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September 2017 Item of the Month

Before the fire - Cosin wood-carvings at Brancepeth church

Nineteen years ago, on 16 September 1998, the church of St Brandon in Brancepeth suffered a catastrophic fire, destroying its interior fittings completely. The church was then almost 1,000 years old. An extensive restoration project, which included the commissioning of a fine new stained glass ‘Paradise’ window, was completed in 2005.

As time passes the memory of the old church fades, and we take this month to recall the exceptionally fine wood carvings that once graced the building. These elaborate Jacobean and revived gothic carvings dated from John Cosin’s time as rector of Brancepeth, which began in 1626. Such commissions of Cosin’s were described by Nikolaus Pevsner as “one of the most remarkable contributions of the county to the history of architecture and decoration in England”1. Cosin was later exiled in Paris during the Commonwealth period, but returned to serve as Bishop of Durham from 1660 until his death in 1672. His advancement to the see allowed him to commission further masterpieces of carving across the diocese which do survive, the font cover in Durham Cathedral being one particularly monumental example. As Graham Parry has written in his history of the arts of the Anglican Counter-Reformation, “wherever his words of authority or influence fell, a forest of boldly carved oak arose”2.

In the Special Collections at Palace Green Library is this fine drawing of the carved pulpit in Brancepeth church. It was drawn in 1825 by Anne Andrews Salvin née Nesfield (1811-1860), the wife of the architect Anthony Salvin senior (1799-1881), and sister of the landscape architect and artist William Andrews Nesfield (1793-1881). The sketch book it comes from includes several other detailed drawings of the interior fittings and exterior of the church; also included are views of castles in Durham and Northumberland, as well as an Alpine village scene. Watercolours and further sketches by Anne Salvin are held in the collections of the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Thomas Fisher Library at the University of Toronto. Photographs of the church taken before the fire including some of the interior furnishings also survive in the Durham Diocesan Records collection (DDR/DA/DAC/5/5-26 and DDR/DA/DAC/5/Dch25).

While the fire was a great blow it did uncover some earlier history of Brancepeth that would otherwise have remained hidden. Some Saxon stonework was discovered, and the collapse of the roof revealed a series of 12th and 13th-century cross slab tombstones which had been inlaid into the walls of the church during the addition of the clerestory (an upper wall of windows) in 1638, again by John Cosin. It is thought he removed these tomb stones from the graveyard fearing they would fall victim to the puritan faction which was then gaining the ascendant, and with which he was decidedly not in sympathy. As such it is perhaps an early example of rescue archaeology, and in light of the civil war that followed, draws comparisons to the work of cultural heritage preservation organisations such as the International Committee of the Blue Shield working today in conflict areas around the world.

1Nikolaus Pevsner, County Durham (Harmondsworth, 1983), p.114.
2Graham Parry, Glory, Laud and Honour. The Arts of the Anglican Counter-Reformation (The Boydell Press, 2006), pp.41-41.

Every month we showcase here an item from our Heritage Collections.