Historical recreation – creating new artwork rooted in the past

My latest commission was initially to make an exact copy of a stone lion that had guarded a 15th century doorway in Italy.  However the project soon turned into a more creative challenge – to carve a newly designed lion in a specifically medieval style.

  6a  6d

Not making an exact copy of an existing carving has its benefits – I was able to take into account the client’s individual preferences, and the room in which the sculpture will be placed;  The lion is to sit in a bay window at the front of the client’s house so I placed his tail where it will be seen through the window and turned his head to greet people as they enter the room.


Though one specific lion prompted the commission, the new design was influenced by several other 15th century examples. My client had seen the Italian antique in an auction catalogue but the carving was weather-damaged with many features worn away. (See the original below, and others further down).

15th century Italian door supportIt wasn’t hard to find similar carvings whose features remain clearly visible.  Lions symbolised courage and nobility so can often be seen on medieval tombs supporting the feet of armoured knights.  Sheltered inside churches their details are often well preserved and a great resource for study.

1bAbove: The tomb of Sir Richard de Vere, St Stephen’s Chapel, Bures, Essex
Below, left to right: St Stephen’s Chapel, Bures, Essex, All Saint’s Church, Leeds, Gloucester Cathedral, V&A Medieval Sculpture

1AAll Saint's Church, LeedsTomb lion Gloucester11Lion in V&A collection

These lions are fantastical.  Few Medieval travellers would have seen a real lion so the sculpted features are based on hearsay, the work of other artists, the stonecarver’s personal taste and the extent of his skill.

When it came to creating a new sculpture based on these medieval carvings my client specified which particular elements he liked or disliked, stipulating that his lion should look thoughtful and definitely NOT CUTE’.  As many of these medieval carvings looked a bit like cats or dogs wearing wigs this was a narrow path to tread.

Creating a completely new artwork that was rooted in a specific historic style raised some subtle issues.  The tomb lions (whose body shape I took for inspiration) stoop under the weight of their knight’s feet.  However raising the head and straightening the body posture had interesting stylistic repercussions; I had to guard against making my upright lion look Victorian, like the proud beasts in Trafalgar Square (below).  It also hindered me to look images of real lions – too many anatomically correct details gave the sculpture an excessively modern appearance.
Trafalgar Sq lion

I came across a similar issue several years ago when reconstructing a damaged low-relief image of Anne Boleyn (see below).  Known as ‘The Moost Happi’ medal it was made in 1534, and is now held in The British Museum. This portrait is the subject worldwide fascination because it bears the only surviving, uncontested contemporary depiction of Anne Boleyn’s appearance.  Knowing the intense scrutiny that my reconstruction would come under I made several attempts to capture her image, each more carefully defined than the last. However, refining her features took away the 16th century style of the medallion and gave Anne’s face a Classical appearance. This version would have pleased legions of fans who wish to believe that Anne Boleyn fitted within modern standards of beauty. However, it would have diminished the authenticity of the reconstruction.

1 High resolution Anne Boleyn The Moost Happi medal from British Museum1
(Left, the original medal in the British Museum. Right, my reconstruction)

As a stonecarver I often look at old buildings and like to think that I can spot and date restored carvings.  Victorian restoration work gives itself away by being too neat, and animals carved in the 20th and 21st century often look unintentionally cartoon-like.  We view animals more often on YouTube than in person, whereas medieval carvers showed a close familiarity with nature.  Their mythical beasts might have been fantastical creations but their features look real. There is an attention to detail, such as the bones and sinews indicated below the surface of the skin, that comes from a daily contact with nature ‘red in tooth and claw’. Contemporary culture is no longer imbued with the life-and-death struggle that pre-occupied our predecessors, and we have swopped a knowledge of natural forms for clean lines and a more sophisticated awareness of style.

Trying to authentically recreate the past is a subtle and subjective art. Artists, writers and film directors face the same challenge when creating new work based on historic events. That is, to try and identify the essential elements, and truthfully convey them to a modern audience. How much leeway is given to engage the viewer or reader is up to the artist or writer. But even with the best intention to represent the past accurately, one cannot help but look at the surviving evidence and focus on that which appeals to our current taste.  Cultural philosopher Susan Bordo has written an interesting examination of how history is reinterpreted and represented according to our own preferences and the age we live in.  In her book, ‘The Creation of Anne Boleyn’ she interviews Hilary Mantel, author of the novel Wolf Hall.  Like all historical fiction the book, and its recent dramatisation, has been the subject of much debate regarding its interpretation and delivery of the past.
Mantel observes; ‘All historical fiction is really contemporary fiction.  We always write from our own time’.
I wonder whether people will look back at my historically based sculpture and date it to the early 21st century?

