Brass Rubbing & Monumental Brass

A blog written by Museum Remote Volunteer Amanda Ciccone.

The topic of this blog was inspired by a recent discovery in the Museum archives, as part of their Review, Rationalise and Recycle project, of several brass rubbings; the ones that have been identified are of Epping Forest District monumental brasses.

It’s useful from the beginning to clearly define monumental brass and brass rubbing, As while they are two distinct practices, they depict the same image, and so it is easy to mix the two when learning about them: A monumental brass is an inscribed memorial installed in the floor or wall, often in a church, and a brass rubbing is the reproduction of the monumental brass on a sheet of paper.

Project Officer Esther Green with the objects found.

Brass rubbing is a pastime and artform dating back to the Victorian period.  The technique is in fact very similar to the coin-rubbing over paper activities you might have enjoyed as a child. Paper, wax usually (or graphite or chalk), dusting and cleaning tools are needed. In brief, you must first clean your surface, lay and affix the paper over the monumental brass, then “colour” the paper with your wax crayon from top to bottom. The product is a black and white recreation – or whatever colour the wax is – of the monumental brass.

While brass rubbing remains legal, much precaution is exercised towards the monumental brasses themselves, and reasonably so. Communication and coordination with the church where the monumental brass is kept is an essential preliminary step. Furthermore, if a facsimile of a brass exists, the preference is to make the facsimile the brass rubbing subject instead. The Monumental Brass Society is an excellent resource for those who would like to learn more about the practice and should be referred to.

Monumental brasses emerged in the 13th century in Western Europe and became the preferred choice of memorial type over wooden and stone effigies, due to their high durability, brass being an alloy of copper and zinc, and because they do not take up any volume, being embedded in a floor or wall. Although we see several types of professions depicted in monumental brasses, a person certainly had to have money to arrange for a brass of themselves done.

Monumental brasses saw considerable destruction during the Reformation, re-emerged slightly under Elizabeth I’s rule, and met another sharp decline upon the Civil War. Though there have been periods of resurgence in the centuries since, the 13th to 16th centuries is regarded as the high period of memorial brass making.

England is considered to have the greatest number of monumental brasses today, many of which are in the eastern counties. One brass rubbing at EFD Museum is of a highly regarded brass, that of Archbishop of York Samuel Harsnett (1561-1631), which is located at St Mary’s Church in Chigwell, just near the Chigwell School that he founded in 1629. The quality of brasses is said to have declined by the 17th century in the post-Reformation period, but Archbishop Harsnett’s stands out as particularly well made.

The subjects in brasses are often not famous, yet they tell a compelling story all the same.

One brass rubbing found at the museum is of a monumental brass from Stanford Rivers, Anne Napper, who passed in 1584. In her brass, she kneels at a pew with an open book in front of her, faces diagonally to her right, and 6 boys kneel behind her. In the inscription, she is described as the late wife of William Napper and daughter to William Shelton.

In researching for this article, a brass rubbing of a William Napper’s monumental brass was discovered on the V&A Museum Collections website. Anne Shelton from Ongar, her father William Shelton, and 6 sons are referenced on his inscription. We do not know the year of his death, as it is left partially blank; people sometimes commissioned brasses before their death, and the final inscription never got attended to. Nevertheless, we can reasonably say that these inscriptions, that of Anne Napper’s and William Napper’s, reference the same people and are not coincidental.

The catch? William Napper’s monumental brass is in Dorset.

Further research revealed that at least one son, and other Napper – sometimes spelled Napier – descendants were also buried in Dorset, indicating a family relocation to another county.

Perhaps a husband and wife being buried this far apart in early to mid-1600s England is in fact nothing highly unusual. The mobility here is eye-catching to modern eyes, nonetheless. Did work obligations take William Napper and their sons away from Essex, heartbreak, something else entirely? History has not preserved more details, though these are highly personal reasons in any case. If anything, it is rather amazing to this article’s author to have accidently connected two monumental brasses of a husband and wife separated by this distance, and what this mobility could reflect about family life in this period.

The potential for learning, discovery and storytelling is vast in both monumental brasses and brass rubbings, two different disciplines, but which are inextricably linked. They are subjects easily recommended to any history lover.

References

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