First three photographs kindly contributed by Peter Loud, as captured from his impressive panoramic virtual tour of the cathedral. These remain his copyright; please ask permission if you wish to reuse them. Remaining photographs and text by by Jacqueline Banerjee. You may use these later images 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 in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. Click on the images to enlarge them.
Choir stalls, St Nicholas Cathedral, Newcastle. Carved by Ralph Hedley (1848-1913), late 1880s. The parish church of St Nicholas dated mostly from the late medieval period. When it was raised to the status of a cathedral in 1882, the new work on it was to be in keeping with the old. In preparation for carving the choir stalls, along with the rood screen and canopied panelling, Hedley studied medieval work at Carlisle Cathedral and elsewhere.
From a distance, the choir stalls look beautifully finished, but Hedley had no wish to copy old work mechanically. Rather, it was to be done "with spirit and go, with feeling," in the medieval spirit. It was to show how the work was done, too — that is, to show "that it is cut, not cast" (qtd. in Brown). When you look more closely, you see the energy and process of the carving, and all the quirkiness of the medieval craftsmanship, with a certain abandon that allowed Hedley to model the candle-holding angels above the choir on one of his daughters, and clothe them in contemporary dress (see Brown).
Elsewhere, the carved work is highly imaginative. The features of the green man on the left grow out of the foliage of the poppy-head finial: there are many green men hidden in the choir stalls, symbolising vitality, rebirth, regeneration — a pagan symbol, but one that was not considered at all incompatible with the Christian message — as seen in the later fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and in many churches of the period. Another stall-end, shown in the middle above, features a chorister/angel, rough-hewn and characterful, far from contemporary aestheticism. On the right, at the end of the stall this time and not as a finial, is a beast — hound or hind or a mixture of both — with a crown for its collar.
Various other mythical, composite or imaginary beasts appear. On the left above is an eagle of sorts, its strong claws clasping the edge of the stall. In the centre is a bird in its nest, probably the self-sacrificing pelican, and on the right a winged lion. Not seen here are the misericords, which Clodagh Brown describes as "the truly hidden feature with Northern mythical creatures such as male and female lindworms and wyverns as well as a Northern type of asp." But from the glimpses of carving alongside some of the figures shown here, it is clear that the work throughout exhibits great vigour and fertility of imagination, in true medieval spirit. The whole choir is a work of art, expressive in execution, and often tantalising in detail.
Brown, Clodagh. "Ralph Hedley (1848-1913), Wood-Carver and Painter." In Cathedral in the Making. Leaflet of 2013, kindly sent in by the author, Ralph Hedley's great grand-daughter.
Created 22 July 2015