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The Yorkist Wall Paintings of Pickering Church

Professor Kate Giles’ magisterial and richly illustrated volume, The Wall Paintings of Pickering Church: Their Discovery, Restoration and Meaning, was published last year by Shaun Tyas, with publication costs aided by a grant from the Yorkist History Trust. Here, Professor Giles talks to the Trust about these unique survivals, the dating of which she and her colleagues have revised to place their creation at the heart of the Yorkist period. She discusses her enduring interest in these paintings, their history, and their meaning.

What led you to first becoming interested in the wall paintings at Pickering?

Well, the honest answer I suppose is that – like many students – I came to York to study the Middle Ages, and where else would you study the Middle Ages but York? There, I became really interested in churches in Yorkshire; I was working on my PhD on guildhalls in the city of York when the Royal Archaeological Institute asked me to be the tour guide at Pickering one of their northern summer progresses. As I was writing notes for a handout, working at my desk, I had one of those moments where the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. I was writing down as much information about the saints depicted in the wall paintings as I could, in case someone asked me a really tricky question about St George’s feast day or something, and I just started going from left to right, west to east, on the plan of the church and I realised I was writing ‘March, April, July, August, September, November, December…’. It was one of those moments where the centuries just fall away and I thought “my goodness, this can’t be a coincidence, there must be something behind this!”

Locations of paintings of saints in Pickering church. Courtesy and © of Kate Giles.

I began to think about the ways in which communities like Pickering might be interested in marking out liturgical and festal time – looking for parallels in other wall paintings as well as other media, like liturgical calendars in books of hours, as well as theological writing on competing notions of time, and I published something very briefly on the discovery in Church Archaeology hoping to hear whether the ideas resonated with any other discoveries… But then, of course, my supervisor told me to stop thinking about Pickering and write about guildhalls, but it’s never gone away. I think we all have those buildings or places or stories that keep niggling away at us, and you feel that you need to go back and do it justice – and here we are twenty years later, and I’ve done it! It’s joyous, but obviously terrifying as well because you’re waiting for people to review the book and see whether they like it, but this has been one of the most enjoyable pieces of writing and research that I’ve done. Partly that’s because the luxury of a book gives you the time and space to tell that story, but also because the driving force behind the project has been to look after the paintings today, as they desperately need conservation work. The book, then, challenges received wisdom about the paintings being a boring Victorian restoration and helps the church to do something about them now – that’s really kept me going. I hope that the launch of the book is also the launch of that campaign.

Could you say a few words about the church, its location, and its background as a general introduction?

Pickering, for those who don’t know it, is a market town in North Yorkshire. It’s mostly famous now because it’s the home of the North York Moors Railway! There’s also a royal castle and the church. The church itself is really tucked away – it’s almost invisible, up a set of stairs from the marketplace. A lot of people don’t even know it’s there. It’s got an amazing porch, and when you push the door open and go inside it’s a real ‘wow’ factor. I love watching people coming into the church for the first time and just gazing at these paintings. 

There was probably an early medieval church at Pickering. It’s surrounded by other very early churches – like Lastingham and Kirkdale – and there are a few bits and pieces of Saxon work. But most of the surviving fabric dates from the mid-twelfth century and later. It’s an ‘every-church’, really – I love teaching in it because you can say “look, there’s a waterleaf capital!”, and “look, there’s a fifteenth-century clerestory!”, and “look, there’s a completely rebuilt Victorian transept and a fourteenth-century chantry chapel!” Because it had the big Victorian makeover, you can really talk about how the way we experience it today is such a good reminder of the way in which medieval churches worked, when it’s actually a reconstruction by the Victorians of that hierarchy of the east end.

Pickering church and churchyard. Courtesy and © of Kate Giles.

The town of Pickering is intriguing in the later Middle Ages because it’s part of the Duchy of Lancaster. It always has a sort of divided loyalty between the houses of York and Lancaster and its citizens are not terribly happy about that. Unfortunately, the church isn’t brilliantly documented – we only have one medieval will that tells us about the guild of St Mary. So, the documentation that I’ve used is largely antiquarian, which presents challenges but also opens opportunities to fill the gaps with comparative study.

Looking to the wall paintings themselves, could you describe what the scheme is – what do they consist of, how extensive are they, and how unique are they?

The paintings that we see today are on the north and south walls of the nave – the bays of the east and west ends are blank, and we don’t know what’s underneath the plaster there, but we’d like to have a look! We know that there were earlier paintings in the church, and we know that some have been lost. For example, there was a St Michael weighing souls on the west wall, there was a Doom painting recorded as being in the north transept, and there was a Last Supper in the chancel. We don’t know what date those paintings were as there are no drawn or photographic records of them at all. It’s possible that they were part of an earlier scheme.

