Last month we reported the reappearance of the fine series of English medieval roundels depicting eight Labours of the Months that used to be in Brandiston Hall, Norfolk, and which had not been seen since the mid-1980s, when the house was sold. Four of the roundels have now been acquired by Norwich Castle Museum, two by the Victoria & Albert Museum, and two by a private collector. David King takes up the story …
In his 1950 book The Norwich School of Glass-Painting in the Fifteenth Century, the stained glass historian Christopher Woodforde published the Brandiston Hall roundels in his chapter on the Labours of the Months. They are the most complete series to survive in England, and are of high quality compared with other sets. They also retain their original borders with relieved foliage diaper and a painted loop at the top, suggesting that such roundels were sometimes hung in front of windows.
As Kerry Ayre pointed out in her Medieval English Figurative Roundels, English sets of the Labours of the Months, whether painted on quarries or on roundels, probably derived their design from Continental illuminated manuscripts, but adapted the choice of tasks and occupations depicted to local practice; as a result, the choice of labour for each month varies considerably. Although they are at first sight secular in nature, they did appear in sacred contexts, in the calendars of illuminated service books, often alongside signs of the zodiac. They could also be seen in ecclesiastical stained glass, as for example in the splendid series by André Robin of c.1451–54 in the north rose window of Angers Cathedral, but in England the surviving examples are as far as is known overwhelmingly from domestic contexts, although a few have been in churches at some stage.
The Brandiston Hall roundels are not labelled with the name of the month, and we cannot be sure which month each panel illustrates. We do however know quite a lot about the provenance of the glass. Woodforde recalls Marsham Church as the roundels’ traditional home before they came to Brandiston Hall, but they were not part of the glass described there in the eighteenth century. They were very probably made for Pykerell’s House in Rosemary Lane, Norwich, built for Thomas Pykerell, merchant, who was sheriff in 1513 and mayor in 1525, 1533 and 1538. He is first recorded in 1498/9, when he took up the freedom of the city as a mercer; in 1540 he paid £20 to be dispensed from being mayor for a fourth time. He died in 1545.
His house was probably the one described by the early eighteenth-century antiquary John Kirkpatrick, who saw two large windows, one with roundels depicting the Labours of the Months and another with the Nine Heroes. Woodforde suggested that two of the Nine Heroes were those at Bolwick Hall, Marsham, and that they were removed from the church at the same times as the Labours of the Month roundels went to Brandiston Hall. The Nine Heroes panels, representing King David and Judas Maccabaeus, have since gone to Marsham Church [Fig. 7].
According to Pevsner and Wilson, Pykerell probably added the front range of his house in about 1525. This was the year in which he became mayor for the first time, and many windows in Norwich churches were glazed by mayors – reaching the highest civic office often seems to have been celebrated by the commissioning of a window. Both the Nine Heroes panels and the Labours of the Months roundels would suit a date of c.1525 stylistically (though the latter could be a little earlier), but the two series are in very different styles. The former represents the dying gasps of the local linear style, which had developed around the middle of the fifteenth century and by the sixteenth century had become tired and provincial. They may be compared with figures of the Four Evangelists of 1522 in the east window of St Peter Hungate in Norwich [Fig. 8]. The Brandiston Hall roundels on the other hand, although probably of local work, show the influence of Flemish and/or French art of the period and are much more sophisticated in technique, although they do retain a certain gaucheness in the handling of perspective.
Several series of the Labours of the Months, mainly of fifteenth-century date, can be linked with Norwich, and there is one intriguing historical reference that may indicate a particular interest in this iconography in the medieval city. A civic disturbance known as Gladman’s Insurrection (on or around 25 January 1443) was claimed by the city government to have been no insurrection, but merely the usual Shrove Tuesday ‘disport’, involving the King of Christmas riding in a procession through the city accompanied by others disguised as the twelve months of the year. The city fathers muddled the dates, but the important aspect is the customary procession of the Labours of the Months.
Here is a list of the Brandiston Hall roundels and their current whereabouts. They are illustrated as they were in Brandiston Hall [Figs 9–12].
Norwich Castle Museum
A King Feasting – December or January [Fig. 9, above]
A man pruning a tree – March? [Fig. 10, above]
A man sheltering from the rain – April? [Fig. 10, below]
A man picking grapes – September? [Fig. 12, below]
London, Victoria & Albert Museum:
A man warming himself before a fire – January or February [Fig. 9, below]
A woman bathing – May or June [Fig. 11, below]
A private collection:
A labourer scything – July? [Fig. 11, above]
A woman reaping – August? [Fig. 12, above]
The author would like to express his thanks to Francesca Vanka of Norfolk Museums Service and Sam Fogg for their help.