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BBC News

John Aldam Heaton: the Pre-Raphaelites, Titanic and the chancel arch at Holy Trinity


Chancel arch: Gordon Ridgewell. John Aldam Heaton: courtesy Dr Michael Winstanley

“A beautiful painting on the Chancel arch, designed and executed by Mr J. Aldam Heaton of Bloomsbury Square, London has just been added to the church. It is dedicated to the glory of God and in loving memory of the ever-lamented wife of the Vicar.” This euphoric report appeared in the 1881 July edition of the Saffron Walden Parish Magazine that covered parochial news from the town and many of its surrounding villages.

The church had undergone major changes between 1870 and 1874; to the people of Littlebury it must have seemed almost unrecognizable within. Amongst many other alterations, the rebuilt chancel and chancel arch, new Caen stone pillars and reredos, and eight new Gothic windows had transformed the old building within into a modern devotional Victorian interior. Commissioned by Rev. Joseph Wix in 1879 and dedicated in 1881, Heaton’s painting covers the whole of the chancel arch and is executed with a full palette in a dark tonal range. Based on the crucifixion it has a distinct Pre Raphaelite feel with decorative lettering encased in spiralling gold ribbons descending on either side.

John Aldam Heaton (1830 - 1897) worked in his early adult life as a wool and textile manufacturer at Beehive Mill in Bradford, moving in 1860 to Woodbank, an ancient farm near Harden, Bingley, in Yorkshire. Influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite movement and counting Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Burne-Jones, William Morris, and Norman Shaw among his friends, Heaton became fascinated by all areas of art and interior design, in particular furniture, stained glass and wallpaper design. Several of his wallpaper designs are kept at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Heaton invited Rossetti to paint a portrait of Ellen, his wife, and the artist stayed with them at Woodbank for a month between November and December 1861 to carry out the commission. The portrait, known as Regina Cordium (Queen of Hearts), a portrait of Mrs Ellen Heaton, subsequently formed the basis of a stained glass window for the house; this work was one of the first undertaken by William Morris’s studio. In 1862 Heaton recommended the medievalist Morris to make thirteen stained glass panels required for the entrance hall and staircase at Harden Grange near Bingley, where a successful textile entrepreneur Walter Dunlop was then living as a leasehold tenant. The Bradford Art Galleries and Museums later acquired them in 1917.

Morris’s panels were based on Tristram and Isoude’s story in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, newly re-popularized particularly by Wagner’s 1859 opera: Tristram and Isolde. Subsequently in1863, once again recommended by Heaton, Morris’s studio, later to be called Morris & Co, was commissioned to create an arrangement of stained glass lights in Bradford Cathedral, now known as ‘The Morris Windows’. Several artists including Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown and Rossetti, worked on the project, in a large part of Morris’s design of seven lights divided by a transom and surmounted by three rows of tracery.

A member of the Neo-Classical Arts and Crafts movement, Heaton was forthright in his views and published several books about art and design. These included Beauty and Art in 1889, a critique of taste, and Furniture and Decoration in England during the Eighteenth Century in 1890, a work that acclaimed the work of Chippendale, Sheraton and Heppelwhite among others. In 1895 he designed and published the lengthily titled Chimney-pieces, Ornamental Lattice, Wall-papers, Frieze Painting, Blinds, Carpets, Furniture, Designs for Needlework, Embroidery, Curtains, Church Work, Stained Glass, Painting, that undoubtedly indicated the breadth of his interests.

Heaton set up workshops in Bloomsbury in order to undertake more prestigious commissions. He collaborated with many important artists as well as the architect Richard Norman Shaw who believed that architecture should be considered an Art. Working with Shaw, Heaton’s company produced lavish interior designs and furnishings for the White Star Line liners, the first being for the Olympic in which many different historical styles were used. Aldam Heaton & Co became part of White Star and, some years after Heaton’s death in 1897, designed interiors for the Titanic that, according to plan, closely resembled those of the Olympic

A spiritual man, John Aldam Heaton strove, among his other commissions, to enhance church interiors. Since he often worked in tandem with architects it may be through those connections that he came to paint the chancel arch at Littlebury in his early fifties. Recently Holy Trinity has once again undergone many improvements and alterations, including new lighting that enables the painting in the chancel arch to be seen much more clearly, providing an opportune moment to take a look at the life and artistic milieu of its creator.

 Lizzie Sanders

References: Anne Walleans, Designing liners: a history of interior design afloat,Routledge, 2006, 61.  http://mycommunityhub.co.uk/pre-raphaelite-movement-harden-bingley-silsden/, http://www.joslinhall.com/Catalog 300.htm, http://www.bradfordhistorical.org.uk/antiquary/third/vol01/tristram.html http://www.rossettiarchive.org/docs/s129.rap.html

Many thanks to Dr Michael Winstanley of Lancaster University (probably only very distantly related to Henry as far as he knows) for the image of John Aldam Heaton above, the information that Beauty and Art is available online and this link where Aldam Heaton's Arts and Crafts leaning is clear to see.