Sunday, August 25, 2013

Torbryan, Devon

Torbryan's stolen panels and an appeal

Readers of this blog, especially those who live in the United Kingdom, may have read about the recent theft of two painted panels from the 15th-century oak screen in Holy Trinity Church, Torbryan, Devon. These panels, depicting St Victor of Marseilles and St Margaret of Antioch,† are very rare. Very few medieval painted screens have survived in our churches – many disappeared during the iconoclasm of the 17th century and not all the other survivors are of such good quality as the Torbryan panels. To make matters worse, the neighbouring panel, portraying a female saint, was also badly damaged during the theft.
Painted screen, Torbryan, showing the panels in situ before the theft, photograph by Diana Neale

The church at Torbryan is one of 341 in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT), a charity that cares for and conserves churches that have been made redundant by the Church of England, and are of historical and architectural significance.* The CCT maintains the churches so that they meet community needs (all remain consecrated so that occasional services can be held in them) and encourages people to visit them. They do terrific work, conserving and looking after these fragile buildings and the artefacts inside them, and keeping the buildings open so that people can enjoy and appreciate them, and they deserve our support. Several of the churches I've posted about in the past – for example Billesley (Warwickshire), Little Washbourne (Gloucestershire), and Inglesham (Wiltshire) – are cared for the CCT, and I hope my enthusiasm for these buildings comes through from my posts.

One way in which the CCT is furthering its work is with a project called History for the Future. This involves an appeal for funds towards work to conserve important and historic fixtures and fittings in various CCT churches – items from a Norman door in Hertfordshire to a stunning collection of monuments in Derbyshire. There will be the added benefit of match-funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. For four years, HLF will match every pound raised by the CCT History for the Future appeal. Churches that stand to benefit are several of my personal favourites – St Mary the Virgin, Shrewsbury, with its glittering 14th-century Jesse window, All Saints' Cooling, Kent, with its Dickensian associations, and St John the Baptist, Inglesham, with its extraordinary multi-layered wall paintings. There's information about the appeal here, and I'd encourage all who can to contribute.

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† St Victor of Marseilles was one of the Christians persecuted under the Roman emperor Maximian. Victor denounced the worship of idols and refused to offer incense to Jupiter and was subsequently tortured before being crushed under a millstone. He is therefore often shown with a windmill and sometimes also, having been a soldier, with a sword.
St Margaret of Antioch was a probably legendary figure, said to have been the daughter of a pagan priest at Antioch. A noted preacher who converted many to Christianity, she was said to have suffered various tortures, including being swallowed by a dragon, which later burst asunder so that she might escape. She was a very popular saint in the Middle Ages, having promised divine protection to those who study her history, burn lights in her honour, or dedicate churches to her.

* The photograph at the top of this post, showing the damaged screen after the theft, is courtesy the CCT and used with their permission.The photograph of the screen prior to the theft is by Diana Neale.


Neil said...

This vandalism is heartbreaking, both because of the damage and loss, and because of the terrible ignorance and unfeelingness it demonstrates. Apart from anything, these panels must be unsaleable in any legitimate market, and therefore worthless to the thief. Their worth lay in their context anyway.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Neil: Yes, absolutely. Such theft is destructive on so many levels, and stupid in so many ways.

LeeAnn at Mrs Black's said...

This is heart breaking and makes me feel so empty at how mankind can be randomly destructive. I do think that there should be a special punishment for those who ruin priceless history for future generations. Bring back the stocks!

Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

I would like to endorse the words of support for the Churches Conservation Trust, having seen more of their custodial work recently. I was once busy in St Mary's Shrewsbury noting down the heraldic glass from Herckenrode in Flanders, when I was asked to hurry up by - a BELGIAN CHOIR - who had come in to practise! Naturally heraldry at once gave way to music.
Dreadful though it is, we have to recognise that ALL material heritage is subject to vandalism and decay. If we want gorgeously painted panels with the saints on, we perhaps should be encouraging artists to create anew. Poking around in a quiet CCT church could very well inspire such things, perhaps.

Unknown said...

Thank you for your support. You can read more about CCT here and on my blog

Crispin Truman

Philip Wilkinson said...

Crispin: Thank you for your comment. I'm a great admirer of the CCT and its work and was interested to read your blog post, which puts the theft into a wider perspective. When I post on CCT churches in future, I'll make sure I include a link to the CCT website, as I've now done on several of my past posts.

Thud said...

Truly shocking.