St Benet's has attracted the attention of painters and photographers for the last two hundred years. Prior to this, however, it's rare to ﬁnd anything at all, which is why one of the earliest known images is so fascinating. An ink and watercolour sketch of the Gatehouse, dating to the early 1700s by John Kirkpatrick
; it is a piece of antiquarian reportage.
Today, archaeology is open to all, but in the 1700s it was the pastime of the wealthy gentleman, whose library was incomplete without prints of historic places. Kirkpatrick’s view of the gatehouse shows competent draughtsmanship and some ﬂair. Choosing a 3/4 view presents a mass of complex architectural shapes and decoration, which he captures with clarity in brown ink. Deft grey washes add further detail and show the interior vaulting still there, though the upper storey is missing.
Kirkpatrick intended his sketches to be the basis of engravings for publication. In this case the result is in a print published in 1722 by the Society of Antiquaries, showing two views and a ground plan. Without doubt one view is from Kirkpatrick's sketch but the other has interesting discrepancies. The London engraver, George Vertue, having not seen the Abbey himself, would have to rely upon others and reconcile the reportage of various antiquarians. It is believed this, and a further Society engraving showing the other side
of the gatehouse, were produced from drawings by Humphrey Prideaux, Dean of Norwich Cathedral at the time.
This image contains diagrams of the heraldic shields, which is a typical indicator of an antiquarian, historical focus rather than an artistic one. Both images are of great value, as they show features long since gone; remains of the upper storey (soon to be demolished for the mill), the bridge and moat and perhaps a glimpse of further ruins inside the precinct, through the archway.
Another antiquarian engraving, from Monasticum Anglicanum
, a book of British churches & religious houses ﬁrst published in the late 1600s, gives some idea of how the church looked. It is not a totally reliable record. The drawing does not accord with all the remains of the church on site today and certainly the draughtsmanship is not up to Kirkpatrick’s standard.
By the 1800s romanticism and the fashionable search for the picturesque were influencing visitors to St Benet's. The newly industrial age brought disposable income to a growing middle class, and what better way to spend it than art for a newly wallpapered sitting room?
The Norwich School
Local artists from this period, who came to be known as the Norwich School, depicted an untouched rural world in an increasingly steam & machine driven age. They almost all tackled St Benet's, in watercolours, oils & prints. John Crome was the best known. His oil painting shows St Benet's as no more than a small focal point in a masterly contemplation of the vastness of Norfolk.
shows the ruins from the river, and the central feature of his oil is two magniﬁcently rigged wherries, moored patiently alongside. This is one of two almost identical oils now in Norwich Castle - common practice for an artist to repeat a successful painting.
John Sell Cotman is today the best known of the Norwich School. He made numerous treatments of St Benet's, in keeping with his experimental artistic nature. An on the spot sketch clariﬁes the mill and its woodwork, showing the water scoop
, enclosed in a drum, on the right. One oil shows the ruin surrounded with trees
, a typically fanciful piece of Cotman artistic licence. When he had the idea of capturing and widening the antiquarian market in 1810, by publishing etchings of historic Norfolk with a fashionable, picturesque ﬂair, St Benets was among his ﬁrst subjects. A changing sky of sun and showers casts moving shadows in a well-planned drama, silhouetting some areas and highlighting others, to give the ancient arch the starring role. A large watercolour, dated 1831, is even more dramatic. Fishermen
huddle in a patch of golden sunlight, seemingly oblivious to the wild sky looming behind them. It’s a long way from the sober antiquarianism of the 1700s.
Friends and followers
, Cotman's lifelong friend and fellow watercolourist, made several subtle, skilful pictures along less dramatic lines. St Benet's was also popular among the second generation Norwich School artists and it is interesting to see the dramatic approach of James Stark in his etching, circa 1820, where the moon is already peeping though cloud
as the sun sets, casting ominous shadows over the ruins. Miles Edmund Cotman
's rich, bright watercolour takes a viewpoint surely much inﬂuenced by his father's etching, with a similarly threatening sky. Perhaps the most dramatic of all must be Henry Bright
's magniﬁcent oil of 1847, subtitled "Thunderstorm clearing off." Bright had a successful career and was known for his mastery of different media. He exhibited this oil at the RA in London in 1847, where it was criticized in the Athenaeum magazine for a "dexterity & ﬂippancy of execution, pushed to the extreme – as seen in the handling of the clouds with the palette knife…" By contrast the Art Union reviewer praised it as "a picture of uncommon power, truly beautiful production…" Fortunately it is now part of the Norfolk Museum collections.
St Benet's popularity with artists also drew early Norfolk photographers. Contemporary with Bright's oil, an 1847 photograph by Harold White shows the mill in good working order
. By the time of George C Davies' 1883 study, however, it too is becoming an enimatic ruin
Throughout the twentieth century the popularity of St Benet’s as a subject for painters never dimmed. Edward Seago
, who lived locally, achieved widespread success in his own lifetime and was a particular favourite of the royal family. St Benet’s Abbey is among his many depictions of the rural East of England. Indeed few Norfolk-based artists have failed to tackle the gatehouse ruin against an East Anglian sky.
The painting forming the backdrop to this web-page shows St Benet’s in the snow and is by Linda Matthews
, who runs the nearby Broad Skies Gallery at Ludham Bridge. As popular tourism has opened up the Broads, fresh representations of the iconic gatehouse and mill feature in many visitors’ sketchbooks. Our art gallery shows some of the works both amateur and professional artists have captured of this special place. Do take a look, and if you’re inspired to, share your own depiction with us.