But the surviving paintings date to around 1470, the third quarter of the fifteenth century, and we’ve been able to refine that dating thanks to some of the detail of the armour in the Beckett scene. They go hand-in-hand with a big investment in the nave of the church at the same time, which included raising the nave walls and adding a clerestory. It’s really interesting to speculate who might have created them. North Yorkshire in the Middle Ages is a landscape full of fascinating people such as Robert Thornton with his famous manuscripts, and not to forget the great monastic houses like Fountains and Rievaulx. There’s a danger today that people think that the area must have been a bit of a cultural backwater, but of course it’s absolutely stuffed full of castles and interesting families and people, as well as an increasingly literate laity who were clearly interested in devotional practice and I suspect there were committees and groups of guilds who were behind the creation of the paintings at Pickering.

Nave of Pickering Church looking west. Courtesy and © of Kate Giles.

In terms of what they show, the paintings have always been seen as entirely typical of a fifteenth-century scheme. They’re sometimes described by art historians as being a medley or a bricolage of popular saints, and that’s exactly what we have. Saints George and Christopher, as you might expect them, are on the west end of the north wall. There’s also St John the Baptist and a lot of images of the Virgin Mary, which I’m sure relate to the guild dedicated to her. St Thomas Beckett is included, a very popular saint of the period in North Yorkshire, and more unusually, perhaps, is St Edmund. We also have St Katherine, whom I suspect someone was very fond of, as she has a whole bay of the south wall to herself! There’s then a series of scenes that are more associated with things like the catechism, the Passion story, and the corporal acts of mercy – things that were didactic and were good prompts for thinking about how you could go out and be inspired to do good works on your doorstep.

The north wall. Courtesy and © of Kate Giles.

A very functional explanation for the scheme is that the painters or the patrons had a book like the Golden Legend which they just flicked through and asked, “what saint do you want in April?” But the more interesting proposition is that it’s actually about marking out time in the church, a reminder of the unfolding of light and candles and statues and the other ways in which the bays may have been marked out by people fond of the paintings. As far as I know, it’s the only scheme like it. There are other depictions of time and temporality in medieval wall paintings, such as the seasons, or at Raunds (Northamptonshire) there’s a clock, or figures of death and lifecycles. But this seems to be the only thing quite like this.

We might also imagine that different areas of the church were sat in, stood in, or used by different groups in the community who had an affection for a particular saint. The image of St Katherine, for instance, might have been associated with a patron who shared her name or by the young women of the church. The other interesting thing is that there is a gender division in the scheme – all the saints on the north wall are male, and there’s every form of masculine piety that you might find inspirational expressed there, whereas the south wall is populated by Katherine, most of the images of the Virgin, and the catechism schemes. If people were sitting or standing along gender lines, then that might have appealed as well.

The south wall. Courtesy and © of Kate Giles.

How did you approach studying the paintings and what other sources did you draw on in order to uncover them as you have?

The sources are incredibly rich for Pickering, particularly the antiquarian material. It’s uniquely well documented from the moment of their rediscovery in the 1850s through to the present, through waves of conservation work. But those archives are really scattered and fragmented: some are in Pickering, some are in Northallerton, some are in York, some are in the Church of England Record Centre in London, and some are in the V&A. So, part of the joy of this book has been bringing together all these really different sources in some cases back together, and in some cases joining the dots between them. Some have been real revelations – a wonderful former student who had worked on the paintings in the 1970s emailed me from Kazakhstan to ask if I knew about the drawings in the church’s safety deposit box and they turned out to be these incredible rolls of anaglypta wallpaper with 1950s drawings of the paintings by Janet Lenton and Clive Rouse. There are layers upon layers of records – drawn, photographic, archival – that have allowed me to tell the story of what happened to them in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In researching the medieval meanings of the paintings, there are lots of comparative studies and scholarly work on other schemes of painting, which help to put the Pickering paintings in context, despite the lack of medieval documentary sources. There are also records of the discovery of paintings in other churches in the nineteenth century and an expansion of scholarship surrounding it. At the time Pickering is being discovered, people like Charles Keyser are publishing their guides to wall paintings, and more and more of Pickering is coming back into view as subsequent editions are published. It’s a very exciting church for the story of studying and conserving wall paintings as all the great scholars were drawn to Pickering because of what it had. Although they were all a bit equivocal about what they saw, they needed to see and draw it nonetheless, and they all get involved in conserving it – sometimes in a good way, sometimes not.

What is the history of their discovery and the work that was done to them in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries?

