Hugh Sugar (d.1489) – which make good parallels for the lost northern canopy at St Cuthbert’s. Bekynton’s chantry, in particular, (which retains much of its red, blue and gold colour scheme) seems to reflect the design of the north transept reredos.
We also spent some time investigating the Lady Chapel reredos, since it seems very strange that while the Bubwith chantry and the High Altar reredos at the cathedral are known to have been defaced and chopped-back like those at St Cuthbert’s, that the reredos in the Lady Chapel retained all of its architectural detail, albeit apparently reduced at the top. This is particularly strange given that the Bishop of Bath and Wells from 1548-53 was William Barlow who was a firebrand reformer and had previously been responsible for the destruction of the relics of St David at St Davids Cathedral in Pembrokeshire.
The preliminary inspection, however, suggests that the reredos in the Lady Chapel has been carefully, but very heavily restored, and that virtually everything which projects beyond the faces of the pinnacles has been renewed. There is a lot of paint remaining in the deeper recesses of the architectural framework towards the back, but nothing on the projecting elements, and there are joint lines (some more visible than others) defining the positions of the repairs. Only the lower parts were examined closely (a ladder will be needed to survey the canopies and the top elements), but all the bases of the niches have been renewed; so it would appear that Barlow had the reredos defaced, and it was probably repaired with new canopies and fronts to the bases during Salvin’s restoration in the 1840s. Anne Crawford, the Cathedral Archivist, is hoping to investigate the documentary evidence.
The 1813 pencil drawing of the Lady Chapel by John Coney shows a partial and fairly distant prospect from the north-west, but what can be seen of the reredos suggests that at that time the canopies were defaced or missing (see Greenhalgh, 1982, pl. 80).
In addition to the extensive paint survivals on the architectural framework, it is also clear that the medieval reredos shared at least one constructional detail with the north transept reredos at St Cuthbert’s. The demi-hexagonal niche bases of the upper tier at the latter have three drilled holes in their faces made to receive wire armatures to secure the freestanding canopy pinnacles, and two of these armatures still survive on the central upper tier nice. At the cathedral the same technique was used on the demi-hexagonal projections. John Harvey attributed the two reredos to the same master mason – whom he calls ‘The Reredos Master’ – but he dates both to the middle of the fifteenth century:
‘In the middle of the fifteenth century an architect with a highly individual style was active in Wells at the cathedral and elsewhere. His detail can be recognised in the reredos of the Lady Chapel, the alterations to the central tower (1439-50), and in the Bykonill tomb (c.1448) and that attributed to the precentor Thomas Boleyn. At St. Cuthbert’s church he was responsible for the upper part of the tower and for the reredos in the north transept.’ (Harvey, 1982, p. 101)
Holes for similar armatures were found in many of the pinnacle fragments which survive in the stone collection at Glastonbury Abbey, so this seems to have been a common technique at this period.
Harvey, John (1982) ‘The Building of Wells Cathedral, II: 1307-1508′, in L.S. Colchester (ed.) Wells Cathedral: A History. Open Books: Shepton Mallet, p. 101.
Drawing by John Coney reproduced in Greenhalgh, D. M. (1982) ‘The Nineteenth Century and After’, in L.S. Colchester (ed.) Wells Cathedral: A History. Open Books: Shepton Mallet, p.180, pl.80.