Sunday, November 30, 2008

Burford, Oxfordshire


From the Brazils

This is one of the figures on the monument of Edmund Harman, barber-surgeon to Henry VIII, in Burford parish church. Harman became a prominent Burford resident in the 1540s, when he was one of the beneficiaries of his boss’s dissolution of the country’s monasteries. He and his wife were granted Burford Priory.

Like many a big cheese before and since, he made sure his monument was made well before he died. Dating from 1569, it also commemorates Agnes, ‘his only and most faithful wife’ and their 16 children, only two of whom survived their parents. Quite why the wall plaque is surrounded by figures like this one, whose feathered headdresses seem a long way from standard Oxfordshire attire, is not known. The best guess as to their identity – though there’s been a lot of scholarly argument about it – is that they hail from the banks of the Amazon. They may have been copied from illustrations in a Flemish book that appeared a few years earlier.

But why are they in Burford, on this particular monument? Apparently Agnes Harman’s family included merchant adventurers and perhaps it was her connexion with people who had sailed across the Atlantic that inspired these unlikely carvings, creating in the process one of the many pleasant surprises in this beautiful church on the edge of the Cotswolds.

4 comments:

Peter Ashley said...

I like the integration of the Amazonian figure with the lettering panel, forever locked into the inscription with a leg iron.

Neil said...

I believe this is the earliest visual representation of Native Americans in the UK - also that Shakespeare very likely saw this carving, and that his idea of Caliban in The Tempest is partly based on it.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Yes, I thought it was somewhere in the background of The Tempest – and Burford isn't so far from Shakespeare's Stratford-London axis, after all.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting & a great photo. Do you have any more info on Agnes Harman's family connection to merchant adventurers? I believe she was the daughter of Edmund Sylvester (Turner, "Visitations of Oxfordshire"). "Apparently Agnes Harman’s family included merchant adventurers and perhaps it was her connexion with people who had sailed across the Atlantic that inspired these unlikely carvings" Thanks! Guy