A popular pastime in the 1960s and 1970s, brass rubbing has once again captured the interests of people across the world.
So what exactly is a brass rubbing? Quite simply, a brass rubbing is the process of obtaining an impression of the brass on paper by rubbing heelball wax over it. A carefully executed rubbing makes an ideal wall decoration as for many, the primary interest lies in the aesthetically pleasing pictorial qualities of these reproductions. However, behind this façade lies a wealth of historical interest. These memorial brasses, found mostly in the cathedrals and churches of Britain, not only provide a visual history of fashion, armour and ecclesiastical vestments, but also illustrate how life styles changed from the thirteenth to the end of the seventeenth centuries in medieval England.
In earlier times, monuments to the dead were of incised slabs of stone, usually imported from abroad, but as costs soared, craftsmen soon realised that brass plate would not only be a cheaper commodity, but would also be far more durable. This provided for greater scope in the art of engraving, enabling such intricate details of costume to be preserved, as can be seen in many fine examples of brasses throughout the country.
Brasses were engraved to commemorate classes of society rather than individuals and all classes are represented, including bishops, priests, ladies, city gentry and tradesmen. The earliest known brass in England dates back to 1277 and depicts Sir John d’Abernon at Stoke d’Abernon in Surrey. This is a fine figure of a knight holding a lance with an arrow-like blade, clad in detailed armour with surcoat (a garment to protect the wearer from discomforts caused by shirts of mail) and intricately designed leather sword strap. As brasses became increasingly popular as commemorative plaques, the precise detail of costume and accessories waned, and by the late fourteenth century, knights were shown in plainer armour, changes in style becoming less apparent. However, a noticeable feature was the replacement of the leather sword strap by a metal studded belt, forming an integral part of the suit.
The most prominent feature on brasses of ladies was undoubtedly the development of their headgear. Generally, ladies were depicted wearing long tunics with their headdresses as the striking feature. Examples are the zigzag and horned headdresses, and the famous ‘butterfly’ that was made by brushing the hair back into nets and extending the veil on wire wings. The brass of Lady Say (1473) at Broxbourne in Hertfordshire is a fine example. From this time until the mid sixteenth century, other styles developed such as the ‘dog kennel’ design, together with a change in costume, often revealing underskirts and pleated skirts.
As previously mentioned, traders were also depicted in brass, noticeably wool merchants, who emanated from the Cistercian monks of the thirteenth century. Most of these brasses are to be found in the Cotswolds, Chilterns and Lincolnshire Wolds, the main wool-producing areas, and fine examples can be seen at Northleach in Gloucestershire where there are no fewer than six wool-merchants depicted. It should be noted that the costume worn by these merchants is very similar to that worn by present-day clergy.
Brass effigies were often accompanied by Inscriptions in Norman French (thirteenth and fourteenth centuries) and in Latin and English from the fifteenth century. Other decorations include ornate crosses such as Nicholas d’Aumberdine (1350) at Taplow, and canopies or frames that represented the architectural style of the day. Examples of this are elaborate pinnacles and arches in the Perpendicular style (Alianore de Bohun (1399) in Westminster Abbey) and later, the Gothic style.
For anyone intending to embark upon the art of brass rubbing, the following materials are required:
Detail or lining paper; heelball wax; masking tape; soft duster
Now for a few tips! Before beginning the task, it is both essential and courteous to obtain permission from the incumbent of the parish. Brasses are to be found in many inaccessible places in churches – under pews, high on walls or tombstones, or even concealed behind the organ! When consulting the parish priest (whose address can be found in Crockford’s Clerical Dictionary, available at most public libraries) he or she will usually advise the location of the brass, and whether or not a fee is payable. Alternatively, a contribution towards the upkeep of the church can be made.
Firstly, use the soft duster to clean the brass, removing any loose dust or grit to avoid tearing the paper. Secure the paper firmly over the brass effigy with tape and outline the figure on the paper by gently rubbing the cloth along the outline of the brass. When rubbing, always maintain even pressure and rub in one direction, starting at one end of the brass and working along. The finished rubbing should be lightly polished with a clean duster before removing the paper. Any slight tears in the paper can be repaired after removal by pasting a small piece of the paper on the reverse of the rubbing.
Traditionally, brass effigies are made with black wax on to white paper but gold, silver and copper rubbings on black paper help to create a striking image. Other colours which appear quite popular are red, green, pewter and purple.
As a result of its increasing popularity and vandalism in our churches, specialist brass rubbing centres have been established in various parts of the country as well as overseas. These centres provide a selection of reproductions of the best brasses available, thereby enabling easy access and protecting the original memorials.