Catalogue of English Alabasters

 Location: England

Subject: Art & Design

Dates: 2005

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To provide the definitive guide to English Medieval Alabasters

Project History

Francis Cheetham OBE was the director of many ACE tours during the 1980s and 1990s. Francis came to ACE after a life’s work in the museum world, culminating in his creation of the Norfolk Museums Service in 1974. In addition to his professional achievements, Francis developed a keen personal interest in English medieval alabaster sculpture, a field in which he was to become recognised as the world’s leading expert. In the 1980s he published a book called English Medieval Alabasters, which explores the history of these fascinating artworks with particular reference to the V&A’s outstanding collection. Having catalogued the V&A collection, Francis began tracking down as many of the other surviving sculptures as he could find, scouring churches, museums and private collections to build up an unrivalled and invaluable archive. Together with its companion volume on the V&A collection they provide the definitive guide to the subject.

Alabaster stone of a quality suitable for carving was excavated mainly in south Derbyshire, carvers of tombs being the first exponents of the art. One of the earliest alabaster images, the effigy of Edward II in Gloucester Cathedral, dates back to 1330. By the end of the 14th century, the alabaster carvers had started to produce vertical panels, designed to be arranged as a series in the shape of altarpieces. The most popular themes depicted are the Adoration of the Magi, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. Records show that although pieces were produced in Burton-on-Trent and York, the main centre was Nottingham. So successful were the English alabaster sculptors that they developed an important export trade. Their work can be found in churches and museums ranging from Iceland to Croatia, although the biggest overseas concentration is in Normandy. Whole altarpieces as well as individual carvings survive, often in the churches that originally commissioned them. Indeed, an altarpiece of the Life of St James, dated 1456, is still to be found in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain.

Although many alabaster carvings have lost much of their colour, traces of the original paint can often be found in the recesses of the figures. Paint was applied without a ground, for the alabaster itself provides a smooth and non-absorbent surface. The lower parts of the panels were usually painted green and decorated with daisies; the upper background was usually gilded, and the images painted in green, red, brown and black. Although painting was an important part of the finished piece, areas of alabaster were usually left untouched to contrast with the painted colours.

Project & ACE

In 2005, ACE republished Francis Cheetham’s book English Medieval Alabasters. In 2000, ACE agreed to provide financial support towards the publication of the archive, which was finally published in 2003 as a book entitled Alabaster Images of Medieval England, cataloguing and illustrating the majority of known alabasters outside the V&A collection.