Wye College's Jacobean staircase of great historical significance
PUBLISHED: 10:41 11 May 2018 | UPDATED: 10:41 11 May 2018
They've had a chequered life but the Jacobean staircase and its statues at Wye College are finally taking their rightful place in Kent's rich history
Kent is blessed with many buildings of enormous architectural and historical importance. Think of our magnificent cathedrals, our castles, our National Trust treasures and our great houses – known and loved throughout the world.
Then there are the hidden gems, and none more fascinating than the tale of the Jacobean statues and staircase at Wye College. While of enormous interest locally, many residents outside the immediate area – myself included – will never have heard of them.
Their story is intrinsically linked with the college itself and the catalogue of changes, sales and re-sales, developments and opposing plans for its campus that managed to overshadow the magnificent, rare and much-mismanaged figures and structure pictured in these pages.
Until 2013, that is, when Dr Lee Prosser, a Curator of Historic Buildings with the Royal Historic Palaces and a leading expert on Jacobean staircases, wrote a report concluding that, if restored, Wye’s staircase could be “one of the more important survivors of its type anywhere in England.”
The staircase has three flights with newel posts that were once topped by painted wooden statues, known as the ‘Ancient Britons’. It’s unclear how many statues there were originally, but today just seven remain: one tall male figure, a smaller male and five females.
Following Dr Prosser’s groundbreaking findings, two paint experts were brought in and their scientific analysis proved that the statues had always been part of the staircase, which itself had originally been brightly coloured and marbled.
According to Dr Prosser, this detail puts the staircase at Wye on a par with the great staircase at Knole, one of the finest Jacobean examples in the country: its structure is also painted in imitation of expensive stone and marble.
Combine the Knole comparison with other unique Grade I-listed parts of the college – whose origins span five centuries – then Wye could significantly add to Kent’s already considerable tourism appeal.
So let’s look at this exciting ‘new’ discovery in more detail. Founded in 1447 as a college of secular priests with a school attached, the buildings that formed Wye College passed into secular hands in 1545 when the chantries were dissolved.
A local family, the Twysdens, first leased and then bought the buildings in 1612 and it was around this time that the staircase was almost certainly built.
The medieval buildings remained in private ownership until 1894 and throughout this period the statues were in place. In the late 1800s two watercolours of the staircase, showing the statues on the newels, were painted either by Constance or Gertrude Beard (sisters, whose family lived at Withersdane Hall, formerly part of the Imperial College campus).
The statues’ fortunes changed following the acquisition of the buildings for the new South Eastern Agricultural College, which opened in 1894. At some point after this, they were removed from the newel posts and stored away to keep them safe (H. H. Glasscock, a former lecturer, was told in the 1960s this was because ‘students pelted them’). With what is unrecorded.
Precisely when and where the statues (and how many) were ‘stored away’ is unknown but it seems that sometime after 1906 they may have been put in the Minstrels’ Gallery of the Old Hall.
Proof that some of the statues were in the Gallery before the Second World War lies in a quote by a former student at the college between 1937 and 1940, George Maughan, who clearly remembered wondering ‘what the dwarf-like figures that stood on the gallery/balcony in the dining hall were’.
There is no record of what happened to the statues during the war years when the college was requisitioned by the army. But, in 1946/47, when the College was undergoing extensive refurbishment, they were photographed standing on the floor of the Parlour which adjoins the Old Hall.
Sometime after that six of the statues were replaced in the Gallery, at first probably on the floor then later on plinths attached to the wall; the seventh statue was put back in the corridor.
Once in place the statues remained in their respective positions until 2009 when Wye College, which had merged with Imperial College in 2000, closed.
Tracing their location became an issue in 2011 when it emerged that, following the closure of the College, Imperial had removed and sold the seven statues, reputedly as ‘reproductions.’
Six were re-sold to a dealer in Brussels, later brought back to England, where all seven eventually ended up in a gallery in London.
Enter the combined weight of English Heritage and Ashford Borough Council, who instructed Imperial to re-purchase the statues. It duly did and an exhibition on 6 July 2012 at the Wye Heritage Centre – the statues’ first-ever public appearance – celebrated their return.
It was to prove an extra-special date in the 400 years’ history of the statues, as the public display gave a certain Dr Prosser the chance to examine them closely. The rest is quite literally history.
The following December, the six statues were put back on plinths in the Minstrels’ Gallery in the Old Hall and the seventh statue was placed in the Latin School building, where it can be viewed when Wye Heritage Centre is open.
In a final (for now) piece of the jigsaw, Wye College was sold by Imperial in 2015 to property development company Telereal Trillium in 2015, which has included the restoration of the statues back onto the staircase in its masterplan.
According to Dr Prosser, 17th-century staircases are usually massive, demonstrate a huge variety of styles and types and don’t all have finials.
The Wye staircase is unusual in having had newel finials depicting exceptionally large figures. Thought to be made of chestnut, their similarity of style suggests that they were all carved in the same workshop and are probably Flemish, although they may have been carved in England under Flemish influence.
The staircase, however, is probably oak, which shows that the figures were commissioned separately and that the staircase as a whole was constructed by a collaboration of different craftsmen – carpenters, joiners, turners and carvers.
Dr Prosser suggests that the tall male figure stood on a half- or wall-newel (which no longer exists) on the first landing of the staircase.
He identifies this figure as Hercules by his ‘rugged, bearded nakedness and his loin cloth, which is the Nemean Lion, together with his stance, which is commonly seen. He probably once leaned on a cudgel in his right hand, but this is now absent, though the hand appears to grip this missing attribute.’
Dr Prosser also suggests that the other male figure, with its martial aspect, may be one of the Nine Worthies. Such classical allegorical figures are identified by their ‘attributes’ – articles they possess.
The female figures share many characteristics, but they have lost arms and so have been parted from their attributes. However, one figure appears to be pouring from a jug into a cup, which indicates the classical attributes of Temperance, one of the Four Cardinal Virtues.
A second figure can be tentatively identified from the Beard watercolour as possibly representing Fortitude. If this is so, then the other figures may represent survivors of a cycle of the Four Cardinal or Seven Theological Virtues.
However, C.E. Keyser in his book A list of buildings in Great Britain and Ireland having mural and other decorations, published in 1883, claims that Charity and two other Virtues were painted on the walls surrounding the staircase in Wye.
The five female figures that remain may then belong to more than one allegorical cycle.
According to Dr Prosser there are only three other staircases in England known to support figures of the Virtues, which can also be seen in tapestries, plasterwork ceilings, hall screens and overmantles in many Jacobean houses.
The source of inspiration for such depictions is continental, possibly 16th-century prints, now very rare, so finding the ones that prompted the Wye statues would be difficult though not, given time, impossible. Only then could the missing arms and attributes of the statues be reconstructed.
Dr Prosser’s conclusion is pretty emphatic: “There is little doubt that the staircase at Wye is one of the more important of Kent’s early 17th-century staircases’.
And C. E. Keyser was not alone in asserting in his book of 1883 that there were paintings on the walls round the staircase. More than 40 years earlier, W. S. Morris had written about the staircase: “It may be seen that on the wall by the stairs, a balustrade and figures were painted, in imitation of the wood-work”.
The detail painted on the wall of the first landing in the Baird watercolour of around 1889 certainly agrees with Morris’s description
It can only be hoped that, sometime in the very near future, the Wye staircase, with its associated statues, will receive the recognition that it deserves.
The text of the original article by Dr Jenny Oram, on which this piece is based, was first published in Wye Historical Society ‘Wye Local History’ 2016 Volume VII No. 6, Editor Maureen De Saxe