The paintings must have been covered over at the Reformation. They’re not commented upon by Edward VI’s commissioners – the guild is still hanging around but there’s no criticism of any wall paintings. Then in the 1850s they’re rediscovered by the vicar, John Ponsonby, who is doing some restoration work and I suspect the workmen just get carried away, revealing all these amazing paintings. People start coming to visit them from not just the York antiquarians but from the general public and the London antiquarians, too. Ponsonby is horrified by their Catholic imagery, partly because their rediscovery is set in the context of what’s called the Papal Aggression where there is an attempt to reimpose the Catholic hierarchy, which is very present in his memory but he’s also obviously very conservative. He’s unhappy about a party in the Church who look upon the Reformation as ‘a limb badly set’ and he’s obviously deeply disconcerted by the Oxford Movement who see the medieval Church as a source of theological inspiration, but also possibly by the Cambridge Camden Society and the Ecclesiologists saying, “let’s go look at lovely church buildings and restore them”. He is not interested in any of that – he wants an easy life, he’s in his seventies, and he refuses to preach in the church while they’re on view, so he just wants the paintings done away with. There’s a lot of criticism of Ponsonby, including from the residents of Pickering who want them on display because they can spot a tourism opportunity. But Ponsonby nevertheless ignores the instructions from the Archbishop and, to the horror of the antiquarians, they disappear from view and are not rediscovered until the 1880s.

Pickering church c.1860s. Courtesy of Kate Giles and © of Pickering parish church.

At that time, people hadn’t forgotten about the paintings – it’s a really interesting reminder of what it must have been like in the sixteenth century when people remembered schemes of painting over a lifecycle and wanted to see them again. That made me think in lots of interesting ways about losing paintings in the past and present. It was the Reverend George Herbert Lightfoot who had done a big restoration project and then embarked on re-revealing the paintings with his artist, Edward Holmes Jewitt. Jewitt was a bit of a Pre-Raphaelite – he worked for Shrigley and Hunt, a contemporary stained-glass company. Together, Lightfoot and Jewitt spent ten years uncovering/repainting the scheme, which was not un-controversial – they knew that – but they were also determined to restore a sense of coherence and meaning.

Unfortunately, the period in which they are re-painting is at a moment when scholars are beginning to study medieval art generally, and paintings particularly, but also to think about how to conserve and preserve them – there are a lot of slightly dodgy variants on fixative recipes, mostly involving beeswax and turpentine in order to seal the paintings. They think they’re doing the right thing by protecting them from damp, but they’re absolutely not – it just stops the paintings from breathing. Of course, these methods also attract dirt and dust, so they have to be cleaned in 1902. By the thirties, they are in need of cleaning again. At that time, we get Ernest William Tristram – who had drawn the Pickering paintings as a student in 1915 when he was studying with William Richard Lethaby at the Royal College of Art – brought back as a consultant to commission their cleaning. Tristram uses another fixative recipe that is unfortunately found wherever he worked, and it was a bad story for the paintings. His student, Clive Rouse, is brought in during the 1950s and again in the 1960s – he tries to reverse the earlier work (using another sealing method) and also does some repainting because there had been some damage from the winter of 1947, particularly to the St Christopher figure. He also knows this is a bit controversial but feels that it is justified.

In one sense, the story of the wall paintings is also a story of conservation methods and treatments – often experimental – and maybe Pickering was a very good place for it because largely what they’re applying these things to are Victorian pigments. Since the book went to press, I was sent a photo by the North Yorkshire County Record Office in Northallerton that shows the paintings when they were re-uncovered in 1880, and they were not in a good way. Would we do the same thing now? Absolutely not! But one of the interesting things I’ve written about in the book is that there have been calls – for example, by Sir Simon Jenkins – to repaint medieval painting schemes that are a bit dull and fragmentary. Pickering is a really good example of where that has been done, with bravado, but it’s one of the reasons they’ve been criticised by art historians. What’s interesting to me is that you can see the scenes that Jewitt did invent – the archers at the bottom of St Edmund, for example, are very Pre-Raphaelite and you can see where he’s added in his own artistic sensibility, which the archaeologist in me thinks is great!

What is the Yorkist connection to these paintings, and what is its significance?

This may be where I get carried away – one always has to be careful when you’ve been studying something for a very long time, and you want to see meaning in it because you want to explain that the communities who created these paintings were living in exceptionally interesting times. So, there is obviously a lot here about intercession, devotional practice, the fragility of life, and the idea that the saints might literally step off the wall and intervene in your life. I think Pickering communicates that very powerfully.

But there are some things that are also more intriguing: particularly at the east end of the north wall, we have a juxtaposition of St Thomas Beckett and St Edmund. We might expect to see Beckett in North Yorkshire at this date – it’s a version of his martyrdom which is very restrained, and the knights are just standing there before they’ve drawn their swords and Beckett’s chaplain, Edward Grim, is imploring them not to harm the archbishop. Contrast this with the painting at Stratford-upon-Avon where the knights are in the process of stabbing Beckett and there’s blood everywhere!

