A Mystery of Medieval Bridgwater, with Dr. Miles Kerr-Peterson
The tale of a beautifully carved oak ceiling, richly decorated with an ensemble of monsters, characters, beasts and foliage - from Bridgwater
In the Burrell Collection in Glasgow there is a beautifully carved oak ceiling, richly decorated with an ensemble of monsters, characters, beasts and foliage. One carved boss shows a tomfool bearing his bottom at the viewer, another shows a woman grasping the tail of a lion and giving birth to a monster. Four pigs sit in a pen, a beast eats grapes, dragons lie behind some leaves.
The ceiling was found in a house in St Mary Street in Bridgwater sometime around 1890. The entrepreneurial finder charged six pence for people to see it, but was determined to sell his discovery to the highest bidder. The American paper magnate William Randolph Hearst snapped it up, but when his business collapsed in the Great Depression, Sir William Burrell swooped in to acquire this treasure. Today it is enjoyed by the thousands who visit the Burrell collection every year. Yet that is all that is known for certain about it. Why was the ceiling made? Was it intended for the house? Or was it salvaged from somewhere else? If so, where else?
And what does the ceiling tell us about medieval Somerset? The mysteries surrounding the ceiling - and the many possible answers - provide some wonderful insights into medieval Bridgwater and the larger medieval world. And the story of the ceiling’s journey from Bridgwater to Glasgow is a fascinating window into early twentieth century collecting and heritage conservation. The ceiling’s origins are a great starting point into the history of one of Somerset’s major towns. It tells us much about the town’s once great ecclesiastical institutions, the great parish church and the lost friary and hospital.
Miles is from Bridgwater and is a historian of the reign of James VI at the University of Glasgow. His thesis looked into how the Scottish nobility were affected by the Reformation and Union of the Crowns. He is also currently working for Glasgow Museums, helping with research at the Burrell Collection in advance of their anticipated closure and major three year re-ordering. This involves researching individual items in the collection, such as the ceiling, but also Sir William Burrell himself. Miles is also a historian of Bridgwater and active in the preservation of the town’s built heritage. He is chairman - and one of the founders - of the Friends of the Wembdon Road Cemetery, a conservation group seeking to enhance and preserve a disused Victorian cemetery. See Wemdon Road Cemetery website. He is also chairman of the Bridgwater Heritage Group, an informal research group studying the history, buildings and residents of the town, which publishes its findings at Bridgwater Heritage Group (see website)