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You can see a short video showing this lion here
Read about my reconstruction of Anne Boleyn’s Moost Happi medal here

The ‘Moost Happi’ portrait of Anne Boleyn: A reconstruction by Lucy Churchill


‘Lucy Churchill’s reconstruction of The Moost Happi portrait medal is the best image we are ever likely to have of Anne Boleyn.’
Professor David Starkey, CBE

‘Lucy Churchill’s brilliant achievement has brought us as close to the real Anne Boleyn  as we shall ever be able to get.’
Professor Eric Ives, OBE
Author of ‘The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: The Most Happy’

‘Through meticulous research Lucy Churchill has created an authentic replica of the medal of Anne Boleyn, as it would have looked originally.  A must for anyone interested in Anne Boleyn!’
Alison Weir

Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, was beheaded at his command on the 19th May 1536.  Though much has been written about her since then, very few indisputable facts about her life remain.  Even her date of birth and her appearance is the subject of speculation.  The paintings of her that are still in existence, were painted during Queen Elizabeth’s reign and cannot be relied upon as a true record.  There are two sketches by Holbein that were subsequently labelled with her name, but  this increases the confusion as they depict two very different sitters.

The only undisputed portrait of Anne Boleyn is on a 38mm lead disc, is in storage at the British Museum. Known as ‘The Moost Happi medal’ it was made as a prototype in 1534, in anticipation of the birth of a male heir.  However, the pregnancy was unsuccessful and the commission was abandoned.  Anne’s position as Queen of England became less assured thereafter. 


Although the medal is acknowledged as the only contemporary portrayal of Anne Boleyn, its value is often overlooked. The softness of the lead has allowed some of the details to be compressed and eroded, especially those areas which were the most raised such as her nose and forehead.  Historian G.W.Bernard states that “the medal is consequently not that helpful as an indication of her appearance”  (1). 


My interest in Anne Boleyn had grown over the last few years, since having chanced on a biography of Henry VIII.  Initially I was appalled by the seeming awfulness of his second wife, and was motivated to research her character in greater depth.  I found the available evidence to be tantalisingly contradictory, and desperately wanted to know more.

My professional background is as a stonecarver, specialised in making carefully researched reconstructions for restoration projects.  I looked at images of the medal and saw that though damaged, it still held a wealth of information.  Out of my own curiosity, I decided to rebuild these features and thereby give a face once again to Anne Boleyn.

I was given access to the medal at the British Museum and, wearing protective gloves, I was able to examine it under close magnification.  I recorded my observations in detailed notes and annotated sketches.  I felt very privileged to be so close to an object which may have been handled by Anne herself, and was extremely excited by my findings.

Back in my workshop I scaled up a front-on photograph of the medal to four times its original size. I traced every visible detail to make a layout which then gave me the accurate dimensions to work from. Using a needle I pricked along every line in the layout to transfer the design onto a wax disc, and  modelled the different contours of relief form based on my notes and sketches.


It was a technically difficult task.  I needed strong light to work by and this caused the wax to soften.  This meant that  the areas that I had already completed were vulnerable as my hands hovered above, working on a different area.  This problem was resolved by putting the model into the freezer every time the wax  became too soft.  I was full of admiration for the skill of original artist who worked on a smaller scale, without decent lighting or magnification.



With great care I took the wax model  to leading  mold-maker, Steve Cole of Articole Studios, so that it could be recreated in a more durable material.  He coated it in silicon rubber to make a negative form from which further copies could be cast with great accuracy.

When I saw the first plaster copy I fretted over minor details and decided to rework these.  Keeping the original plaster prototype, I got Steve to make a second copy which I then refined using tiny engraving tools.  From this a second mold was made and cast.  The features of the second version were more delicate, but refining them gave the medal a Classical appearance.   I decided to stick with the first version as the immediacy of  the modelling was closer in spirit to a 16th century artifact.

The medal considered in a wider context.

Having studied the medal in great depth at the British Museum,  and reconstructed the details myself,  I recognised elements in the medal depicted in paintings of the other wives of Henry VIII.  The best comparison is  Holbein’s portrait of Anne’s successor, Jane Seymour.    Within Holbein’s portrait we can see the same diagonally woven cloth of the headdress that is in the medal.  The sequence of jewels on the gable hood, and in the necklace is the same.  The necklace is also depicted in portraits of his subsequent queens (2).


The fact that the details of the queens attire appear to have been reproduced so precisely in the ‘Moost Happi medal’ suggests that the portrait was made with considerable skill and attention to detail.  My view is that, despite the damage to some parts of the portrait, it retains a wealth of information.  That  the costume is so well depicted suggests that the features of the face are likely to have  been equally well observed.

