Tag Archives: Gloucester Cathedral

Guest Reviewer Session 1: Norton Priory, Gloucester and Lincoln

The first of our guest reviewer sessions was organised on Wednesday 18th December in 2019.  We asked one of the contributors, Richard Plant, to write a blog post about his experience of the event:

“Writing this from the enforced isolation of April 2020, the meeting held last December at the University of Liverpool seems like an unreal dream of collegiality. There were five of us in the room: Nick Webb and James Hillson from the project, Jenny Alexander from the University of Warwick, Stuart Harrison, Cathedral Archaeologist at York Minster and myself. Alex Buchanan, at home with a heavy cold, occasionally phoned in; something of a foretaste of things to come.

We had been invited to talk about the results of the scanning at Lincoln (in particular the crazy vault and eastern transepts) Norton Priory and the Romanesque parts of the east arm at Gloucester Cathedral.

What was perhaps most surprising about the discussion was how the application of sophisticated digital techniques brought us so often to improvised practices of putting vaults together, and the discussion was much enriched by being shared with such connoisseurs of worked stone as Jenny and Stuart. We worked our way backwards, chronologically, through the buildings. Much of the day was spent on the choir at Lincoln, where the scanning revealed great regularity in the cutting and geometry of the ribs. Yet despite this they also showed that the junction of ribs to walls, and sometimes ribs to ribs had often involved improvisation, with the masons cutting back or cutting in stones in order to make them fit the space. The scanning processes also reveal much about the geometry of the vault webs, which led to discussions of the general relations of ribs to the web (whether the rib is integral or simply sitting below) and also questions about the construction process including the ways and media in which the centering was made.

For Norton and Gloucester we were also dealing with groin vaults and arch construction, but many of the questions relating to their geometry are still complex. The team seemed particularly concerned with variable springing or impost heights, though in Romanesque buildings this is more usual than it seems to be in Gothic ones. Working on bays of irregular shape in Gloucester, both at crypt and choir level, produced many solutions including arches which seemed to have multiple centres. Whilst it might be inferred from this that the irregularities were due to settling, the stonework still appears entirely regular. Painstaking observations of this kind open new avenues of research and reinforces the importance of looking at the stones as well as scanning the geometry, as discussion of the abstractions of geometric schemes often proved to be closely linked to the practicalities of stone cutting. Equally, a better understanding of the geometry helps us to comprehend what the mason was aiming for and what strategies were available for putting their intentions into practice. Even if the answers to many of the questions posed by architectural historians are still not readily solvable, then at least the questions themselves can be posed with greater precision.

All in all it was an enjoyable as well as an informative day. The team are exemplary in their willingness to share and discuss their work, and in their openness to different approaches to their material. The prospects of further investigations are exciting, as will be the debates prompted by the publication of their findings.”


Scanning at Norton Priory

Before the start of the teaching year, we just managed to fit in a day’s scanning at Norton Priory, the site of a ruined Augustinian priory near Runcorn in Cheshire. The vaults in the undercroft here are earlier than most of those we’ve scanned before (other than the eleventh-century crypt at Gloucester Cathedral) and offer an instructive example of the so-called late Romanesque and ’Transitional’ styles of the twelfth century, in which both round and pointed arches, groin and rib vaults could be used as appropriate to the situation.

Some of the groin vaults look to have been built (or rebuilt) in the nineteenth century when the site was part of a Victorian mansion, adding to our data on revival approaches to vaulting. Here, instead of the groins being created by a herringbone junction of stones, individual blocks are shaped to face in two directions, suggesting the use of stereometric methods unknown in the middle ages. In the original vaults, visual analysis suggests that many of the webs and arches have settled, pushing the side walls off from vertical and presenting a new challenge for us in terms of analysis: how can we ascertain their original, or intended, form?

Settlement is sometimes associated with poor construction, but although the vaulted area is the west range of the cloister, a service area usually used for storage, some of the sculpted capitals and bases are of high quality. The early Gothic passage into the cloister even offers a jaunty syncopation of rib profiles: in one direction filleted, in the other keeled, showing the masons’ love of variety. These vaults were taken down at a later period, giving us the exciting challenge of identifying their original form from the surviving springing stones. There is also an interesting series of masons’ marks, which we hope to document on a later visit.

As well as the intrinsic interest of the vaults, we are excited to be working with Norton Priory because of its impressive new visitor facilities (opened in 2016) and proactive approach to outreach. The curators have already used digital methods, including scanning their magnificent fourteenth-century statue of St Christopher to enable visualisation of his original colouring (as well as helping him to come to life with the aid of the booming voice of Brian Blessed!). We hope that our scans can be used for future interpretation work, such as enabling walk-throughs and visualisation of how the the buildings might have looked and been used at different times in their history.

We also hope to work with the curators in presenting our research to the public via talks and possibly an exhibition, and developing resources for use by teachers and schools. The geometric methods that our research has revealed were used by medieval masons offer a very visual approach to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, even for students who lack confidence with numbers.

We are therefore very grateful to Arts Council England and Paul Sapple of the Knowledge Exchange team at the University of Liverpool for introducing us to Norton Priory and for facilitating the initiation of our work there.

Scanning at Tewkesbury and Gloucester

In July 2017, we travelled to Tewkesbury Abbey and Gloucester Cathedral to create digital surveys of their respective vaults. First, we surveyed the abbey at Tewkesbury using our standard methods of laser scanning and photogrammetry, with the additional method of total station for the choir vaults. Total station surveying enables us to manually capture specific points of the vault ribs, as opposed to laser scanning which captures all points. Searching for specific points to document using total station is very labour intensive, particularly when trying to capture the vaults above. Based on advice from our friend David Wendland, who is carrying out exciting research on vaults in continental Europe, we worked in a pair with one of us roughly locating points using the total station’s laser, and the other laying on the floor looking up at the vaults through a pair of binoculars to locate the precise point that needed to be documented. This was a particularly long and arduous task over a day and a half, however, the resulting points mean we can very quickly and efficiently use the specific points documented to trace the vault rib geometries. Laser scanning, on the other hand, is much more time consuming in locating the required points amongst many million others to trace them. Both methods create accurate results and therefore having two sets of data ensures an even higher level of confidence in our methodology and findings. Once we completed our surveying, we backed up our data and travelled to Gloucester Cathedral to start the second phase of our field trip. We also found time in between to visit Pershore Abbey, where we already have access to a laser scan survey to investigate the vault geometries there. This scan data was very generously given to us to use by the abbey to use for our research, and we hope to be able to show are results of this in the next year. The Pershore Abbey laser scanning was particularly high in its quality, surveyed by CGD Ltd.

At Gloucester we continued with our primary method of laser scanning to survey the majority of the cathedral’s vaults, with particular attention given to the west end, transepts, crossing, choir and presbytery vault bays. Whilst at Gloucester, we were able to use our scan data to assist the cathedral architects in the installation of a new disabled platform to the east end as part of HLF funded Project Pilgrim, by linking scans from the crypt to those above to build up a very detailed picture of how the spaces connect, which was previously not accurate enough. This demonstrates how our survey data can be used by other stakeholders for mutual gain.

We are very grateful for the Liverpool School of Architecture’s David Foster Wicks endowment fund, which funded the field work and has enabled us to continue developing our research for Tracing the Past.