Why old photographs matter: a ‘lost’ church mural from Avebury

The images on HEIR are an important record of heritage management, change and destruction over the course of the 20th century – and are also a reminder of ‘forgotten’ heritage. Today’s example comes from Avebury, but rather than featuring the prehistoric monuments for which the village is famous, this photograph preserves an image of a medieval work of art which goes unmentioned in modern guidebooks.

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This photograph, taken by R.W. Wylie sometime around 1890, shows the interior of Avebury Church, Wiltshire. In the foreground is the famous font with its 12th century carvings.

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Behind is the richly-carved 15th century wooden rood screen (the partition between the chancel and nave) and rood loft (a display gallery for the cross). The majority of English rood screens were destroyed during the Reformation, but although the screen was taken down at Avebury, the dangerous decision was taken to hide the timbers behind a false wall rather than destroying them. The secret was only discovered during works on the church in 1812. The screen was restored in the 1870s and 80s with the help of architect Charles Ponting, who also correctly identified the nave as being of Anglo-Saxon construction.

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In the background of our photograph, behind the rood, is a magnificent wallpainting dating to the 14th century. This large mural of angels, a cross, and foliate decoration was described as ‘one of the better examples’ of the period by Charles Cox in his English Church Fittings, Furniture and Accessories. Today, this same wall is bare, painted over at the instigation of one of Avebury’s vicars sometime between 1945 and 1975, much to the consternation of the parishioners. Apparently, the vicar did not like it and wanted it out of the way when his daughter was married in the church.

Modern guides to the church make no mention at all of the lost mural – how many years before it fades from memory altogether, like the hidden rood screen?

Many thanks to David Davidge, recently retired churchwarden, for information on when and why the wallpainting was covered over.

Bibliography

Cox, C. 1923. English Church Fittings, Furniture and Accessories. London: B.T. Batford.

Ponting, C. E. 1884. ‘A description of the Saxon work in the church of St James’, Avebury.’ Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine 21, 118-193.

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