Public Art Collections in North West England:
Norton Priory.

Archaeology Runcorn, then. One of reasons I’ve been saving Norton Priory across the years of this project is because even though it’s only in Halton, by public transport it seemed so terribly remote. Most maps give the impression of it being in the middle of nowhere or at least away from civilisation with much walking required. The only other times I've visited were  in the 80s with school and on a family trip and on both occasions we’d driven there and it was before a proper visitors centre had been built, the excavation still ongoing. My memory then was of a field and a pretty inaccessible one. Frankly, Coniston looked like a better bet and I still haven’t a clue yet how I’ll manage there by public transport, knowing full well it’ll tale more than the usual day trip.

Two things changed my mind. Firstly, Tabley House required much walking too, forty-five minutes worth each way from the railway station and if I could manage that, even in ill health, I could certainly manage this. Secondly, I checked Merseytravel’s iPad app with its Journey Planner and discovered that there were such things as buses and stops close to the destination. In the event, after so many years, all I needed to do was catch a 60 around to Aigburth Road, take an X1 to Windmill Hill, at the end of the line, just past Runcorn Shopping City, then follow the signs, a walk of about three quarters of a mile and ten minutes. The whole trip took less than an hour. As I stepped into the car park to the Priory, it was impossible not to feel slightly foolish about the whole thing.

Given the mix of museums, art galleries and stately homes on the content’s page of Edward Morris’s Public Art Collections in North-West England, it’s fair to say Norton Priory is a bit of an outlier. The archaeological investigation of a twelfth century Augustine priory uncovered after the demolition of an abandoned house which had been built on top of its remains after the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, it was always a curiosity, not that I read ahead, such are the rules of this project, to discover exactly why. Once I was over the shock of just how easily I’d managed to find the place, that sense of curiosity immediate returned as I trudged up to the visitor centre (pictured) and after paying a rare entrance fee on this project began the investigation, or rather finally got around to reading Edward’s entry.

St Christopher Carrying the Infant Christ is a massive sandstone statue which has its own display room at the entrance of the visitors centre. Apparently created in the fourteenth century, it was carved in Chester, possibly, to celebrate the building’s elevation to abby status as secured by then prior Richard Wyche and transported across probably with some effort. The statue depicts St Christopher carrying the some might say miraculous ghost of the infant Christ across a river and his size is in keeping with the man described in the accounts who was capable of carry the world on his shoulders. Edward says statues of St Christopher tended to have this kind of presence and were “placed outside buildings or at gates” and “could be seen many miles away”.

The statue is important because so few good examples survived the dissolution, and subsequent destruction of religious art by the Protestant iconoclasts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The current head of Christ is a late replacement, the original having been destroyed at some point. But the rest is pretty sublime, drawn together from three pieces of sandstone, a mix of freestanding statuary and bas-relief, the saint’s powerful, draped figure augmented at the bottom by carvings of fishes and water, reminding the viewer of the narrative in a way which is almost painterly. Anyone who’s familiar with the lives of the saints will immediately know who this is without much guess work, something which isn’t always this case with this sort of historical and religious statuary.

This representation of St Christopher is notable enough to not only have its own Wikipedia page, but for Andrew Graham-Dixon to have written about it in his old column for The Telegraph. He’d seen the statue while it was on loan to Tate Britain. The statue became a museum object in 1965 when it was donated to what’s now National Museums Liverpool when the Brooke family, who’d bought the land in the 1500s finally left the place having made it a feature in their garden. It was on display in Liverpool Museum for many years but after a special extension to the Norton Priory Museum was built in 1999 to house the statue, St Christopher was returned and Edward says it’s been on what amounts to long-term loan from NML ever since, which is presumably why he thought it notable enough to be included in his book.

Housed within ita own space filled with various educational items and a laminated copy of the Telegraph article, rather than otherwise being left to just sit there, Norton Priory Museum have positioned the statue within a presentation of its own history, utilising video projectors to demonstrate how it would have looked across its history, from its original brightly coloured painted appearance through to the time it was hidden in the garden covered in vines and nature right up to the period it spent in NML’s conservation being laser cleaned. St Christopher himself describes this biography, the voice of Brian Blessed no less emerging from the video animated lips of his otherwise still face and the purist within me should have been entirely vexed by the whole process, but because it’s all presented with such dignity and because Blessed, bless him, is giving it his all, I was delighted.

This, then, is the occasion when I visited a venue for its single item, but I made the most of it by enjoying the rest of the excavation, the largest in the country. Again, the Wikipedia page for the site is astonishingly volumous so I’ll direct you there for a fuller explanation. I spent a good two and a half hours wandering about, largely thanks to the superb iPhone app which visitors are given on entry which includes detailed explanations of various aspects of the site, interviews with experts and images of the priory excavation and some history of the subsequent house.  All of this strikes a careful balance between treating the place as a historical curiosity and noting the features later added by the Brooke family and the effect they had on the site including the rather lovely Summer House which has been somewhat restored (new roof).

Some other points of order. There is a sculpture trail which I didn’t have time for this afternoon, but have previously visited as part of that research project for the Public Monuments and Sculpture research project in the late 90s. One of the pieces is in the grounds of the excavation, a statue of a Kneeling Monk by Thompson William Dagnall unveiled in 1987, which seems somewhat influenced by St Christopher in its design, especially around the drapes (you can see it here). Curiously, Edward doesn’t mention that or the rest of the sculpture trail in his book, which was published in 2001 but I suspect its because he was restricting himself to items in the permanent collections of museums and art galleries and also knew that the PMSA would also cover them well enough. Which it did, in 2012.

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