Martyrdom of Thomas Beckett. Courtesy and © of Kate Giles.
Martyrdom of St Edmund. Courtesy and © of Kate Giles.

But Edmund is slightly more unusual as a northern saint. As he was martyred by the Danes, is there perhaps a lingering Viking association going on here? The residents of Pickering might have liked Edmund because he was part of that story. I don’t know; that idea wasn’t so convincing. But then I started thinking about who might have been particularly devoted to these saints. Obviously, they’re great models of ecclesiastical and noble piety, but it’s interesting that Edmund is one of Henry VI’s favourite saints: Lydgate’s Lives of Saints Edmund and Fremund is dedicated to him. On the other hand, Beckett is the favourite of Edward IV.

Of course, it is tempting to think about this in the context of the conflicts between the houses of York and Lancaster that must have created quite a few tensions for the citizens of Pickering. We don’t know how long these paintings took to paint, but Pickering was a town caught between divided loyalties, as I mentioned earlier. Although part of the Duchy of Lancaster, they complain that they are ordered to march on York, which is not conducive to good neighbourly relations. The idea that I suggest in the book is that the citizens of Pickering had learned how to hedge their bets in life, and maybe they did that in art as well. Whoever was sat on the throne, their paintings offered something for everyone. It’s very intriguing.

What details can you give us about the book itself? What does it comprise and who might be interested in picking up a copy?

First of all, it looks lovely! The Trust’s generous contribution to support the publishing costs has allowed this book to have a lot of images in it. These paintings are very difficult to photograph, so I wanted to have some really good new orthophotographs of them, as well as really good quality watercolour images and antiquarian drawings. It’s quite expensive to reproduce these images in full colour from a publishing point of view, so the Trust’s grant has made a huge difference to being able to include these images in the book – but also at a price that both scholars and enthusiasts of Pickering church (and maybe even students!) can reasonably afford. It was wonderful that Shaun Tyas was able to price the book at £20 without compromising on the images, endnotes, and bibliography; this wouldn’t have been possible without the Trust’s help.

I hope that it can be read at different levels. It can be read as a really great story, and it can show people the layers of meaning behind the current paintings. Visitors are always amazed at how well preserved the paintings are and the book will be able to explain that it’s because they’re partly a Victorian restoration but also why that in itself is so interesting. One of the reasons I wrote this book is because it was a story that local history audiences have loved when I’ve given talks to them, and it’s their questions that have helped frame the book and encouraged me to tell the story in the way that I have. It’s so easy sometimes to assume prior knowledge, but finding out what interests people – whether they’re students or residents – is so useful.

Looking inside Pickering church. Courtesy and © of Kate Giles.

One of the joys of teaching in a historic building like Pickering church is that they have to be explained because what they mean might not be immediately evident. Very few people today have a detailed understanding of the stories of the saints or medieval devotional practice so you have to begin with the basics, and that’s a good thing because it means that by explaining it, we’re bringing in people who might have previously felt excluded from this conversation. I want this book to open the door and say, “come and discover it!” So, rather than start with “they were made in 1470 and this is what they mean…”, we instead go through the stories of the 1850s, the 1870s, and the twentieth century, and then take a step back and say “right, now we’ve done this detective work, what did they mean for the people who created them and what does that do for the future of the paintings?” The conclusion urges people to be inspired to come and visit Pickering and to care for the paintings in the future.

Pickering’s paintings have lost neither their power to enchant nor their numinous quality. Whatever we say about their aesthetics or their authenticity, there is something incredibly powerful that they do when people come into the building and just sit and look. That’s why places of worship and ecclesiastical heritage are things I care for deeply because it doesn’t matter whether you’re of a faith or of none, churches are places where you can connect with the past. They are a fragile inheritance, but retain a strong sense of place, memory, and those who lived in the past. Pickering is one of those places where you can absolutely see that happening. I suppose that’s the raison d’etre of the Trust as well: that the past isn’t just somewhere to lose yourself in and study for its own sake, it’s also connecting us with something incredibly meaningful about the people and beliefs that have soaked into those stones over centuries. It’s a privilege as a historian or archaeologist to be able to connect people with that. We’re not just dilettantes or antiquarians, we really do believe in creating a sense of connection for people today – whether they’ve lived there all their lives or are visiting for the first time.

The Wall Paintings of Pickering Church: Their Discovery, Restoration and Meaning by Kate Giles is available to order from Shaun Tyas ( For more details on the funding offered by the Yorkist History Trust, see our Grants page.