We recently had a very few days in Worcestershire, Herefordshire and a tiny bit of Shropshire, a lovely wallow in nostalgia for me, and a bit of a revelation of the counties’ beauty for Him Indoors. (A further revelation was that when the iPad map failed (having us still approaching the A14 north of Cambridge while we were in fact lost below Northampton), a 1996 road map of Britain was not a helpful substitute.) There was sunshine, warmth, and beautiful landscapes, houses, gardens and castles, all just as I was expecting and hoping – but also the completely unexpected sight of a purported Titian in the church of St Michael and All Angels, Ledbury.
Until now, Ledbury, Herefordshire, was best known to the wider world as the birthplace of John Masefield (1878–1967), seafarer (from this most landlocked of places), novelist and Poet Laureate, whose The Box of Delights should be re-read in every family every Christmas. (The ancient BBC version with Patrick Troughton isn’t bad, too, not least because of the use of Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s 1927 Carol Symphony, also used in the 1943 BBC radio serialisation.)
It is a picturesque large village/small town, with a famous ‘Market House’ on the High Street (above), and many other black-and-white buildings. Church Lane, a cobbled path up from the High Street up to the church is lined with ancient houses, many of which used to be butchers’ shops – one is left, as the Butcher Row House Museum, opposite the Heritage Centre, which was formerly a butcher’s smokehouse, and later the grammar school, where Latin was taught to the local boys during a twelve-hour school day.
The church itself is unusual, in that it has a separate bell tower, the ground floor of which now houses a small exhibition about its history. The church, of red sandstone, was originally built in the eleventh century (probably on the foundations of a Saxon minster), and there are remaining traces from this early Norman period, but its current form dates from the thirteen and fourteenth centuries, while the tower (with eight bells) dates from c. 1230 (though its spire was added in 1733). Spacious and full of light, it is also full of monuments, from medieval effigies to Tudor brasses to carvings by Westmacott and Flaxman, to the memorial to Mr and Mrs Moulton Barrett, parents of the more famous Elizabeth Barrett Browning. (The family lived in Ledbury as well as in Wimpole Street.)
Interestingly, the church was dedicated to St Michael and All Angels only in the nineteenth century, having previously had St Peter as its patron. But it also has associations with another holy personage (never canonised but sometimes referred to as a saint), Katherine de Audley, aka St Katherine of Ledbury.
A descendant of King John, Katherine was born in Gloucestershire in 1271, and married at the age of fifteen to Baron Nicholas de Audley, by whom she had two sons and a daughter. In 1299, both her husband and her father died, and she became a substantial heiress. Unusually, she did not marry again, and her whereabouts from 1308 to 1312 are unclear – though during this period she made over parts of her inheritance to her children – but after 1312 she was living in Ledbury, first as a recluse and later as an anchoress, in a hermitage at the church.
The local legend has it that Katherine and her faithful maid Mabel wandered the countryside after a vision showed her that she must not rest until she came to place where the church bells rang of their own accord: this finally happened at Ledbury, where she subsequently lived on milk and herbs in her hermitage. She also prophesied that if the door to her enclosure was never opened by human hand, Ledbury would become a hugely prosperous town. Sadly, according to another legend, a crowd of drunks broke in one day some years after her death, and that was the end of prosperity … In the early nineteenth century, the town was further disturbed by drunkenness, this time among the bellringers, one of whom ended up in court.
It seems very likely that Katherine was in later years confused with a pre-existing cult in the church of St Catherine of Alexandria, not least because local veneration of Katherine was focussed on 25 November, the feast of St Catherine. The legend was given wider currency by William Wordsworth, who after visiting Ledbury wrote a poem on the story of the bells, noted here in the transactions of the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club (yet again, everything is connected …), 1886–9, at page 246. In 1951, Masefield published a book, St Katherine of Ledbury and Other Ledbury Papers, with all profits going to the repair of the bells.
But turning to Titian, The Last Supper was acquired in Venice in 1775 by John Skippe (1741–1812), of Upper Hall in Ledbury, a dilettante who, after graduating from Merton College, Oxford, travelled widely in Europe, collecting art, and acquiring the skills of a wood engraver. He described it as ‘A most capital and well-preserved picture by Titian. His name and date of the year are upon it.’ In 1909, a collateral descendant gave it to the church, where it was hung high up on the wall in a dark area near the door and more or less ignored until about three years ago, when the church authorities asked Ronald Moore, picture restorer, artist, and author of a fascinating book (above) which I hastened to buy (and from which all my information derives), to research and restore it. (The rest of Skippe’s collection was sold in 1958; many of the drawings and prints are now in the British Museum.)
Moore’s conclusion, argued over several chapters, is that the painting is from Titian’s workshop (see the attribution criteria used by the National Gallery here), was probably worked on over a number of years. It was apparently a commission for a local convent (possibly San Giacomo dall’Orio, or Santa Maria degli Angeli in Murano (the original burial place of Sebastiano Venier) both of which have connections to the da Mula family, from whom Skippe purchased the painting), and as such was a low priority in an order book that included emperors, kings and popes; and it was eventually completed after Titian’s death in 1576 by members of his studio.
It is the discussion of the workshop in Biri Grande, near Fondamente Nuovo, and the famous and not-so-famous painters who passed through as studio assistants over many years which (I think) is the most interesting part of the book. The current major source of information on this is Le Botteghe di Tiziano, for which my Italian may not be adequate, but Moore summarises well, untangling the relationships between the Vecellio family, the studio apprentices who stayed, who collaborated with the master on paintings, but whose names are almost unknown, the passers-through (I knew that El Greco had been in Venice but had no idea that he had been in Titian’s studio), and the later rivals – especially Tintoretto.
Moore argues that many of the apostles were in fact the studio workers. The red-haired and bearded man at the left-hand end of the table is a portrait of Titian himself in his youth, possibly painted by his son, Orazio, and the man in red next to him, staring out at us with an expression of ineffable sadness, is Tintoretto, possibly painted by Palma Giovane.
Being completely ignorant of such matters, I have no idea whether Moore’s arguments will be found convincing by his art-historical and connoisseur peers, but it is a fascinating read, and I really hope that the resources can be found to take the technical examination of the painting to the next level. Meanwhile, it’s another reason to visit the beautiful and historical town of Ledbury!