Chancel and Reredos, The Cathedral Church of St Nicholas
Victorian architect: Robert James Johnson (1832-92)
Reredos: Stone-carver Robert Beall of Newcastle, with figures by James Sherwood Westmacott (1823-1900)
Wood-carver: Ralph Hedley (1848-1913)
Westmacott's work: 1887 (his last commission)
Main Victorian renovation: 1873 onwards
Johnson's work: c.1882 onwards
Wood-carving on the choir stalls etc, later 1880s onwards
Named after St Nicholas as patron saint of sailors and voyagers, the cathedral was long used as a navigation point for sailors on the Tyne, and is still a city landmark. [Commentary continues below.]
The present building dates largely from fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and the Scottish Crown Tower dates from about 1470 (Histon 88). However, like so many such places of worship, it was subject to a complicated programme of restoration in the Victorian period. John McQuillen explains that in 1873 the interior of the church underwent an "exhaustive renovation, at a cost of £21,400" (51). But, in 1882, having previously been one of the city's four parish churches, St Nicholas became a cathedral. In the same year, Robert James Johnson, who had been the Diocesan Architect/Surveyor for diocese of Durham from 1871, became the Diocesan Architect/Surveyor for the newly formed diocese of Newcastle.
Johnson had trained in Darlington, and then been an assistant in the practice of Sir George Gilbert Scott in London from 1849-1858. Scott had thought highly of him. Later, Johnson had moved to Newcastle, and in 1865 he and another architect, Thomas Austin, had purchased the practice of John Dobson. Since Austin's health was poor, Johnson was soon running the practice himself (Austin died in 1867; see "Robert James Johnson"). It is likely that Johnson had been consulted unofficially prior to 1882, but at any rate a new phase of work began on the cathedral around now, and, although commissioned in stages, lasted as one campaign until 1889. The reredos and choir stalls were part of Johnson's ambitious scheme.
The reredos, says McQuillen, is made of Uttoxeter marble, and has echoes of those at St. Alban's and Winchester. Interestingly, he explains that the cost was defrayed by Percy Westmacott. There is nothing to suggest, however, that this patron was a relative of the sculptor James Sherwood Westmacott. McQuillan identifies the figures in the reredos as follows: "Besides the scriptural figures, and that of the patron saint of the church, are figures of St. Oswald, the Venerable Bede, St. Aidan, St. Benedict Biscop, St. Edwin, St. Wilfrid, and St. Paulinus" (52).
McQuillan also helpfully describes the role of Ralph Hedley here: "The richly-carved woodwork, a creation in which grace and strength are united, is strictly in keeping with the severe style of the chancel, and in accord with ecclesiastical traditions, was executed by Mr Ralph Hedley, and splendidly upholds his craftmanship and artistic feeling" (52). Perhaps that is not surprising, since Hedley was also a very fine artist who exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy. Specifically, Hedley's great-granddaughter, Clodagh Brown, tells us that Hedley was responsible for the very fine wood carving in the choir, including the rood screen, Bishop's throne and canons' stalls with misericords.
- Cathedral exterior
- Chancel and Reredos (Victorian)
- Hedley's Choir Stalls
- Hedley's Bishop's Throne
- Hedley's Screen-carving
- Hedley's Misericords
- Details of Hedley's carving in the choir
- Memorial to John Collingwood Bruce
- Sir Alfred Gilbert's statue of Queen Victoria outside the Cathedral
Photograph and text Jacqueline Banerjee, with considerable help from Clodagh Brown of the Ralph Hedley Archive, who sent in detailed corrections to an older version of this web page, based on her own archival researches. She also kindly sent in additional comments, and her leaflet about St Nicholas, "Cathedral in the Making." [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL or cite it in a print one. Click on the image to enlarge it, and mouse over the text for links.]
Brown, Clodagh. Cathedral in the Making." Ralph Hedley (1848-1913), Painter and Woodcarver; St Nicholas Cathedral, 2013.
Histon, Vanessa. Keys to the City: Walks Exploring Newcastle's Hidden History. Newcastle: Tyne Bridge Publishing, 2007.
McQuillen, John. The Church of St Nicholas, with a Brief Sketch of the History of Newcastle. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Summerhill Press, 1903. Internet Archive. Uploaded from the collection of Harvard University. Web. 18 June 2014.
"Ralph Hedley." Mapping the Practice and Profession of Sculpture in Britain and Ireland 1851-1951. University of Glasgow History of Art and HATII. Web. 18 June 2014.
Robert James Johnson." Dictionary of Scottish Architects. Web. 18 June 2014.
"Westmacott, James Sherwood." In "A Biographical Dictionary of Sculptors." Henry Moore Foundation. Web. 18 June 2014. (NB The date given for Westmacott's work here is wrongly given as 1857; it should be 1887 — Clodagh Brown).
Last modified 15 September 2015