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Plate 3.38: Chimney Piece in the Bishop’s Palace at Exeter
Scholarly Commentary with DZI View for Vetusta Monumenta, Plate 3.38: Chimney Piece in the Bishop's Palace at Exeter. Commentary by Lenia Kouneni.
Plate: Engraved by James Basire (1730-1802) after a drawing made by William Davey (fl. c. 1790-1809), published 23 April 1796. Davey’s drawing was first presented to the Society of Antiquaries of London on 30 April 1795 by William Buller, bishop of Exeter (SAL Minutes XXV.413) and bought for five guineas in June 1795 (SAL Council Minutes III.204). The accompanying explanatory account was written by Richard Gough (1735-1809), Director of the Society from 1771 to 1797.
Object: Plate 3.28 depicts a late-fifteenth century chimneypiece erected by Bishop Peter Courtenay (1478-1487) in the Bishop’s Palace, Exeter. It is a late Gothic heraldic fireplace that became a trendsetter for many grand chimneypieces installed in the houses of Exeter’s clergy. Standing at four meters high and two and a half meters wide, the chimneypiece is made from creamy-grey local limestone quarried from Beer in East Devon. It was originally placed in Bishop Grandisson’s parlour in the west wing of the Bishop’s Palace, but it was repositioned to the east wing during eighteenth-century renovations for Bishop Frederick Keppel (1762-77) and finally moved to the drawing room in 1952. The chimneypiece is still preserved in excellent condition in the Bishop’s Palace.
Top: Vol. III. Pl. XXXVIII.
Bottom: W. Davey del. / J. Basire Sc. / A Chimney piece in the Bishop’s Palace, at Exeter / Sumptibus Soc. Antiquar. Londini. Publish’d according to Act of Parliament, 23d April 1796.
Original Explanatory Account: Click here to read the original explanatory account for Plate 3.38.
Commentary by Lenia Kouneni: The third volume of Vetusta Monumenta includes a plate of a highly ornamented chimneypiece found in the Bishop’s Palace at Exeter. Published on 23 April 1796 and engraved by James Basire, Plate 3.38 belongs to the fifth and final part of the third volume following a section describing Viscount Montagu’s seat at Cowdray (Plates 3.33-3.37) and immediately before a print of a Roman tessellated pavement at Colchester (Plate 3.39). Apart from the latter, all the prints in this volume were “entirely devoted to medieval subjects,” with no less than twenty-five plates on medieval architecture (Evans 1956, 191). The Exeter chimneypiece fits well with Richard Gough’s mission to preserve the nation’s medieval heritage and his attempts to provide accurate engravings of medieval antiquities.
Gough, Director of the Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL) from 1771 to 1797, took a particular interest in the medieval period and was instrumental in the Society’s growing concern with the medieval past. The accompanying explanatory account for the mantelpiece was written by Gough himself and provided a detailed description of the object, focusing in particular on its elaborate heraldic carving. The fireplace was first brought to the attention of the SAL on 30 April 1795 when William Buller, Bishop of Exeter (1792-1796), presented “a curious drawing of a chimneypiece in the Episcopal palace at Exeter” (SAL Minutes XXV.413). The drawing was by William Davey, a local draughtsman who specialised in topographical views of Exeter. The Society bought Davey’s drawing for five guineas in June 1795 and “ordered that the account […] be referred to Mr Director for the Vetusta Monumenta” (SAL Council Minutes III.204-05). The chimneypiece is, in fact, the only drawing by Davey found in Vetusta Monumenta—an exception to the rest of the plates of Volume 3, which had been drawn by draftsmen such as John Carter (1748-1817) and Jacob Schnebbelie (1760-1792) hired by the SAL on a contract basis.
Davey’s drawings of Exeter’s monuments, and particularly those of the cathedral, were often engraved by Francis Jukes (1745-1812) and others, and appeared in topographical publications. Davey was also preparing a work on the history of Exeter Cathedral and had collaborated with Carter to identify the sculptures of the west front screen (Britton 1826, 111). Carter had been employed by the SAL from 1794 to 1798 to survey Exeter, Bath, Wells, Durham and Gloucester and produce detailed drawings for the Cathedral Series (Nurse 2007, 145). He drew and measured the Cathedral of Exeter in 1794-1795, and he must have thus met Davey during this time (Evans 1956, 206; see also SAL Minutes XXV.414-17, 422-23 and 426-29). Carter’s work on the cathedral drew the Society’s attention to the city’s medieval fabric; Davey’s drawing complimented Carter’s researches and offered an example of architectural and sculptural decoration of medieval ecclesiastical residences. Carter’s Exeter Cathedral drawings, also engraved by Basire, were published in 1797, a year after the publication of the Exeter chimneypiece print appeared in Vetusta Monumenta (Crook 1995, 11, 23).
