The John Coombe fireplace, shown left © Exeter Archaeology, is widely regarded one of Exeter's most important surviving medieval artifacts. It now languishes in the store room at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Queen Street, detached from the building for which it was created.
It's worth stating from the start that the fireplace is also one of the city's most enigmatic objects. A recent discovery in the archives of the Royal Academy in London has solved one of its mysteries but the discovery has inadvertently created many more.
The object of this post will be to give a short account of the known facts about the fireplace before discussing some of many unanswered questions which surrounded it. Along with the dean, treasurer and chancellor, the precentor was one of the cathedral's four senior ecclesiastical positions. As the lead chanter, the precentor was responsible for music and liturgy and, at Exeter at least, he was also acting president of the chapter in the dean's absence. The precentor had his own residence within the Cathedral Precinct. Located close to the Bishop's Palace in Palace Gate, it was known as the Chantry and the precentor at the close of the 15th century was John Coombe.
It is believed that between 1496 and 1499 John Coombe commissioned a fireplace to be installed in the great hall of the Chantry. It wasn't without precendent. Elaborate fireplaces were installed within a number of Exeter's ecclesiasical residences in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. There was one in the refectory hall of the College of the Vicars Choral, at least four at the Deanery (some of which survive as fragments), one in the hall of the Annuellars in the Cathedral Close, one at the Archdeacon of Exeter's house in Palace Gate, another at the Chancellor's House and, most spectacularly of all, a huge fireplace in the Bishop's Palace.
The Courtenay fireplace at the Bishop's Palace above right is one of the most extravagant things of its kind. It was commissioned by Bishop Peter Courtenay in c1486. Described by Pevsner and Cherry as "exceedingly ostentatious", its impact was such that Bishop Courtenay's example seems to have served as a model for Precentor Coombe's own fireplace.
The Courtenay fireplace, originally positioned in the west wing of the Bishop's Palace, is studded with brightly painted heraldic shields, a number of which depict the Courtenay coat of arms. Another feature are the initials 'PC' and the letter 'T', believed to stand for 'Tau', the badge of the Hospital of St Anthony in London of which Bishop Courtenay was the Master. Perhaps most striking of all is the huge, ornately decorated ogee-headed canopy with rose-bush finials at either side. At the apex of the canopy, 12ft above the ground, is a large depiction of the Royal arms with the greyhound supporters associated with Henry VII. It is an extraordinary creation and must've been marvelled at by every member of the clergy who saw it.
A close copy of the Courtenay fireplace was installed in the dining room of Powderham Castle, the seat of the Earls of Devon, in the 19th century left. The heraldic details are quite different, as are the finials, but it gives a good idea of the scale and splendour of Peter Courtenay's medieval original at the Bishop's Palace in Exeter (which isn't open to the public).
It's almost certain that all of the lavish medieval fireplaces installed in Exeter were the work of local masons, probably those already being employed to work on the cathedral. The John Coombe fireplace in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum is largely made from the creamy-grey limestone quarried from Beer in East Devon.
As it exists today, the John Coombe fireplace has two side panels of blind Gothic arches with trefoil heads. At the top of each panel are the beautifully wrought initials of John Coombe himself. The way in which the 'J' and the 'C' intertwine and overlap with each other in Gothic lettering set against a quatrefoil background is particularly lovely, shown below right © Royal Albert Memorial Museum. A similar effect in the same position was a feature of the large stone fireplace installed at the hall of the Vicars Choral c1519. There the initials were 'JR' and 'T' for 'John Ryse, Treasurer'. Unfortunately that magnificent example was almost completely destroyed during the Exeter Blitz of 1942.)
Spanning the two side panels of the John Coombe fireplace is the lintel. It is intricately carved with a star-shaped lattice pattern. There are two heraldic shields on the lintel: the left shield depicts the stag's head of the Dean of Exeter. The right shield possibly depicts the coat of arms of either Bishop Brewer or Bishop Stapledon, both Bishops of Exeter in the medieval period. Running around the top of the lintel are carved angels with outstretched wings. The fireplace is framed by a slender stone shaft which rises from the ground on each side and is capped with a short pinnacle. Between the pinnacles run a number of fleur-de-lis.
