Old Rugged Cross

TODAY RICK, a freelance scenic painter, is putting the finishing touches to the Saxon Cross exhibit in the new Wakefield Museum. The last time that you’d have seen a man painting this cross in Wakefield would have been over a thousand years ago.

In this reconstruction what remains of the shaft of the original, covered in plastic sheeting in my drawing (and no, Rick’s not going to paint that bit!), is in a plain Anglo Saxon knotted tendril design, with no birds, beasts or warriors popping out from the tracery. It might date from any time from the 800s to just before the Norman conquest.

Saxon crosses were painted and, judging from surviving artwork of the period, such as The Lindisfarne Gospels, they would have used the brightest colours available. We’re used to seeing monuments of such antiquity in worn, mellow stone so this reconstruction reminds us that, in a world where these brighter colours were the exception, this was intended to be a focus of attention – like the sign of a MacDonald’s restaurant today.

When this cross was erected in Wakefield’s market place there might have been a Saxon Church in Wakefield but I suspect that it stood alone as a focus of community life and worship. Paulinus, the Roman missionary who became the first Bishop of York, is said to have preached to the pagan Anglo Saxons at Dewsbury in 627 A.D. The last pagan king in Englad, Penda of Mercia, had been defeated and killed in 655 at the Battle of Winwaed, which was possibly alongside the River Went at Ackworth.

The cross was still standing in 1546 but then disappeared until 1861 when Edmund Waterton, son of the naturalist Charles, rescued it from the demolition of an old butcher’s shop, which stood on the site of Unity Hall, Westgate. It had been used as a doorstep.

Rick painted jungly scenic backdrops for the 1990s revamp of the (Charles) Waterton exhibit Wakefield Museum and he’s painted a fresh jungle backdrop for the new exhibit here in the Museum’s new quarters at Wakefield One. My acrylic on canvas Waterton’s World mural, painted for the 1980s Waterton gallery at the Museum is now in the collection of the Hepworth art gallery. As well as museum work Rick, who lives in Wensleydale, has worked as a scenic artist on numerous Yorkshire Television and Granada series such as Emmerdale and Heartbeat.

As I sketched him, Rick worked mainly with a brush, as his Anglo Saxon predecessors would, but occasionally, to build up a transparent shadow, he’d add a touch of airbrushing.

I’m sure that many visitors will, at a glance, assume that the reconstructed head and base of the cross are three dimensional. The touch of trompe d’oeil that impressed me most were the chipped edges of the base. They look convincingly three-dimensional to me but go close enough and you’ll see that they’re freely painted in blobs of colour.

Leave a Reply