Brass of the Month

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Page last updated 04 March 2015

Copyright: Jon Bayliss

January 2015 -  Richard Coton, 1556, & wife Margaret, 1560, engraved later, Whittington, Gloucestershire


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 This month's brass has been the subject of an admirable piece in the Bulletin as recently as October 2013 by our vice-president Jerome Bertram but is worth a second look in respect of its use of the local stone into which it is set.

      Usually when a brass was ordered, it was only a component part of the 'marble' stone into which  it was placed and that itself could be part of a larger monument. If the latter was the case, the whole would assembled in a workshop in London or another major urban centre and then sent in pieces to be reassembled in the church for which it had been ordered. A slab with a brass that was meant to be placed in the floor of the church to cover the deceased's grave would have gone by cart for at least part of its journey unless the whole route could be done by water. When Sir John Windham of Orchard, Somerset, commemorated the last two members of the original line of his family at Felbrigg in Norfolk, the brasses of Thomas Windham, who died in 1599, and the latter's sister Jane, died 1608, travelled from London (Southwark) in their slabs around the coast to Yarmouth and then upriver to Coltishall before being offloaded to complete their journey to Felbrigg church by cart. Sir John evidently used the same workshop for his father's brass at St Decuman's, Watchet, in Somerset, and the three may have been a single commission completed in 1611. It's possible that the brass for St Decuman's went almost all the way by water as Watchet was a port.   

    Less often the engraved brass plates were sent for laying in local stone by a mason. This was by far the cheapest option as the transport of a heavy marble slab added considerably to the cost of the monument but it could have unpredictable results as far as the quality of the final ensemble was concerned and was generally used for less accessible locations, where the added cost of transporting the whole slab was disproportionally great.

    When Honor, the widow of Sir John Basset, died 1539, of Umbersleigh, Devon, wished to commemorate her husband, his first wife and herself, she had already remarried and faced particular difficulties in making the arrangements as her new husband was posted abroad and everything needed to be done by letter. As with the Windham brasses, records of the transport arrangements survive but not of the maker of the brasses. The brass plates were sent by pack-horse to be laid by a local mason. The latter did a neat enough job but got the arrangement of the figures wrong, so that the wives, either side of Sir John's figure, faced outwards rather than towards him.

    The suspicion when a brass is let into a different type of stone than that supplied by the workshop responsible for the engraving is that the brass has been reset, as was the case when the Bassett brass was described by Mill Stephenson in A List of Monumental Brasses in the British Isles (1926).   In the case of the Coton brass, the plates were evidently sent to the Cotswold church of Whittington to be placed in a local stone. On this occasion the mason could not be faulted in the arrangement of the plates and it is only the nature of the stone that allows the procedure to be identified, as it is not a polishable marble, the sort of stone that the workshop would have supplied. The lowest of the three lost plates is known from a rubbing and the figure in the middle was clearly well attached originally as it had seven rivets.

    To summarise very quickly the Bulletin article (Whittington Turned Again or The Strange Case of the Brass of Richard and Margaret Coton), the brass, although it tries to give the impression of timely commemoration, was laid down a generation after the death of those depicted, as is demonstrated by the use of a Roman capital script, incorrect dates in the inscription and a 'brave attempt' to represent the costume of 1560 although the drapery and shading are those of the 1590s. Do please read the article for the full argument, which is on pages 468-469 of the Bulletin.

Margaret Coton, showing how the attempt to depict her costume as that of 1560 largely succeeded although her headdress is far too wide