The fireplace remained in the Chantry until the building was demolished in 1870. According to Lega-Weekes, the fireplace was salvaged, placed inside a packing case and left in a stable until was it purchased by a stonemason. In c1900 the fireplace was installed in the Deanery by Dean Earle where it remained until the early 1970s. The present paint scheme seen on the fireplace is the handiwork of a later Dean's son who painted it in the 1960s. The Deanery underwent various modifications between 1971 and 1972 and during the course of the building works the cathedral's own surveyor, Peter Gundry, came to the conclusion that the fireplace was Victorian.
What happened next is the subject of some debate. It has been claimed that the fireplace was crow-barred from the wall and thrown out of the window where it fell onto a rockery and smashed into pieces. Alternatively, it has also been said that when the component parts of the fireplace were collected from Exeter University, where it was eventually taken, there was no sign of damage or even dirt. Some of those involved at the time can recall visiting the Deanery and seeing the fireplace sat in the garden seemingly undamaged.
Interestingly, when the fireplace was removed from the Deanery left, the remains of a second elaborate fireplace of Beer stone were discovered behind it. Professor Michael Swanton took the John Coombe fireplace to Exeter University in the hope of installing it there when the Dean and Chapter showed no interest in keeping it. The fireplace wasn't installed at the university, or at Bowhill on the outskirts of the city as had been suggested. Instead John Allan of Exeter Archaeology eventually secured the fireplace for the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Queen Street where, until recently, it has been on display to the general public.
That is not quite the end of the story however. In 1923 the antiquarian Ethel Lega-Weekes raised the possibility that there were in fact two ornate fireplaces installed in the Chantry at the end of the 15th century. One was the John Coombe fireplace now in the museum and the other was presumed to be missing, perhaps destroyed when the building was demolished in 1870. The idea of the missing fireplace has persisted to the present day. The museum's website still claims that the Chantry "had two very elaborate late medieval fireplaces, one of which is now lost", but the mystery of the missing fireplace can now be solved.
The impetus behind the theory of the two fireplaces is a passage in George Oliver's 1861 book 'Lives of the Bishops of Exeter'. In the book he describes in some detail a "stately mantelpiece" in the great hall of the Chantry. The fireplace he describes is significantly different to the one which is now known as the John Coombe fireplace.
This disparity led Lega-Weekes and others to believe that a second fireplace must've once existed. According to Oliver, the 'missing' fireplace was modified between 1747 and 1762 by Precentor Milles who repainted it and "surmounted it with the arms of his family". Oliver describes ten complete armorial bearings on the fireplace whereas the John Coombe fireplace in the museum today only has two, only one of which remotely matches Oliver's description. Oliver also describes various "mouldings" which don't fit with the surviving Chantry fireplace. In fact, apart from Oliver mentioning the presence of John Coombe's initials, almost nothing in his description can be matched to the John Coombe fireplace as it exists today.
The drawing above right © Royal Academy, was recently discovered in the archives of the Royal Academy in London. It is labelled 'Chimney Piece in the Precentor's House at Exeter'. It was executed by Solomon Hart and is dated May 1833. The fireplace in the drawing is remarkably elaborate. There are three shields on the lintel and it is topped with a highly ornate ogee-headed canopy with three ornate finials. Inset into the canopy are three more shields, one of which is surmounted by a three-dimensional bishop's mitre. Above the lintel are a series of carved winged angels, framed by slender shafts which rise on each side. Its kinship with the Courtenay fireplace at the Bishop's Palace is striking. This drawing depicts the allegedly missing Chantry fireplace which was previously only known from George Oliver's description.
The ten armorial bearings mentioned by Oliver can now be located precisely on the fireplace which he described in 1861 left. I've followed Oliver's convention of starting with the central shields on each tier and then describing them from right to left:
1: "1st - Of Canterbury, impaled with Potter's". This matches the 1833 drawing exactly. Precentor Milles's father-in-law was Dr John Potter, the Archbishop of Canterbury between 1737 and 1747. 2: "The Precentor of Exeter's... Impaled with Milles's". This bearing wasn't depicted in the 1833 drawing. 3: "Milles's impaled with Potter's". This bearing also wasn't depicted in the 1833 drawing.