One could argue that the medal sculptor might have had longer access to the costume than to the queen herself. However, Anne Boleyn was known to have been fastidious about the presentation of her image (3), and I do not believe that her features would have been recorded carelessly.

In summary,  we can deduce that Anne Boleyn clearly had a long face with high cheek bones, and a prominent chin.  Though Anne Boleyn wasn’t considered a beauty in her time, the medal presents an image of strong and sensual femininity.

For further discussion of Anne’s appearance in relation to the portrait medal see the following Huffington Post article: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/susan-bordo-/anne-boleyn_b_4737660.html?just_reloaded=1&utm_hp_ref=fb&src=sp&comm_ref=false#sb=1362201b=facebook

See below for References and to see the gable hood / necklace worn by Anne Boleyn in the Moost Happi medal worn in the portraits of Henry VIII’s other wives.

Individually made bronze resin copies of my reconstruction are available to purchase through my website: www.lucychurchill.com.


Elements of the costume worn by Anne in the Moost Happi portrait medal can be found in the following paintings:
1560 Catherine of Aragon by English school1 catherine_of_aragon with 4pearl and jewel combo plus cross.2 Katherine of Aragon with  Moost Happi billiment
1-3: Catherine of Aragon
(NB: the pattern of the jewels on the billiment of the  gable hood, the top two depictions of the jewels bordering the dress, and the cross, here worn as a brooch).

5aAnn Boleyn Nidd Hall portrait with pearl and jewel necklace 4a JaneSeymour Holbein portrait with pearl and jewel necklace
2: Left, The ‘Nidd Hall’ portrait of Anne Boleyn, which might be a reworked painting of Jane Seymour.
(NB: the necklace).
3: Right, Jane Seymour.
(NB: the jewels on the gable hood billiment, dress adornment and the necklace).

6 Katherine Howard Holbein miniature  with pearl and jewel necklace
4: Catherine Howard.
(NB: the necklace).

7a Catherine Parr National Portrtait Gallery8 Lady_Jane_Grey_portrait now thought to be Catherine Parr
5-6: Katherine Parr.
(NB: the necklace).

Anne Boleyn – Fatal Attractions, Appendix, page 196.
(2) The Gable Hood and accompanying dress first appear in portraits of Catherine of Aragon, with the matching cross worn as a brooch. The cross, worn by Anne Boleyn in the medal as a pendant, is replaced by pendant with two jewels above a suspended pearl drop. (Worn by Jane Seymour  and Catherine Howard, both in portraits by Holbein, and by Anne Boleyn in the Nidd Hall portrait – although it has been suggested that the painting was of  Jane Seymour, and reworked to satisfy Elizabethan demand).

A pendant with  a three jewels and a pearl drop adorns the familiar necklace in painting of Catherine Parr and Lady Jane Grey.   However, as it is unlikely that Lady Jane Grey would have had access to these jewels during her short reign, the portraits have lately been reattributed to Catherine Parr. See Nidd Hall Portrait of Anne Boleyn, Holbein’s portrait of Catherine Howard, Melton Constable portrait of Catherine Parr, and portrait once attributed as Lady Jane Grey, below.
(3) See Eric Ives “The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn”, ‘Image’chap 15, and ‘Art and Taste’ chap 16.

Stone carving on Channel 4’s Time Team programme. Lucy Churchill’s blog about the experience.

Stone Carving  on Channel 4’s TIME TEAM: 

 Lucy Churchill’s blog post about the experience.

Series 19, Episode 7.   To be televised: Sunday 4th March 2012, 6pm.

In May 2011 Time Team  excavated the site of Earl’s Colne Priory in Essex.  The Priory was destroyed by Henry V111 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536, and it’s contents were looted and dispersed.  It was hoped that excavation would recover lost information about the buildings, and possibly some artefacts.

Several  alabaster tombs commemorating members of the de Vere family,  were taken from the Priory when it was demolished, and  later re-housed in St Stephen’s Chapel, Bures, Essex.  My part of the project was to look at the monuments with presenter Alex Langland,  to teach him the rudiments of stone carving, and to recreate a small piece of carving to demonstrate the labour involved.   It was a lot of work to cram into 2 days filming, and so much preparation was required beforehand. 


I went to St Stephen’s Chapel to examine the tombs and see what I might be able to recreate during the time available.   I was awe-struck by the experience.  The chapel is on a remote hillside, and the alabaster figures lay in the dark stillness, beautifully serene. The only sound I heard all day was the call of a cuckoo, and as I sketched the figures  I watched a spider making a web between the knight’s nose and his folded hands.  It was a deeply peaceful  and  pleasurable experience.

