The Story of the Stolen Statues

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Whenever I read about someone’s research project, I want to know the story of how it came about. How does a project come to a researcher? Does it come from a long-held idea, or does it spring fully formed out of nowhere? With that in mind, I thought I’d share the story of a research topic which has intermittently occupied me over the last four years, and which continues to entertain me in my rare free moments! It’s an extreme example of the ‘springing out of nowhere’ scenario.

One sunny Friday in August 2014, a set of statues was brought to my door. I know that it was sunny and a Friday, because on sunny Fridays my little seaside town holds a flea-market selling bric-a-brac, old clothes and broken gadgets. It was from the flea-market that my parents came to my house that Friday morning, loaded down with carrier bags and looking both excited and puzzled.

To explain… My parents are collectors of antiques, oddities and broken things that they can fix. They can restore almost anything – and if they can’t restore it, they’re masters of positioning things so that you can’t see the broken bits! They don’t need my help for any of this, but sometimes they ask me to do research for them. Hence their visit on this particular Friday.

When they carefully unwrapped the layers of kitchen roll and newspaper, I could see why they were excited, and why they had come to me. They had bought a set of four large wooden figurines, each one nearly two feet tall, meticulously hand-carved and of extraordinary quality. They certainly weren’t the usual flea-market ware. One man and three women (one with a small dragon at her feet), they were all strikingly different from one another; but they were all mounted on hexagonal plinths, and each plinth had some gothic lettering carved into it. Two of the figurines also bore a date – 1394.

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‘…founded this chantry AD 1394’

We looked at the statues in some confusion. 1394? That didn’t seem at all likely: but they were clearly old, and why would anyone lie about a date on a statue? It was perplexing. Clearly, further research was called for.

Another puzzling element was that two of the inscriptions contained the word ‘chantry’; yet only one of the statues (which its inscription identified as ‘Saint Margaret’) seemed to be a religious figure. These didn’t seem to be ordinary church fittings.

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The four statues in my parents’ hallway

The figures were also filthy and badly damaged, with dents and cracks. So we agreed on a division of labour; my parents would take the figures home and do their restoration magic, while I, armed with photos, would see what I could find out about what they were, where they came from and whether they were really from the fourteenth century.

My research concentrated on the most distinctive element of the figures: the names ‘Stephen Whitgray’ and ‘Mary Whitgray’ carved into the pedestals of two of the figures.

After some trawling through historical records, I found that Stephen Whitgray was a local dignitary with links to Boldon and Newcastle. He was Mayor of Newcastle in the late 14th century, and appears frequently in surviving local documents. The records also indicated that Stephen Whitgray and his ‘wyffe’ Mary paid to have a chantry (a special chapel with a priest employed to pray for them) built in their name in St. Nicholas’ Church in Newcastle, which eventually became the Cathedral. A little more research turned up the information that chantries were forbidden in the early 16th century – and all chantry fittings were ripped out and either sold or destroyed.

This gave me pause. The statues didn’t seem old enough to be the removed chantry fittings from Newcastle Cathedral, and their style didn’t feel medieval. But why would anyone mimic the fittings of a chapel that had been destroyed? The answers weren’t on the internet, or in any records I could access. The next step had to be a visit to St. Nicholas’ Cathedral in Newcastle, to find out whether anyone there could shed some light on the puzzle.

Accordingly we all set off for the Cathedral with a file of photos and the information we’d collected so far, hoping that somebody might know something. We expected it to take some time to track down a person with knowledge of historical church fittings – but the answers were much closer than we expected.

The first person we spoke to was the Verger – and when we told him what we were investigating and showed him the photographs, he was astonished. The statues, as it turned out, were not medieval chantry fittings. However, they were from the Cathedral, and they were chantry fittings, of a sort.

Our flea-market statues were actually part of the Victorian refit of the church, carried out when the church was given the status of a cathedral in 1882. They had been carved by artist and woodcarver Ralph Hedley, and were installed in the chapel alcove where the medieval chantry had originally been. Ten years before our own visit to the Cathedral, thieves had ripped the figures from their bases and stolen them, leaving behind them a splintered altar rail and devastated parishioners. It was assumed that the figures would never be seen again; they were unique and very valuable, and it was considered likely that they would vanish into somebody’s private collection.