None of the details of the next four bearings were included in the 1833 sketch. At first glance it's difficult even to locate their position on the drawing but Oliver described the heraldry on the fireplace from top to bottom and these four were "on the deep moulding". The only place where the four coats of arms could've been located was between three of the winged angels on the lintel. 4: "Precentor's impaled with Roger Keys's". 5: "Bishop Grandisson's". 6: "Bishop Lacy's". 7: "Precentor's and John Coombe's".
The three shields on the main lintel, "below the mouldings", are the last to be described. 8: "In the centre. The arms of St. Edward, King and Confessor, as adopted by Richard II". This bearing consists of five gold marlets surrounding a cross impaled with the arms of the Plantagenet Kings of England, exactly as drawn by Solomon Hart in 1833. Oliver gets the last two coats of arms mixed up. He describes 9 as "Dexter - The see of Exeter impaled with Courtenay". This is actually the coat of arms to the far left at position No. 10. It matches the central armorial bearing on the Courtenay fireplace in the Bishop's Palace exactly. Oliver describes 10 as "three bends wavy" and he believed it was supposed to represent either the heraldry of either Brewer or Stapledon, both medieval Bishops of Exeter. Its correct position was at No. 9, as drawn by Hart.
Even more interesting is the fact that the drawing also proves that there never was a missing Chantry fireplace. The fireplace drawn by Solomon Hart in 1833, and described by George Oliver in 1861, and the John Coombe fireplace now in the museum are one and the same.
Compared with the photograph of the John Coombe fireplace at the top of this post, the one in the drawing looks completely different. There's no sign of the huge ogee-headed canopy on the fireplace today and eight of Oliver's armorial bearings are missing.
But there are numerous points of similiarity, two of which are shown in the image right. In the drawing, the initials 'JC' are present in the corners above identical side panels in exactly the same form as they appear on the fireplace in the museum. The lattice decoration on the lintel is, in places, exactly the same. The winged angels at the top of the lintel are also very similar as are the two framing stone shafts.
The 1833 drawing strongly suggests that at some point in its history the John Coombe fireplace was heavily modified and transformed from the fireplace drawn by Hart and described by Oliver into the now almost unrecognisible fireplace in the museum. But when did this occur? A photograph of the fireplace still in situ at the Chantry just prior to the building's demolition in 1870 shows that the current arrangement of the fleur-de-lis and pinnacles along the top was already present before the fireplace was removed from the Chantry. George Oliver's 'Lives of the Bishops of Exeter', which contains his description of the fireplace, was published in 1861, the same year that George Oliver died. It's possible that the description was made from notes taken some time before the book was published but it seems likely that the alterations took place between c1860 and 1870.
This is when the difficulties in interpreting the John Coombe fireplace as it exists today start to mount up with startling rapidity. To return to the 1833 drawing, it is simply not known whether it depicts the medieval form of the fireplace as it was installed by John Coombe in the Chantry between 1496 and 1499. The Chantry was sold in 1655 during the Commonwealth and possibly used as a hospital. Did the John Coombe fireplace sit in the great hall completely unaltered throughout this turbulent period? What condition was it in when the additions were made by Precentor Milles? Oliver states that Precentor Milles "repainted it" and added some of the heraldry between 1747 and 1762. Was pre-existing heraldry over-painted or were entirely new escutcheons added? The presence of the bishop's mitre sculpted above the coat of arms of Milles's archbishop father-in-law suggests that Milles made alterations to the fireplace which went beyond merely repainting some coats of arms.
It's possible that the entire florid canopy, i.e. everything above the lintel, is a mid 18th century invention. But then the overall form of the canopy could just as easily date to the end of the 15th century. Did the Victorians suspect that the canopy only dated to the 18th century which is why it was removed c1865 and the fleur-de-lis and pinnacles substituted in its place? Why would the canopy be removed at all? What happened c1865 which prompted such extensive alterations?
