Workshop Origins

Brass Rubbings Collection

Strangely, not until 1969 did anyone examine brasses closely to determine if there were characteristic details that would make possible the identification of the workshops from which they came. Herbert Haines in his pioneering Manual of Monumental Brasses (1861) noted as “peculiar” those brasses of provincial origin, and Mill Stephenson in his A List of the Monumental Brasses in the British Isles (1926) identified these as “local,” both assuming that all except Flemish brasses were of London origin. True, it was easy to distinguish between a Flemish and English brass, for the former was invariably a rectangular plate on which every inch was engraved whereas the English brass displayed individual effigies. Scholars recognized, too, that most brasses were cut to a standard pattern and were rarely portraits—that knights of a particular period, for example, all tended to look alike. With Haines and Stephenson they agreed that most brasses had been engraved in London, but that some were the work of provincial workshops. No one, though, had gone further until J.P.C. Kent in 1969 presented the results of his research in the Journal of the British Archeological Association.

By examining military effigies from about 1360 until 1485, he determined that major characteristics distinguished the brasses of six independent London workshops, which he identified as producing series lettered A, B, C, D, E, and F. Since, at one time or another, several workshops produced brasses simultaneously, his ability to distinguish among them has been rewarding. For example, the "A" series, which began c1350 and continued to be made by a master, his assistant, apprentices, and successors, until c1410 when the workshops apparently closed. Meanwhile, the "B" series begun c.1360 and was produced by another group of engravers until c1470. Soon other workshops began to produce the brasses known now as series "C," "D," "E," and "F." The "D" series seems to have been a development of the ornate "A" series, and the "E" is related to the "B" series. Over the years, too, the various series passed through a number of variations, producing both superb examples as well as clumsy ones, as in the "debased F" series after 1520.

Since Kent’s pioneering study, others have refined on his categories. In 1978, Robin Emmerson in the excellent article, "Monumental Brasses: London Design, c1420-85" identified the civilian and ecclesiastical brasses made by London workshops producing the "B" through "F" series, and, more recently, the studies of Paul Binski and John Blair of pre-1350 brasses have illuminated both the sequence of London figure brasses as well as the workshops that produced them. We now recognize a "sub-B" series, a "debased F" series, several categories of "G" series, and a short-lived "H" series. And, recent scholarship has begun the task of identifying possible engravers and designers, especially from the Tudor period on.

Pioneering research by Sally Badham, John Blair, Malcolm Norris, Roger Greenwood, and H.K. Cameron on provincial workshops has made possible identification of series produced near Cambridge, Bury St. Edmunds, York, Coventry, Norwich, and Canterbury. In recent years, too, Sally Badham, John Page-Phillips, and John Blair have begun the study of inscriptions, suggesting that certain letters in a specific script may reveal the work of particular craftsmen or at least help us to identify the workshop engraving the brass.

A few illustrations can suggest how identification of the workshops is possible. Kent noticed, for example, that noses on effigies produced by the London workshop making the "A" series were of several types. One group shows the nose slightly displaced to the left on individual figures and displaced toward each other on brasses with two effigies, as on the brasses of Joan Plessi (c1360) at Quainton, Buckinghamshire, and Raulin and Margaret Brocas (c1360) at Sherburne St. John, Hertfordshire. By 1400, another type of nose is more frontal but again easily recognized as a comparison of the brasses of a priest (c1400) at Berkhampstead, Hertfordshire, and Alice Cassy (1400) at Deerhurst, Gloucestershire, will reveal.

Details of armor can also help to identify a series. For example, on the brass of an unknown knight (c1365) at Berkhampstead, Hertfordshire, the mail protecting the neck has two lines between each band, a characteristic of the "A" workshop, but the London workshop producing the "B" series engraved only a single line between each band.

The face and the mail, however, are not the only determinants. Early brasses from the London "D" series have other distinguishing details: large roundels or besagews protect the armpits, fan-shaped couters, the elbows, and long, fingered gauntlets with small cuffs, the hands. Good examples are the brasses of Sir John Drayton (1417) at Dorchester, Oxfordshire, and an anonymous man in armor (c1415) at Barsham, Suffolk.

Interestingly, the eyes of effigies are open despite the fact that they are assumed to be dead and recumbent in imitation of such sculptured tombs as that of the Beauchamp family in Worcester Cathedral erected in 1388. In the latter part of the fifteenth century, however, engravers began to portray some figures in a semi-profile position, and at once the effigies seem alive (cf. John and Alice Chudderle, c1475, at Hinton St. George, Somerset). It may be that the new fashion, the butterfly headdress, was the cause since it was almost impossible to show it full face. In any event, this semi-profile stance became increasingly popular. If then one has a brass in which the figures are in semi-profile and the woman wears the butterfly headdress, one can be fairly confident that it was probably made in London by the workshop producing the "F" series, and quite confident if the male figure is in armor, has a short steel fauld or skirt, similar pauldrons or shoulder armor, and a sword hanging diagonally behind his left thigh. A fine example is the brass of Paul and Margaret Dayrell (1491) of Lillingstone Lovell, Buckinghamshire.

Provincial workshops were also producing brasses throughout the period from the late fourteenth until the mid-sixteenth century, and in patterns similar to and often copied from those produced in London. Still, there are definable differences. For example, women on a number of provincial brasses made in Cambridge or East Anglian workshops are shown wearing the mob cap, a country fashion rarely seen on a London brass, and with the outer skirt pinned up at the hip. A London brass of the same period would show women wearing the popular pedimental headdress.

By the late sixteenth century, some brasses can be attributed to the workshops of specific engravers such as Edward Marshall or the sculptor Gerard Janssen. Janssen came to England from Amsterdam in 1567 with his wife and five sons, changed his name to Johnson, and set up a workshop with seven employees on the south bank of the Thames. And there, in addition to sculpting marble tombs, he produced a series of brasses that bear his imprint—brasses with well-proportioned figures, carefully drawn faces and hands, an accuracy of detail, especially of armor, and hatching that is purposeful in giving a three-dimensional effect. A piece that illustrates very well his fine work is the brass of Thomas and Elizabeth Gage (1596) at West Firle, Sussex.

It is such reference to specific details that helps us now to identify the products of specific workshops though difficulties still remain, as in distinguishing some "F" and "G" series brasses in the early sixteenth century until c1530, when there seems to have been some kind of merger of the types. For the majority of the brasses in the Hamline collection, it has been possible to identify the London or provincial series to which each belongs.

The English Workshops

These dates are derived from various sources: J.P.C. Kent’s "Monumental Brasses—A New Classification of Military Effigies, c1360-c1485," JBAA, 12(1949), 70-97; Paul Binski’s "The Stylistic Sequence of London Figure Brasses" The Earliest English Brasses, pp. 69-131; Robin Emmerson’s "Monumental Brasses: London Design, c.1420-85," JBAA, 13 (1979), 50-78; Malcolm Norris’s Monumental Brasses, Vol. I (1977), Vol. II (1978), and his "Introduction" to Monumental Brasses: The Portfolio Plates (1988); Sally Badham’s Brasses from the North East (1979), and her "Suffolk School of Brasses," MBST, 13 (1980) 41-67; Roger Greenwood and Malcolm Norris’s Brasses of Norfolk Churches (1976), "Coventry Style Brasses," MBS Bulletin #4 (December 1973), 8.

Hamline University is not seeking additional rubbings for its collection.