Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments, a Digital Edition

Plates 1.13-1.14: St. Benet’s Abbey Gatehouse

Plates: Unlike most of the plates in Vetusta Monumenta, the plates of St Benet’s are neither signed nor dated. The minutes for 11 December 1723 record that Peter Le Neve (1661-1729) “brought a drawing of the West side of the Abby Gate of St. Bennets Holme Norff. by Mr. Prideaux. Likewise the N.W. view, & the East view of the Same, which are the only remains there, which are now Orderd to be Engraven” (SAL Minutes I.94). On 2 September 1724, George Vertue (1684-1756) “brought proof prints of the Abby gatehouse of St. Bennetts of the Holm, and Robert Collets [sic] monument” (Plate 1.15) (I.128). The undated original drawing for the North West view survives and is signed by John Kirkpatrick (1687-1728) (Luxford 2014, plate 5). (Edmund Prideaux’s (1693-1745) drawing of the west view is untraced.) Much of the gatehouse was destroyed when a brick windmill tower was built on the site c. 1730, which was later depicted in John Sell Cotman’s 1813 etching East View of the Gateway of St Benet’s Abbey. These images may have been created in anticipation of future development. Kirkpatrick’s drawing is labeled, in a later hand, “a windmill built on the top since this was drawn.”

Object: The Monastic Gatehouse at St Benet’s at Holm, Salhouse, Norwich, Norfolk.


Plate 1.13, Left: The North West View of the ABBY GATEHOUSE of St. BENNETS in the Holme Norff.

Plate 1.13, Right: Another View of the Gatehouse.

Plate 1.13, Center Inset: The Groundplot

Plate 1.13, Bottom Label: Sumptibus Societatis Antiquariӕ.

Plate 1.14: The East side of the ABBEY GATE of S.t Bennet.s in Norfolk. / Sumptibus Societatis Antiquariӕ.

Preparatory Drawings: Click here to see the Preparatory Drawings for Plates 1.13-1.14.

Commentary by Matthew M. Reeve: The three views of the great monastic gatehouse of St Benet’s Holm provide important visual evidence of what was one of the most significant fourteenth-century gatehouses built in Britain. Although not securely dated, its construction is surely related to a license to crenellate granted by Edward III on 23 October 1327. It is one of a sequence of monumental, decorated gatehouses either added to or rebuilt for English monasteries during the early fourteenth century, such as Peterborough (1302-07); St. Augustine’s, Canterbury (crenellated 1308); Kirkham Priory, Yorkshire (1300-15); the Ethelbert Gate at Norwich (1317-17); Butley Priory, Suffolk (c. 1320-30); and others. Like the gate at St Augustine’s, upon which the Holm gate is partially based, it was a rich, two-towered façade with octagonal towers and an embattled silhouette. Its central register is comprised of an elegant series of micro-architectural canopies, the center containing a two-light window, with the lateral spaces functioning as niches for sculpture long lost by 1723 (Luxford 2014, 50-51). Based perhaps on the Ethelbert Gate in Norwich, the spandrels of Holm are decorated with relief carvings of hybrid creatures in combat, some of which are still visible in Plate 1.13. At the same height as the spandrels are eight raised panels of flint attached to each turret (though only four are clearly visible in the engraving). Although the period witnessed extensive use of flint flush-work in East Anglian Decorated architecture, these raised flint panels—which would originally have sparkled in the sunlight—are unique to the Holm gatehouse and may well have been intended to reference the hallowed description of the New Jerusalem (built of gold and precious stones) from Revelation 21:11-22.

The gatehouse is now ruinous. Roofless by 1594, the gatehouse was subject to the elements for well over a century before it was captured in these 1723 views. Not long afterwards (c.1730), a brick windmill tower was created within the gatehouse that demanded further dismantling it. The Vetusta Monumenta engravings are thus of exceptional historical value and have ultimately functioned in the manner that the Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL) intended them to, since they have informed a recent restoration (Luxford 2014). Cumulatively, the three images provide something like a panoramic survey of the gatehouse as it stood in the early 1720s. Plate 1.13 employs a collage style with the north-west and west perspectives side by side, and joining them a ground-plan fictively pinned onto the two images and sagging under the weight, creating a trompe l’oeil effect. The west perspective (at right) features an expanded gallery of the heraldic blazons that ran across a cornice above the door head, echoed in the lower right-hand corner of the east view (Plate 1.14), a slightly more distant perspective that includes a telltale windmill and other signs of agriculture. Although the northwest view (Plate 1.13) follows closely from John Kirkpatrick’s drawing in its basic details, it also omits or distorts aspects of the original. George Vertue’s engraving completely omits the texts on the drawing and suggests a rather more ordered, rectilinear view of the gatehouse. Vertue has also added more shade and contouring than can be found in the original drawing. More confusing here is the relationship between the northwest and west views in Plate 1.13. While the northwest view (at left) manifestly follows from Kirkpatrick’s drawing, there are a range of differences in the west view (at right) that are not easily reconciled: for example, the polygonal turret on the left hand has been partially reconstituted, the flushwork panels noted above are either absent or have been sunken into the plane of the turret, and the crocketed arches on the upper register have foliation that is a gross abstraction of the original forms. Why the engraving takes this license is not altogether clear. The SAL minutes for 11 November 1718 (I.14-15) and 11 December 1723 (I.94) record that two different versions were presented by Peter le Neve, President of the SAL from 1707-10 and again from 1717-24. The second presentation of drawings which were selected for engraving included all three drawings of the gatehouse, but only the west side of the gatehouse is securely identified as being by the Fellow and amateur artist Edmund Prideaux. Although the drawing does not appear in the portfolio published by Harris (1964), Prideaux was recording medieval monuments in East Anglia during the period, including the gatehouse of Bury St Edmunds. We may speculate that the approach to the west side of the gatehouse in Plate 1.13 was Prideaux’s own intervention (which would not be inconsistent with his approach to architectural form generally), while the other two drawings were by Kirkpatrick. Whether these were re-presented drawings from the 1718 meeting or altogether new drawings is unclear.

That Prideaux’s authorship is referenced in the Minutes and Kirkpatrick’s is not is unsurprising, since the former was a Fellow and the latter a jobbing draughtsman. In any case, in the difference between model and copy we glean something fundamental about the antiquarian aesthetics of Vetusta Monumenta in the 1720s. Occasionally, strict accuracy was sacrificed to stylistic “correctness” and to the desired atmospheric effects of antiquarian images. Yet, circling the gatehouse and providing full elevations of it provided sufficient evidence for recent scholars to offer a full reconstruction (Luxford 2014). The panorama format was explored in other architectural/topographical entries at this time, notably in the views of Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire published in Vetusta Monumenta the previous year (1722).

Works Cited:

Harris, John. 1964. “The Prideaux Collection of Topographical Drawings.” Architectural History 7: 17-108.

Luxford, Julian. 2014. “Architecture and Environment: St Benet’s Holm and the Fashioning of the English Monastic Gatehouse.” Architectural History 57: 31-72.

Society of Antiquaries of London. 1718-. Minutes of the Society’s Proceedings.

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