The Church of St James the Great

in the Parish of Morpeth

Mark Dobbins
History and description
The church is an exceptional example of 19th-century architecture built entirely in a Norman style. The interior is no less remarkable for its architectural detailing, sculpture, furniture and fittings, culminating in the apsidal east end with blind rounded arcades, and the Clayton and Bell scheme. Executed in 1875 - some thirty years after the building of the church - this is the only figurative painting that was commissioned. The scheme originally comprised a depiction of Christ in Majesty flanked by angels and saints in the semi-dome, with, below, three large panels showing The Agony in the Garden, The Crucifixion, and The Resurrection; and at arcade level, scenes from the life of the Virgin and Old Testament prophets, patriarchs and kings
The proposed scheme submitted by Clayton and Bell differed from this in some details. Most notably, the arcade painting was planned to be mainly decorative, with an Agnus Dei in the centre. The original proposal for the semi-dome also showed Christ in Majesty as a standing figure. Although the semi-dome was completely painted over in the 1970s, examination during the present phase of investigations indicated that the Christ in Majesty was changed to a seated figure


19th-century mural techniques: context and development
Clayton and Bell was the foremost firm of ecclesiastical painter-decorators in the country during the late 19th century. Famous for its design and production of stained glass, the firm also pioneered the successful production of large-scale wall painting schemes. 

Following the failure of the fresco revival movement during the earlier part of the century, the patenting of 'spirit fresco' painting by Thomas Gambier Parry in 1862 was a turning point for English mural practice [Manning 1994]. His original recipe combined beeswax, oil of spike lavender, spirits of turpentine, elemi resin and copal varnish, and involved complex instructions for both preparing the wall surface and applying the paint. Simplification and widespread dissemination came with commercial development, and within a decade arts suppliers such as Robersons & Co were providing ready-made tubes of 'spirit-fresco' paint. For the first time in the Victorian era, the way was opened for the mass production of durable ecclesiastical wall paintings.

Although no documentation exists to prove that Clayton and Bell adopted the 'spirit fresco' process - the firm's archives were destroyed during World War II - this is widely believed to be the case [Manning 1994: 39]. However, the 19th century was also a period of intense innovation in oil-painting techniques. A proliferation of instruction manuals and handbooks advocated a wide range of additives - including waxes, resins, albumen, animal glue, starch, lead acetate and manganese compounds - to enhance the versatility and durability of oil-based paints [Carlyle 2001]. If Clayton and Bell's mural techniques therefore remain uncertain, these developments in 'spirit fresco' and oil painting must have influenced the firm's mural practice, with an emphasis on in situ techniques which combined speed of execution with durability.

The Morpeth scheme is a relatively modest one, and only two of the firm's artists, Hewitt and Macdonald, actually came to execute it. The overall composition was certainly prepared in London, and the processes of transferring it in situ are clearly evident. Tacking holes in the plaster show that figurative scenes were broadly traced from full-scale cartoons (Plates 2-3). Haloes were incised by compass and outlined in pencil before painting (Plate 4). Details within the main compositions and elsewhere were either stencilled, pounced through templates, or set out along incised grids (Plates 5-7). Occasionally, stencilled details were misplaced, painted out and redone (Plate 8). Largely executed in a linear style against solid background colours, the whole process of painting was clearly geared towards two qualities much valued in the Victorian period, technical proficiency and ease of reproduction.

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