The chimneypiece was one of a series of elaborate stone fireplaces installed in a number of Exeter’s residences in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries (Portman 1966, 13-14; Kelly 1968, 15-16). Described by Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner as “exceedingly ostentatious,” it is certainly the grandest and most extravagant of late medieval English heraldic fireplaces (1991, 417). It is a showpiece of late medieval ornament that became a trend-setter for many grand chimneypieces installed in the houses of Exeter’s clergy, such as John Coombe’s fireplace formerly in the Precentor’s House in the Cathedral close, recorded in an 1833 drawing by Solomon Hart. Commissioned by Bishop Peter Courtenay (1478-1487), the chimneypiece was originally placed in Bishop Grandisson’s parlour in the west wing of the Bishop’s Palace; it was repositioned to the east wing during eighteenth-century renovations for Bishop Frederick Keppel (1762-77) and finally moved to its current location in the drawing room in 1952 (Jenkins 1806, 273-74; Blaylock 1987, 13-14; Blaylock 2017, 275). Bishop Courtney was a Devon man who left his mark on both the Cathedral and the Palace. During his episcopacy, he completed the north tower of the Cathedral and gave to the Cathedral one of the largest bells in England; he also embarked on a number of alterations at the Palace, including the erection of the mantelpiece (Oliver 1861, 255-57).
Standing at four meters high and two and a half meters wide, the fireplace is made from creamy-grey local limestone quarried from Beer in East Devon. Its square-headed opening is decorated all around with alternating flowers, the bishop’s initials PC (Peter Courtenay) and Tau crosses—which, as Gough explains in detail in the original explanatory account, were the badge of the Hospital of St Anthony in London, of which Courtenay was Master. The Tau crosses are also paired with bells on the sides of the central coat of arms; when Buller presented the drawing to the SAL, he commented on this combination, citing an extract from John Stow’s A Survey of London that reported that “it was customary with the Proctors of that Hospital to slit the ears of pigs and tie a bell” around their necks to signal that they should be spared from slaughter (SAL Minutes XXV.413). Gough also includes this quotation in his account of the print and adds that St Anthony the Abbot is often represented with the Tau “hanging from his girdle, and the bell from the neck of the pig at his feet” (Gough 1796, 1).
The lintel features three square panels, which contain in circles shields of the Courtenay family. From left to right, we have the arms of Courtenay on a fluted seal supported by collared and chained swans, followed by the arms of the See of Exeter impaling Courtenay of Powderham within a circle of three dolphins; to the right, Courtenay impales Hungerford surrounded by two boars. The shield panels are topped by an ogee-headed canopy with an elaborate carved frame decorated with flowers and portcullis. Inset into the canopy, a further panel includes the bishop’s mitre, sword, and keys. At the apex of the canopy, a large central corbel carved with rosebush and portcullis supports the Royal Arms in a garter surrounded by two collared greyhounds. The fireplace is framed by a slender tall shaft that rises on each side and is capped with a capital, above which stands a shorter column with a rosebush finial. The familial symbols of Hungerford (three interlocking sickles) and The Paravells (a wheatsheaf) are interspersed all around the chimneypiece as decorative devices (Chanter 1932, 31-33). The presence of the greyhounds (a favorite device of Henry VII, associated with Elizabeth of York) and their combination with the roses and portcullis badges point to a date between 1485 and 1487 (Wood 1965, 271).
The chimneypiece is still preserved in great condition in the Bishop’s Palace; comparing the engraved image of the mantel to its current state reveals that Plate 3.38 records faithfully the appearance of the chimneypiece. The print depicts the fireplace divorced from its immediate surroundings in the Bishop’s Palace, visually isolated with no indication of its specific location and without any sense of scale. Gough’s account offers no such details either, with its majority concentrating on the heraldic meaning of the decoration and the life and career of its commissioner, Bishop Courtenay.
Gough’s account and the discussion that took place when Bishop Buller presented Davey’s drawing to the SAL reveal that the main interest of antiquaries on the mantelpiece was linked more to its heraldic display and less to its aesthetic qualities. Heraldry was a subject of interest and study to antiquaries because the history of noble and gentry families was central to national and local history. Heraldic devices also helped to date monuments. Fireplaces, in particular, were frequently used for the display of heraldry, and chimneybreasts were covered with complex armorial diagrams of dynasties. The Exeter fireplace is rich in heraldic motifs and is a testament of the late medieval history of the Bishop’s Palace. Although it was preserved in excellent condition at the time, the eighteenth-century (and earlier) alterations to the building may have raised issues around its future preservation. Recording the chimneypiece in Vetusta Monumenta offered eighteenth-century audiences an example of late fifteenth-century embellishment of domestic English architecture—and, specifically, of ecclesiastical residences. The print combined Vetusta Monumenta’s main concerns with preservation, the visual language of Gothic art and ancestry.
