explore Vane Glory

10 November 2020

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This week, College Archivist Amanda Goode explores the interesting history behind the Front Court weather vane. While the vane may be a familiar sight to many of us, Amanda explains that the vane has had numerous incarnations in its history.

When the winds swirl about Front Court, a glance at the weather vane on top of the chapel bell–turret informs us of their origin. The vane is likely to be more than 200 years old, for it appears identical to the one shown in engravings made in the earliest years of the nineteenth century. Consisting of an arrow backed by a plain gilded oblong, the vane is functional rather than decorative, in marked contrast to its predecessors, which were much more flamboyant affairs.

Some idea of the appearance of the earliest weather vane can be gleaned from entries in the Bursary accounts for 1632, when the vane was taken down for refurbishment. After new iron had been added to it by Willerton the smith, one ‘Wisdome’ was paid 3s, 3d for ‘painting it in oyle with the College & the Founders armes set on it’. Exactly what form this heraldic adornment took is unknown, but it must have featured at least one, and possibly three, lions. Following the repairs and repainting, the carpenter set the vane up again, using a large quantity of lead plate. As to where it was set up, we cannot be sure, but it probably topped one of the two turrets that were formerly on the Hall roof, the smaller of which is thought to have been a clock house.

A Puritan man in black, with a white collar and red gown, standing in front of a curtain, in front of the College ChapelThe original college chapel was housed in the building now known as the Old Library, but in the 1660s the college authorities decided that a new, more orthodox, and frankly more impressive house of worship was needed. An early depiction of the elegant new chapel, the exterior of which was finished in 1673, can be seen in the background of the college’s portrait of John Breton (L), Master of Emmanuel during the period of construction. The building was, as we all know, designed by Christopher Wren, and although his one surviving drawing of the chapel does not furnish it with a weather vane, Breton’s portrait is evidence that such a feature had been set into the carved stone ‘flaming urn’ that crowned the bell–turret’s cupola. A close-up of a drawing of the college chapel weathervane, with a lion, crown and cross on the topA more detailed depiction of the new vane can be seen in David Loggan’s engraving of Front Court (Detail: R), which shows it to have comprised several stages of fancy baroque metalwork. The lowest stage may have been a compass pointer, above which were two ‘mirrored’ pieces of ornamental scrollwork. Then came the vane proper, which was, like its predecessor, a representation of the lion rampant from the college’s coat of arms. Above the lion’s head was a crown (a public advertisement of Emmanuel’s loyalty to the restored monarchy), and, for the finial, a cross.

The building accounts for the chapel contain several references to the new weather vane. On August 9 1676, the college paid £2, 4s, 8d to ‘Thomas Wiseman the painter for work done long since about the Fane; & Lyon &c’. A few weeks later, on 25 September, John Wardall (a blacksmith) received £9, 5s for, amongst other things, ‘Worke about the Cupula & the new Fane’. Wiseman received a further payment in October for ‘guilding the new Fane’, A close-up of a coloured picture of the Chapel cupola although the Breton picture shows clearly that only the upper stages—the lion, the crown and the cross—were gilded (Detail: L). The aureate lion held his post above the chapel for less than a century, for at some date before 1775 the bell–turret underwent modifications that included the installation of a clock, the replacement of the leaded windows with louvres (a change happily reversed two centuries later) and, it may be surmised, the removal of the flaming urn and original weather vane.

The urn, a symbol of eternal life, was replaced with a fashionable feature usually, if erroneously, called a ‘pineapple’ (the late Dr Frank Stubbings, college Fellow and classicist, preferred to refer to it as an acanthus bud). Purists may censure the substitution, for the ‘pineapple’ does not match the two flaming urns that had been mounted, in accordance with Wren’s drawing, at the extreme ends of the pediment below the bell–turret. The original ‘pineapple’ was replaced in 1966, and its successor will also eventually weaken. Perhaps, when that time comes, the college might consider reinstating both the flaming urn of Wren’s design, and the glorious golden ‘Lyon’ that once ramped above Front Court.

Amanda Goode, College Archivist

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