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Wednesday 16 December 2015

Another hidden carved treasure in Bristol: the Canynges fireplace in the Savage's wigwam and the secret meaning of the Judgement of Solomon

Regular readers of this blog (thank you, by the way!) will know that I'm very interested in older British carvings and the things that they show. Perhaps this is partly due to many carvings having been destroyed during particular periods in the country's history: King Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries, the over-zealous Puritans, the prudish Victorians and bombers during the Second World War have all caused many historic carvings to be lost in this country. Those that have survived often give fascinating glimpses of the lives and interests of the carvers that made them and the times that they lived in, as well as the techniques that they used.

If you are visiting Bristol, my own favourite woodcarving highlights to try and see are:

The sixteenth century misericords in Bristol cathedral

The eighteenth century carvings from Thomas Paty's workshop, in Redland Chapel

The Grinling Gibbons oak overmantle in Bristol library

The oak rooms in the Red Lodge, from the late sixteenth century

In this post, I'd like to share another treasure. It is the Canynges fireplace in the Bristol Savage's wigwam.

The Bristol Savages are a society of artists and musicians who meet in the 'wigwam', an impressive building in the garden of the Red Lodge in Bristol. 

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The society first began meeting in 1894 and took the name 'Savages' in 1904. In 1919, the Red Lodge came on the market and the Savages bought it. After drawing up a lease to allow continued use of the building for meetings, it was officially handed over to the City of Bristol. 

The design of the wigwam is loosely based on a Gloucestershire tithe barn. It was designed by a member of the Savages named C.F.W. Dening, and became their official meeting place in April 1920.

Although it is not generally open to the public, on Open Doors days non-members can go inside the wigwam and see the collection of strange and fascinating artefacts. That is how I came to see the impressive carved fireplace that is the subject of this post.

Canynges fireplace in Bristol savages wigwam

According to an information board next to the fireplace, it originally stood in Canynge's House in Bristol. When that building was demolished in the 1930's, a member of the Savages named Eddie Welch rescued this fireplace and gave it to them. 

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This painting, by A.E. Parkman, shows the fireplace in its original home after a destructive fire in 1881. At this time, the building was occupied by C.T. Jefferies and Sons who were printers and booksellers. The house was originally built for the Canynges, a family of powerful and wealthy medieval Bristolian merchants. 

William Canynge the Younger (b. 1400-d. 1474) gave a lot of money to St Mary Redcliffe church in Bristol and his merchant's mark can still be seen carved or painted on many places in the church, as well as his heraldic shield (showing three moor's heads) and also statues of Canynge himself.

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He had this fireplace in his banqueting hall and the information board points out that it 'must have witnessed the vast feast that Canynge gave to Edward IV in 1461'.

According to the information board, there are at least three phases of carving on display in the fireplace. The lower part dates to around 1350.

On each side of the fireplace stands a figure. These show William Canynge the Younger as a layman on the left and as a member of the clergy on the right (he was ordained in 1468 after the death of his wife and became dean of Westbury-on-Trym in 1469). They must have been added later on and you may notice that they have already been removed from the fireplace in Parkman's painting shown above.

William Canynge the younger

The over mantle may have been added at a later date again. The information board says that its age is 'Jacobean (say 1650)'. The fashions do look Jacobean, but that would place its making between 1603 and 1625 and not at the later date of 1650 (which was during the rule of Cromwell's Parliament, an unlikely period for such an elaborate and obviously Royalist feature to be produced). 

The central scene depicted on the over mantle is the Judgement of Solomon, a story from the Old Testament of the Bible.

The tale relates how Solomon was approached by two women, who are identified as prostitutes in some versions of the tale (hence the bared breasts). They had both given birth in the same place at about the same time. One child was stillborn but the other lived. The mother of the dead child secretly exchanged the living child for hers during the night but the child's real mother protested and the two women appealed to Solomon to decide who was the real mother.

He decided that each mother should keep half of the living child. Just as the sword was about to cleave the youngster in two, the real mother of the living child proved that it was hers by begging for its life. The mother of the dead child persisted in asking for the sword to be used.

The over mantle shows King James the First of England (or James the Sixth of Scotland) as the wise king Solomon. I wonder if there is more to this than meets the eye though. 

The story of the Judgement of Solomon is thought to be a political parable by many scholars (as mentioned in The Cartoon History of the Universe by Larry Gonick). The false mother represents Solomon, the true mother his political rival Adonijah. The living child represents Israel and the sword is war. In this parable, Solomon is declaring his readiness to split the kingdom with Civil War and that Adonijah and his family should give up the throne rather than see Israel destroyed. This is why, on hearing Solomon's Judgement, all Israel 'trembled'.

The king of Britain after James was Charles the First and his reign ended with the English Civil War and Charles' execution. I wonder if the scene on the fireplace alludes to the growing conflict between the Royalty and Parliament at the time, or possibly the competing Catholic and Protestant claims to the throne?

You may notice that there are two alcoves to each side of the figure of Solomon/James. The one on the right contains the figure of Eve but that on the left is empty. The figure of Adam was removed from it at a later date as it was thought to be too rude.

Thanks to the representatives of the Bristol Savages for taking time to chat with me about the fireplace and for giving permission to take photographs at the event.

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