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A 20th-CENTURY CATHEDRAL TREASURE

Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 16th July 2010
David Winpenny answers a question and looks at an important work of art.

Last week’s column finished with a question: ‘In which rather unlikely spot in Ripon will you find a metal sculpture of the head of Hermes complete with his winged helmet?’

The answer is that it is part of the decoration on the pulpit in the Cathedral. About two inches high, it is just one of a number of small head-and-shoulder figures that hide beneath the copper body of the pulpit, forming the capitals of the heavily-veined pale green marble columns.

It is worthwhile taking a very close look at the pulpit. As the latest edition of ‘The Buildings of England; Yorkshire West Riding,’ published last year, says, it is ‘easily the finest post-medieval fitting in the cathedral’; finer, that is, than the reredos – the gilded structure behind the high altar at the east end of the Cathedral – designed by Sir Ninian Comper in 1922 and often highly praised.

In contrast, the pulpit is often ignored, despite its size. There may be reasons for this. It has quite a lot to compete with. Visitors entering the cathedral from the west end will immediately notice two things. The first is the asymmetry of the nearest arch of the crossing, where the 15th-century builders gave up on their attempt to replace the 12th-century round arch with a new pointed one. The second thing that draws their attention is the array of brightly-coloured statues on the screen – placed there in 1947 but coloured later.

So the eye of the visitor is distracted. But the pulpit has another drawback – its date. It was designed in 1913, not a period recognised as one of the great moments in art history. It’s not really Arts and Crafts. It’s not Art Nouveau. It’s certainly not Art Deco. It falls just at the moment when there was some uncertainty about where design was going – and anyway, war was about to come along and interrupt any artistic continuity.

Yet Ripon’s pulpit is really something special. And so was its designer – Henry Wilson, a name that deserves to be better known. He was born on 12 March 1864 at 91 Red Rock Street in West Derby near Liverpool and trained as an architect at Kidderminster School of Art, Westminster School of Art, and the Royal College of Art. Then he joined the architectural office of John Oldrid Scott, the second son of Sir George Gilbert Scott, who restored Ripon Cathedral in the 1860s. The younger Scott insisted that an architect should have a good understanding of all aspects of a church, including its furnishings and metalwork.

John Oldrid Scott was a Gothic architect; the next architect for whom Wilson worked was not. He was John Belcher, who specialised in Renaissance and Classical buildings, with a dash of the Baroque added. The Ashton Memorial in Lancaster, which Ripon Civic Society visited last year, is a good example of his work. From Belcher Wilson moved to one of the most interesting of late-19th-century architects, John Dando Sedding. Sedding’s Gothic style was much freer than Scott’s; his most remarkable work, Holy Trinity Church in Sloane Street, London, is a showcase of Arts and Crafts. It was completed by Wilson after Sedding’s death. From Sedding, Wilson had the message he had learned from Scott reinforced: that, as Wilson’s entry in the Dictionary of National Biography says, ‘it was the sacred duty of the architect to unite the crafts, conducting a dedicated orchestra of masons, carvers, woodworkers, metalworkers, glaziers, and embroiderers.’

Wilson took this very much to heart. Although he continued for a while to design buildings, his interest was drawn towards designing and making metalwork. He spent two years in a metal foundry learning the techniques of the craft, and spent the rest of his life designing and producing wonderful metalwork – everything from the most exquisite jewellery, through door handles and hinges to whole monuments and pieces like Ripon’s pulpit.

After training with Scott, Belcher and Sedding – two Goths and a classicist – it is not surprising that Wilson wanted to branch out on his own. He took for his inspiration the art of Byzantium. He was not the only artist to take Byzantine art as his starting point. John Francis Bentley, a generation older, used the style when he designed Westminster Cathedral.

Wilson’s Byzantine style was less full-blown that Bentley’s, and he combined its shapes with the organic decorative shapes of the Arts and Crafts tradition – think of late William Morris wallpaper designs to get the idea. The Ripon pulpit is typical of his style, and repays careful study. The statues of the Celtic saints and their attributed coats of arms are the most obvious elements, but look deeper; there are vine leaves and bunches of grapes beaten out of single sheets of copper. Groups of cherubs appear to support the mass of the pulpit in their small shoulders. And the stairs that reach the pulpit are in some ways even more remarkable – prefiguring Art Deco in their very simple styling.

All in all, it is a remarkable and precious work, of which Ripon should be proud. Soon it will be the centenary of Wilson’s fine pulpit. Let’s start planning now for the celebrations!





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