The Verger brought us straight to the Dean of Newcastle, who had conducted a special service marking the centenary of Ralph Hedley’s death only a year before. He was delighted by the news that the statues had been found, and amazed that they had found their way back to the Cathedral.

Naturally my parents were keen to return the statues to the Cathedral – although we were all sad to see them go. After much discussion about where the statues were going to go and how they would be displayed, they finally returned home in August 2015, to much local media comment (see the Media Gallery below).

However, even when the statues had gone back to the Cathedral I couldn’t quite let them go. My research had taken me down what must have been the same path Ralph Hedley had followed in the late 1880s, in investigating and reconstructing the fourteenth century chantry. But as far as I could see, he had left no record of his research or his choices – and some of those choices were surprising ones. I wanted to know more.

I contacted John Millard, who had written a biography of Hedley: he didn’t know much about the chantry reconstructions specifically, but he recommended a search of Hedley’s logbooks and ledgers in the Tyne and Wear Archives. So I headed off to the bowels of the Discovery Museum in Newcastle to consult the Archives.

It was a real pleasure to handle the books of Hedley’s firm, and to see the notations made in Ralph Hedley’s own hand. As a classicist, I’m accustomed to being centuries removed from the people I’m studying – so this was a very different type of research for me!

The sense I got from the ledgers was that the refit of Newcastle Cathedral was an immense job for Hedley’s firm, experienced though it was in church refurbishments. There were multiple orders for fixtures and fittings: far more fittings than we see in the church today. Many of the orders Hedley took tended to be from stock designs: but the Cathedral required original designs made to order.

Frustratingly, there was little in the ledgers that could be linked directly to the chantry and the four statues I was researching. There was nothing to show who had designed or carved these particular figures, or how detailed the brief from the Cathedral had been. Nor was there anything that could help me to unravel the particular problems of the statues. I had two main problems: the question of why Queen Margaret was represented with a dragon, and the question of who ‘Claudia’ was.

‘Saint Margaret, Queen’, with an out-of-place dragon

I’m still working on the Saint/Queen Margaret question. I came up with a plausible answer, that Ralph Hedley deliberately conflated Saint Margaret the Virgin of Antioch (who survived being eaten by a dragon) with Saint Margaret of Scotland (an Englishwoman who became Queen of Scotland, and who had no connection with dragons) as a whimsical response to our ignorance about the fourteenth century chantry, which was dedicated to an unspecified ‘Saint Margaret’. However, I’m not entirely happy with this answer; there’s more work to be done, particularly on the local implications of combining a dragon and a Margaret (cue research into local Wyrm legends – great fun!).

My identification of the statue named simply ‘Claudia’ took me into the realm of Classical Reception, as I looked at famous Roman Claudias. I ultimately came to the conclusion that Ralph Hedley chose a famous historical/literary figure of the time, who was known as ‘Princess Claudia of Britain’. Princess Claudia was born of a probably coincidental correspondence between the New Testament and the epigrams of Martial, and in the nineteenth century she was a popular symbol of British influence on the roots of Christianity.

A Roman matron, identified simply as ‘Claudia’

I wrote up my conjectures for the journal New Voices in Classical Reception Studies; you can read the full article here: Cathedral Classicism.

The research into Claudia took me into all sorts of obscure corners of nineteenth century thought. I discovered, among other things, an 1865 ‘epic’ poem on Claudia composed by a Mrs Prideaux – an extraordinary and highly improbable romp from the dinner parties of ancient Rome to the Druidic glades of ancient Wales. This is on my list of future crazy things to research!

To bring this back to a moral, because a good story ought to have a moral… Sometimes you have to hunt high and low for a research topic – but more often than not, the topic comes to you. True, it doesn’t always bang on your door in quite the emphatic way that this project did – but if you keep your eyes open, you’ll be surprised how often your topic comes naturally from who you are and what you do.

Media Gallery