OR those who have taken note of the mediaeval Alabaster Altar Tombs that are scattered liberally throughout the country, it is not necessary to write a comprehensive introduction, but as it is possible that this book will fall into the hands of some readers whose interest may be attracted for the first time to these exquisite achievements of the sculptor's art, and the beautiful material in which they are executed, it may be well to give some particular s of the men who carved them, and the source whence the material was obtained.
These craftsmen were known by various names such as 'alablastermen,' 'kervers,' 'marblers," and 'image-makers.' The trade was well established during the 14th Century, as is evident in many Churches, but alabaster was used for monumental purposes earlier than this period. Mr. St. John Hope states, in his paper read at Nottingham in July, 1901 (Royal Archaeological Journal, Vol. 61), as the result of his considerable researches, that the earliest alabaster effigy known is that of a cross-legged Knight in Hanbury Church, Staffs., of a date which he computes at about 1290.
Nottingham enjoyed a considerable reputation for its skilful 'kervers' in alabaster, only rivalled by Tutbury. In the Journal of the Royal Archaeological Institute of June, 1906, there is a paper by Mons. Camille Entart, in which he refers to " la prodigieuse quantitie de sculptures d'albatre, principalement de l'ecole de Nottingham, qui furent alors importees dans toute la France" during the 15th Century; and France was not England's only customer, for there is a well-preserved reredos of this material in a Church in Iceland, also an elaborate altar-piece in Ferrara, both of English execution.
The Records of the Borough of Nottingham mention that "image-making seems to have been a somewhat important trade in Nottingham. Their (the Kervers) wares were sold all over the country"; they also contain many references to the trade, of which the following are a few:—
On 6th June, 1371, payment was made to Peter Maceon (Peter the Mason?), of Nottingham, "of the balance of 300 marks for a table (altar piece) of alabaster made by him and placed upon the High Altar within the free Chapel of St. George of Windsor."
His reputation would probably become known to King Edward III. during one of his frequent visits to the town, and so secure him this large order, the execution of which, it may here be stated, cost £200 (equivalent to £4,800 in these days), and required 10 carts, 80 horses, and 20 men to transport it to its destination. The journey occupied seventeen days in the autumn of 1367, and the expenses of transport amounted to £30 or about £720 to-day.
In 1478, among the "Fines for Licence to traffic," one Nicholas Godeman, an 'aleblasterer,' not a freeman or a burgess, paid a fee or fine of viij pence to follow his calling in the Borough.
In 1490, Nicholas Hill, image-maker, delivered 58 heads of St. John-the-Baptist, part of them being in tabernacles or niches. A great trade was done in these, which were specialities in the town apparently; there is a fine specimen of one in the Leicester Museum in its original oak-case. On 31st October, 1491, the same man sued his salesman. In June, 1493, he employed a Robert Tull to convey images to London, but defaulted in payment. In 1530, William Walsh sued John Nicholson, 'stainer' (that would be a man who painted and gilded these figures), for the carriage of a cartload of alabaster from Chellaston in Derbyshire, to Nottingham—a distance of 14 miles at least—his charge appears to have been 1/6, but he was non-suited.
Thomas Prentys and Robert Button, 'kervers' of Chellaston, made the splendid alabaster Altar Tomb, which bears the effigies of Ralph Green and his wife at Lowick, Northants. (1419). The original contract for this work is still preserved, as are also those for some of the beautiful Tombs to the Earls of Rutland at Bottesford, concerning which Lady Victoria Manners gave many interesting details in papers contributed to the Art Journal in September, October, and November, 1903. The cost of these richly-embellished monuments seems extremely small in the present day—the Lowick Tomb appears to have cost 50 marks (£40), and Garrett Johnson charged £100 each for two very sumptuous ones at Bottesford.
The finest material was obtained from the quarries at Chellaston, a few miles south of Derby. Alabaster, now commonly called gypsum, is composed of sulphate of lime, is soft and easily worked, hardens by exposure, and was held in "high esteem among civilised nations of antiquity" (Encyclopaedia Brittanica). It is probable that from Chellaston the material was conveyed down the River Trent, which flows not far away from the quarries, to Nottingham, where it was worked. It is known that some of the more bulky productions were worked on the spot, for, as already mentioned, Prentys and Sutton, who made the Lowick Tomb, are stated to have been 'kervers' of Chellaston. It is marvellous to contemplate how these ponderous and at the same time delicately-executed objects, were transported in safety from place to place over the rough roads that existed in mediaeval days; water transport was, no doubt, for this reason resorted to wherever possible, and probably Hull was the port whence the prodigious quantities of alabaster referred to by M. Entart were exported. It is known that some of the Bottesford monuments came by sea from London to Boston. Other places that yielded this material were Tutbury (Staffs.). Gotham, Radcliffe-on-Soar, and Wheatley near Newark in Notts. It is stated (General View of the Agriculture of the County of Nottingham by ROBT. LOWE,) that "at Red Hill, at the junction of Trent and Soar is a fine plaster quarry, from which Mr. Pelham, now Lord Yarborough, had columns of twenty feet high, in three pieces, used in his Mausoleum." Lord Scarsdale also used the same quarry for those at Kedleston, This is the Red Hill or Cliff that gave the name to the village referred to in this book as Radcliffe-on-Soar, not Ratcliffe, as commonly written. Doubtless it was from this source that the Sacheverells obtained the material, yielded by their own property, for their monuments. The alabaster of the present day is said not to be of such fine quality as in the past, and the modern method of obtaining it by blasting, so shakes the hillsides as to render it difficult to secure a large and sound block. It is still extensively used for making plaster of Paris, etc.
Although the features of the effigies in many cases are somewhat alike, it is almost impossible not to think that some precautions were generally taken to secure that they should bear a resemblance to the persons whom they portrayed; in many instances the features show so much character and individuality that it can scarcely be accidental. As a study of costume, and the changes in defensive armour, these figures are most interesting. The occupation of the ' kervers ' met with a very considerable check after the Reformation, when anything in the nature of images was discountenanced.
This book does not profess to be a history of the several families mentioned in its pages, but rather consists of extended notes on the Monuments in Churches which I have visited on various occasions. Armour and Heraldry being highly technical subjects, and the inscriptions and shields of arms being in some cases difficult to decipher, it is possible that errors may be found in the following pages, for which I ask the reader's forbearance.