News March 2017
Posted on 11:31, March 5th, 2017
Medieval Abbot Makes Re-appearance in Hyde Abbey, Winchester with help of local MP Steve Brine
Newly commissioned life-sized sculpture embodies story of abbey where King Alfred the Great lies buried St. Bartholomew’s Church, Winchester was packed on Friday evening [3rd March] for the unveiling by the Revd. Canon Cliff Banister assisted by local MP Steve Brine and the Deputy Mayor of Winchester David Mclean of a life sized sculpture in wood of 13th Century Abbot Walter de Aston.
The carving had been commissioned from the well-known St.Cross-based wood carver, Alex Jones by local heritage group Hyde900 as a way of embodying the story of Hyde Abbey (and its predecessor New Minster) where King Alfred the Great was buried.
“Abbot Aston presided over the abbey 1222-1248 about mid-way through the lifespan of New Minster/Hyde Abbey,” explained Hyde900 Chair, Steve Marper. “It was a very large, very affluent abbey but it is now almost entirely disappeared apart from St. Bartholomew’s which was its lay chapel. By commissioning this statue of Abbot Aston we are giving a human dimension to the story of the abbey. Our intention is that it should complement the Hammo Thornycroft figure of King Alfred in the Broadway so as to sum up the two dimensions of the abbey story – a royal burial place for Alfred and an important ecclesiastical establishment for Aston.”
Wood carver Alex Jones has an established reputation especially for producing extraordinary renditions of insects in wood often on a giant scale. His work is in a number of private and public collections and he is now in the process of creating a new body of work for his next exhibition. This will include life-sized human figures so he was delighted when he was approached by Hyde900 to undertake Aston. “It was perfect timing for me in term of how my work has been developing and wood is one of the best possible materials for carving people in,” he said. “In fact the walnut I’m using comes from a tree which also provided me with wood 25 years ago when I was doing a carving of a young boy. So there is a kind of continuity there.”
There are no known images of Aston so there was a creative challenge in deciding how he would be presented.
“Although Aston is a historical figure separated from us by 800 years I felt that he should also come across as someone who would be recognisable to us today because of the basic humanity which we all share,” said Jones. “I undertook a lot of research into what abbot Aston would have worn and also into the crozier which is holding which is modelled on a 13th century crozier from Hyde now in the Victoria & Albert Museum and which was quite possibly his. But I didn’t want it to be too stuck in the past – I also wanted to give it a contemporary spin.”
Abbot Aston is believed to have grown up locally in Hampshire – possibly in the Longparish area– but had to make his way up from the bottom. By being elected Abbot in 1222 he joined an elite group of ‘mitred’ abbots and the records show that he took part in great events of national significance.
Abbot Aston’s life and times were celebrated in St. Bartholomew’s during the Unveiling service through a series of performances and presentations. These included music by Index Cantorum, a reflection on the English language in the 13th century by Professor Christopher Mulvey of the English Project and poetry by local Hyde poets. Also featured was a two-hander short play, ‘Unforgettable’ by Jonathan Edgington which took a sideways look at Walter de Aston from a modern perspective.
The surprise element in the evening was the appearance of Aston himself as played by actor Nigel Bradshaw who also served as the model for Alex Jones’ Aston figure. “Aston would have been a big personality, I’m sure, and the fact that Nigel is such a huge character in his own right helped me enormously in carving him – gruelling though he found it at times,” said Alex Jones.
Nigel Bradshaw says that modelling Abbot Aston and embodying a little known, but highly prominent character in medieval Winchester, who signed the re-issue of Magna Carta in 1225, who met kings, bishops and many significant players in the politics and fabric of 13thC England was an inspirational experience. “Through those ‘significant’ others, a picture of Walter emerges, illuminating with wonder the time in which he lived, here in Hyde, almost a thousand years ago,” says Bradshaw.
Serving as the model was not always easy especially as it involved enduring the application of a full face mask. “It was suffocating, illuminating and humbling,” he said. “To be ‘under wraps’, face incarcerated in plaster, waiting for the mound to set, as my grimace lines entombed themselves to eternity and panic spread – would the tiny straws set in my nose collapse? This was surely suffocation indeed! Humbling to realize, as Alex carved away at dear Walter, I would remain, as his likeness, when shadows will no longer find me.”
“We’ve been immensely fortunate in the way people have responded to our ideas and proposals,” commented Edward Fennell, the Hyde900 Founder.”The very large turn-out this evening including Steve Brine MP and Deputy Mayor David Mclean shows how interested people are in the Hyde Abbey King Alfred Story. The unveiling of Abbot Aston marks the opening of a new chapter for us with a whole series of projects planned for this year with the support of funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. It’s going to be a great year!”
Abbot Aston will be on display in St. Bartholomew’s for the near future but the intention is that it will move in due course to a secure location elsewhere in the Hyde Abbey precincts. “We’re very happy to give Abbot Aston temporary accommodation,” said the Revd Cannon Cliff Bannister. “He’s a valuable link to the medieval monastic community in Hyde to which the members of our congregation at St. Bartholomew’s are the successors.”
For more information on Hyde900’s programme for 2017 including a lecture series on the story of the abbey click HERE