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Professor Tristram and Canterbury Cathedral’s Wall Paintings

Professor Tristram and Canterbury Cathedral’s Wall Paintings

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Tristram at work in the Cloisters

Professor Ernest William Tristram started his long association with Canterbury Cathedral in the mid-1920s. Tristram, born in Carmarthen, Wales, in 1882, was an art historian, particularly interested in the medieval period. He trained at the Royal College of Art under Richard Lethaby, where he was a member of staff in 1925 as Professor of Design. This was a position he held until his retirement in 1948.

Canterbury Cathedral could not be classed as highly painted, mainly due to deterioration over time and the defacing that occurred during the Reformation. However, there are still some unique, interesting and important pieces, for example the large depiction of the story of St Eustace in the North Quire ambulatory, the testers above the tombs of both Henry IV and the Black Prince around the edge of the Trinity Chapel, a wonderfully intact 12th Century depiction of St Paul and the Viper in St Anselm’s Chapel and the story of St John the Baptist in St Gabriel’s Chapel.

In 1925 Tristram wrote a report on the wall paintings at Canterbury Cathedral. He suggested that work might be needed to preserve the paintings, and oversaw many of these restorations himself. One of the paintings included in the report was that of St Eustace. He observed that there was flaky pigment and suggested the painting should be cleaned and covered in wax to aid preservation. The restorations were made from 1926 – 1929, and most of the work was carried out by Miss E and Miss M Bridges under the instruction of Tristram. Whilst it is impossible to attribute the work to one particular artist, it is likely that the craftsmanship was local because of the evidence of the style and that it seemed to be inspired by local scenes. In what was to become a general pattern, Tristram also painted a reproduction of the wall painting in three parts, which now hangs along the opposite wall from the original in four parts. This was paid for by Mr Harry Lloyd, a Friend of Canterbury Cathedral. By creating reproductions, it was made possible for visitors to view the content of the wall paintings in a way that would sometimes be impossible due to the location of the original.

Painting of St Paul

It is particularly hard to truly appreciate what a striking piece of artwork the painting of St Paul is, high up on the wall in St Anselm’s Chapel. It is thought to have been painted in the 1160s and was hidden from sight for 700 years before it was revealed during some work in 1888. Whilst the painting was in remarkable condition, it too was showing signs of wear and Tristram suggested it should be cleaned and sprayed with a binding agent. Due to the height of the painting it is hard to see the painting from the chapel floor, but the skill with which the surround is made to look three dimensional and the cloth of St Paul’s clothes which is light and almost shimmers is very impressive and of a totally different style from the painting of St Eustace. As it is located high in the apse, Tristram was commissioned once again to create a reproduction and this now hangs by the Pilgrim’s Steps between the Trinity and South Quire ambulatories.

The wall paintings in St Gabriel’s Chapel in the Crypt are unique in that it is very rare to find such paintings from the early 12th century in such good condition. It is thought that they have been so well preserved due to the use of the chapel as a storage area, so that the paintings were not exposed to large amounts of light. Tristram records the well preserved wall paintings of St Gabriel’s Chapel in his 1925 report, and recommends a surface clean and application of a binding agent to tackle any disintegration. There is also a record of the restoration taking place under Tristram, by Miss Bridges and Mrs Hegan, who carried out much of the work until June 1928. Mr Mobley was employed in the autumn to carry out the more delicate work required to preserve the paintings.

St. Gabriel Ceiling Painting
St. Gabriel Ceiling Painting


According to the Dictionary of Art Historians, Tristram relied heavily on intuition rather than documentary evidence so his analysis is sometimes slightly inaccurate. It also claims that his methods now could be criticised as covering the paintings in wax could prevent the walls being able to breathe and thus let out moisture. However, from the scientific knowledge at the time, this was a popular method, and one that was considered necessary to preserve the wall paintings. Furthermore, he may not have always been 100% accurate in his dating due to his lack of documentary research, but he was correct more times than not, showing incredible knowledge and skill on the subject.


The involvement of Professor Tristram with the Cathedral has ensured that a record is made of the important and fascinating paintings here. His preservation techniques may not be those used now but they highlighted the duty of care required and ensured that these pieces can still be seen and enjoyed by visitors today. Archbishop Cosmo Gordon Lang said of Tristram in 1935 ‘Shall I speak of him as the wizard who has drawn from our walls their colours which were, many of them, daubed over by the perverted superstition in the 16th century, or have been forgotten and defaced by those many generations in which dirt and drabness seem to have been taken in this country as a sign of mellow antiquity? Or shall I call him the Prince who has awakened the Sleeping Beauty of the long imprisoned colour in our churches?’

[Recorded in the Canterbury Cathedral Chronicle, July 1935, No. 21, p. 13]


This glowing and emphatic report shows how highly Tristram was regarded for his involvement with the Cathedral’s paintings. It is worth noting that Tristram also designed the Friends Banner hung in the Northern Crypt (for more information on this please see here) and worked with paintings and monuments across much of England, including Westminster Abbey, Exeter Cathedral, St Albans, Eton and Oxford Colleges. His interest and work in the wall paintings has ensured that not only are they still preserved to this day, but also that there is documentary art work to ensure enjoyment can continue on for many generations of visitors because of his reproductions.

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Detail from Tristram’s reproduction of The Martyrdom of Becket


This is just a small sample of the work done by Tristram and the wall paintings at Canterbury Cathedral. For more information please contact

Madylene Outen

Research assisted by Sarah Hunter, Volunteer.

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