Memorials such as these were commissioned as a display of high status and virtue, and were covered in significant details for the viewer to decode.  The de Vere family had a history of supporting the monarchy in battles and on crusades, and much symbolism was to do with wealth, power and devotion.   I poured over the tombs trying to place each reference;  some were obvious but others required further research.  I particularly enjoyed deciphering the broken fragments of script on Sir Richard de Vere’s helmet and sword.


Even the finest details of the  knight’s  armour was carved with precision, including the delicate chainmail under-suit, and ornate buckles and straps.  You can see the finger nails, and also the ‘knuckle-dusters’ he is wearing on his hands held in prayer.  His wife, Alice de Vere, is wearing a strange and intricate headdress perched on her high plucked forehead.   Small fragments of pigment show that parts of the memorial were once been richly painted; red, blue and gold.  Not only is their wealth demonstrated through the depiction of  their rich clothing, but by the fact that they could pay  highly skilled craftspeople to record such intricate details.

The  alabaster figures are covered with incised graffiti;  initials, dates (the earliest being 1532), and most intriguingly, pentagrams.  I later discovered that early Christians used this symbol to represent the five wounds of Christ.  Given that some of these scratchings predated the dissolution of the priory,  it seems as the graffiti  was not a mark of disrespect, but something a pilgrim might do – like lighting a votive candle, or dropping a coin into a well.  


The producer of Time Team had suggested that I should recreate a shield-bearing angel from one of the tomb’s panels.  However,  my eye was caught by a three-dimensional  boar  on top of the helmet,  which lay beneath the head of Sir Richard de Vere.  As hunting and eating wild boar was an aristocratic pursuit, this animal symbolised bravery and largesse.  It is likely that the stone carver had little contact with these beasts as even though the form is very lifelike,  it looks more like a plump pig than a boar.  Perhaps to give vigour and virility to the crest, the animals’ genitalia are depicted with  great detail.

The boar’s head was broken off,  so while at the chapel I modelled  a new head in soft wax, working directly onto the stone.  This helped me to get a better sense of the carvings original appearance.  I took many photographs and measurements, and made sketches, which I used later to make templates to work from. 


The De Vere tombs are made from English Alabaster, a cheap alternative to marble during the mediaeval times.  However demand for alabaster declined after the Reformation when the production of religious icons fell, and marble become cheaper to import for funeral sculpture.  At the end of the 20thC it became more profitable for English quarries to blast the stone out of the ground to make plaster. 

Michael and Nigel Owen, stone merchants in Northamptonshire, hold the last stock of English Alabaster.   Unfortunately the remaining pieces are tiny, so I could only buy a small panel suitable for my project with Alex.  I bought a larger block of Italian alabaster for the boar, but even this stone is in short supply and the dimensions had to be scaled down.  The preparations were now complete, and I was ready for action.

On the first morning Alex Langland and I were filmed at St Stephen’s Chapel.  It was a strange contrast to my previous visit; then the only illumination had been sunlight coming through the windows, moving slowly across the monuments over the course of the day.  Now the chapel was filled with bright lights and equipment and the bustle of a tight schedule.  Again and again Alex and I were directed to burst through the door,  and I had to try and recreate my initial awe on seeing the alabaster figures.  I’m not a very convincing liar so I probably blushed throughout.  It was fascinating to see the amount of work involved in making such a program.

The rest of the day was spent showing Alex stone working techniques, and guiding him as he carved a star (another emblem of the de Vere family) into the small square of English alabaster.  Not having a television I was unfamiliar with Alex Langland; I thought that having done a bit of televisual chipping, he would disappear  leaving me to finish the product.  However he was naturally very skillful and applied himself to completing the piece, even after the film crew had moved on.  I was genuinely impressed

My background is as a restoration carver, and I am trained to recreate objects with great accuracy.  However because of the limited time schedule, I had to put aside the time consuming process of cross-referencing.  As I had studied the original in such detail I  threw myself into the carving and worked largely from memory.  


By the time the light faded and filming had to come to an end, a credible carving of the heraldic boar had been achieved.  Paul Whight, the owner of Earl’s Colne Priory, had watched the work in progress and promptly bought the sculpture.  It’s there now, in place of the alabaster tombs – I hope that the original stone carver would approve.


More about Time Team:   http:// ww.timeteamdigital.com/w

More about St Stephen’s Chapel:   


More about Lucy Churchill:    http://www.lucychurchill.com/

(See new website early February)