The inclusion of the Exeter fireplace in Vetusta Monumenta likewise corresponds to the rising interest and popularity of chimneypieces in Britain during the second half of the eighteenth century. Mantelpieces were important features of the eighteenth-century English interior; the hearth functioned as the focus of domesticity, and country houses often included elaborate pieces decorated with heraldic motifs (Craske 2016). Architectural treatises published in the second half of the eighteenth century devoted attention to chimneypieces, noted their importance to English houses due to the climate, and elevated them into a particularly English art form (Ware 1756, 553; Chambers 1759, 77-78). Although most of the designs catered to a Palladian and neo-classical taste, there were some attempts to create chimneypieces based on Gothic tombs (especially that of Aymer de Valance in Westminster Abbey). The most distinctive ones were the examples designed for Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill and Sir Roger Newdigate’s Arbury Hall and University College Oxford (Kelly 1968, 56-58; Cox 2012; Lindfield 2016, 83, 165-66). The print of the Exeter chimneypiece offered a little-known example of a medieval fireplace as a potential source of inspiration for the secular, domestic Gothic Revival. It is the only print of a medieval fireplace included in the Vetusta Monumenta series; the singularity of this recording may have played a significant role in the rise of the popularity of Gothic chimneypieces and overmantels in the nineteenth century.
Two replicas of the Courtenay chimneypiece were installed in houses in the nineteenth century. In the 1830s, Robert Logan (1772-1838) placed a copy in Italian grey marble from Bardoglio with the arms of Clopton and Logan families in his dining room of Kentwell Hall in Suffork, after a redecoration of the house led by the architect Thomas Hopper (Wall 1986, 58). William Courtenay, the 11th Earl of Devon (1807-1888), in memory of his grandfather Reginald Courtenay (1741-1803), Bishop of Exeter from 1797 to 1803, installed a further close copy in the dining room of Powderham Castle with different heraldic details and finials (Powderham Castle 2011, 10). Without a doubt, the familial connection to Bishop Peter Courtenay, the original commissioner of the Exeter chimneypiece, who was born at Powderham Castle, influenced the decision to copy the chimneypiece; the replica of the late medieval fireplace complete with armorials served as a display of ancestral heraldry and celebrated the longevity of the Courtenay family and its dynastic connections.
The engraving certainly played a role in the dissemination of the image of the Exeter fireplace in later centuries. It attracted visitors, such as Joseph Farington (1747-1821) who singled out the chimneypiece “of great antiquity” in his diary during his visit to the Episcopal palace in 1810 (Farington 1926, 6.176). A few early nineteenth-century topographical publications mentioned the chimneypiece plate (Britton and Brayley 1803, 78; Lysons 1822, cccxlviii). In 1832 The Mirror published a woodcut of the mantlepiece, taken from the engraving (XIX, no. 554, 417-19). Nineteenth-century antiquarians referred to the plate and built on Gough’s account. Henry Syer Cuming (1817-1902) mentioned the chimneypiece and its engraving in his examination of the symbol Tau (Cuming 1871, 309). The fireplace also became the subject of a monograph written by Maria Halliday (1825-1884) and Roscoe Gibbs (1841-1909) as a companion to their volume on Monuments and Effigies of Porlock Church (1884). Gibbs, a Devon draughtsman, made a new drawing of the chimneypiece that formed the basis of a large photolithograph by James Akerman reproduced on the opening pages of the book. Halliday expanded on Gough’s account by discussing in detail all heraldic emblems and decorative motifs of the chimneypiece, while Roscoe provided a description of different elements of the fireplace and elaborated on the arms of the See of Exeter.
The Courtenay chimneypiece is one of the most ornate fifteenth-century fireplaces to have survived in England. Its Gothic form, but particularly its heraldic carving, attracted the attention of the SAL at a time when drawings and studies were under way for the nearby Exeter Cathedral. Its publication in Vetusta Monumenta helped to circulate its image and provided the impetus for further studies. The history, development, and decoration of the Bishop’s Palace were researched in more detail in the twentieth century (Chanter 1932). A new record drawing of the chimneypiece was prepared by Jane Brayne in 1985 during an archaeological recording of the building (Blaylock 1987, fig. 5; Blaylock 1990, fig. 13). The chimneypiece remains one of the few traces of the original ornament of the west wing of the Bishop’s Palace to survive today.
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