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The Bristol High Cross, sculpture by John Thomas and Harry Hems

Bristol High Cross, Berkeley Square.

Off Park Street in Bristol, which winds its way up from the Cathedral to the University buildings, is Berkeley Square, and near one edge of the central green space is an unexpected piece of sculpture: a small shrine of a monument, Gothic and spired, with four seated figures in niches, which is the surviving remnant of the Bristol High Cross. Not the medieval cross, such as graced many towns and cities a few hundred years ago, for that was removed by the ungrateful authorities of Bristol, but a 19th Century replacement, which in its turn was pulled down, leaving this last surviving part banished from the central precinct.

The story is this: Bristol High Cross was set up in the 14th Century, perhaps, as the small notice by the current remains suggests, to commemorate Edward II’s charter of 1373 giving Bristol the status of a separate county, and it was first enlarged in the 17th Century and then moved from the site of the medieval crossroads in the city (the meeting of High Street, Corn Street, Wine St and Broad Street) to the now more suitable location of College Green, close to the Cathedral, in 1733. It lasted a mere 32 years, being taken down in 1765, dumped in the Cathedral for a while, then exported from the City to Stourhead, where it remains, though the medieval statues upon it eventually found their way to the V&A for conservation reasons, and were never disgorged by that most acquisitive of institutions.

Views of Bristol High Cross as it was.

The Victorian Bristol High Cross, based by its architect on visits to the original cross at Stourhead, and with removal of 17th Century additions, was completed in 1851, year of the Great Exhibition. But it had been more costly than planned, and the statues had to wait: eventually there was one by the prolific and excellent sculptor John Thomas – Edward III, put in place in the mid-1850s, and seven a generation later in 1889, by the less prolific and decently workmanlike sculptor Harry Hems – perhaps this is unfair to Hems, but his work was surely never of the merit of John Thomas’s. The High Cross then survived until 1950, until the architect of the new Council House, Vincent Harris, had it removed to clear the view of his creation, incidentally also having the trees on the Green cut down too. Suffering further damage and vandalism, the Berkeley Square Association, Park Street Traders and the Civic Society of Bristol, were able to raise enough money to have the remaining bit of the Cross that we see today, with four of the figures, put up in its current situation.

Bristol High Cross as we see its remains today has three segments. Firstly a short lower segment, vaguely octagonal, or a square so truncated as to seem so, with four short pillars. Next, the main central section with a central shaft, four outer pillars, rather slender, and between them four seated monarchs. Above them is a canopy, with crocketed mini-spires, rather damaged but still a showy display of Victorian carving. And then the still-tall spire, with more small crocketing along the fluted edges, as tall or taller than the two lower sections, and capped by a terminus of leafy excrescences.

Statues of Henry VI and Charles I, and Elizabeth I, by Harry Hems.

The figures are damaged, and a bit repaired, particularly around the faces, which repairs were done when the statues were moved to their current location in the 1950s. First, the statue of King Henry VI, with narrow collar, cloak, caught at the neck and flaring open to reveal an athletic body and battered arms and legs. The next king is rather more pitted and damaged, similar in physique, but has a broad ruff, and while he has a robe over a shirt above, he wears a more skirtlike garment over his legs. We see a damaged orb on one side, and the remains of a hand resting on his other leg which would have held the sceptre. The damaged face retains an ascetic look. His name is rather worn away, but it is King James I, so this is the statue by John Phillip. Then King Charles I, still so labelled on the base, with flowing hair under a coronet, and moustache, and a lugubrious look – not really obvious as a portrait. Beneath his cloak he wears some sort of wide belt or girdle above trousers tucked into high boots. On one thigh rests his orb; and again the other arm has lost the hand which would have held his sceptre of office. The final statue is of Queen Elizabeth I, shown rather young, hair short or perhaps bunched at the back, the wide quintessentially Elizabethan ruff, and over her chest are still the remains of long necklaces of pearls. The drapes of her skirt are ruined, and her feet damaged; arms are there but only part of the hands remain, with the orb a snowball like lump decaying in her grasp. Surely too soft a stone, or the air too polluted, for it to have come to this state. Only the sides of the stools the monarchs sit on, where little panels are carved, and protected by virtue of being tucked in behind the pillars, show how the carving was when in good state.

Statue of James I, by John Phillip.

The work of John Thomas can be seen in perfect preservation not so far away, in the former West of England and South Wales District Bank, which stands on Corn Street, close to where the medieval High Cross of Bristol once stood.

There is something rather poignant about the High Cross today, partly its somewhat hidden-away site, partly because of its sad story, and partly because it recalls a time when Bristol had many stone crosses, associated with the various churches of the city: St Peter's Cross by the well of St Edith, Temple Cross, St Augustine's Cross near the abbey, St Michael's Cross at the bottom of St Michael's Hill and Bewell's Cross at the top, Redcliff Cross by the famous Redcliffe Church. and St James's Cross, among others. None of them remain.

This page was originally part of a 'sculpture of the month' series, for Dec. 2014. Although the older pages in that series have been absorbed within the site, if you would wish to follow the original monthly series, then jump to the next month (Jan. 2015) or the previous month (Nov. 2014). To continue, go to the bottom of each page where a paragraph like this one allows you to continue to follow the monthly links.

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