It's tempting to assume that only the ogee-headed canopy shown on the 1833 drawing was altered and the rest of the fireplace remained intact, but this would be untrue. The image right shows the lintel as it appears on Hart's drawing and as it appears today in the museum. The locations of what I believe were four small armorial bearings described by Oliver are encircled in red on the 1833 drawing. There is certainly some sort of carved element there which is independent of the winged angels. Hart made an effort to indicate some shadow suggesting that whatever it was stood proud of the stone background. If these were four small shields then they were either added in plaster, perhaps by Precentor Milles, or they were carved in the late 15th century from the stone of the lintel itself. Today there is no sign that they ever existed. The stone between the winged angels on the lintel in the museum is completely smooth. Why would Precentor Milles bother adding four small plaster shields? But if the shields were carved in stone then their total disappearance is almost incomprehensible unless the lintel itself had been modified too.
The central shield on the lintel, showing the Royal arms of Richard II, is also now missing. Was this another plaster addition which was subsequently removed? Did the medieval lintel really only have two shields at either side? Why would the medieval masons leave the central panel blank? From an aesthetic perspective, three shields would surely be preferable such as appear on the Courtenay fireplace (or five shields as once existed on the fireplace at the hall of the Vicars Choral). However I have been informed that this arrangement, with no shield, is an original feature, as was revealed when the fireplace was assembled for display at the museum in the early 1980s.
The winged angels drawn by Hart are out of alignment with the panels on the lintel when compared with the fireplace in the museum, but Hart made a series of drawings of architectural interiors in Italy which he hoped to publish in the 1840s so clearly he was an accomplished draughtsman.
Even more intriguingly, if the central shield as drawn by Hart was the exact same size as the two surviving shields then it doesn't seem possible that it would've fitted easily into the available space on the lintel as it exists today. Faint lines drawn around the central panel on the 1833 depiction suggest that prior to the alterations there was more room between the edge of the shield and the two little blind Gothic arches to the left and right. This can be seen on the image left. I've inverted the colours of the original drawing to make the faint lines and blind arches more visible. I've also added a central shield to the museum's fireplace and it's easy to see how the edge of the shield would be almost adjacent to the little cusped apertures. It's almost as though the lintel has shrunk. If Hart's drawing is remotely accurate and the central shield was indeed the same size as the remaining two then I believe that this is the most convincing piece of evidence in favour of the entire lintel having been radically remodelled in the 19th century.
One possibility suggested to me is that the width of the fireplace could've been reduced in size to fit a smaller aperture, an action which necessitated the removal of the central panel with the Royal arms of Richard II and the splicing together of the remaining sections. The 1870 photograph of the fireplace shows that at least the lower part of the wall to the left of the fireplace was constructed from 18th or 19th century bricks while the wall to the right was made of large stone blocks, probably a remnant of the medieval great hall.
I believe the fireplace was indeed dismantled c1865 and the lintel reduced in width. In order to accomplish this the central shield was removed and the remaining two halves spliced together, retaining only the edges of the central panel's lattice decoration. Presumably the component with the winged angels was also cut around to make the angels sit over the top of the reordered panels. It seems that the fireplace was not a Victorian copy as believed by the cathedral's surveyor in the early 1970s but neither is it a wholly medieval fireplace.
I've cobbled together an impression of what was probably the medieval form of the fireplace prior to c1865 above left. All of the suspected Victorian changes have been reversed (although the 1960s paintwork remains). The lintel has been restored to what I believe were its medieval dimensions, complete with the four little bearings between each of the winged angels and the wider central panel carrying a central shield. The Victorian pinnacles and fleur-de-lis have been stripped away although the exact nature of the upper part of the medieval fireplace remains unknown. Either it had the ornate canopy shown in the 1833 drawing or, as is shown in the image, it just had a simple horizontal top as is found on similar examples in Exeter.
There's no question that the John Coombe fireplace came out of the Chantry in 1870 but between there are huge question marks surrounding the fireplace's medieval form and the numerous alterations which have obviously taken place between c1499 and 1870. The reasons for the alterations and much else relating to its history remain the subject of conjecture. The discovery of the drawing in the archives of the Royal Academy has perhaps solved one of the mysteries but there are numerous others, just some of which have been elaborated upon here.
Unfortunately the John Coombe fireplace is no longer accessible to the general public. Following the recent refurbishment of the museum a lack of exhibition space has seen it relocated to the store room. Whatever its history might be, the fireplace remains an exceptionally fine piece of worksmanship. If it is not be displayed in the museum then perhaps it could be installed elsewhere in Exeter where it can be viewed and enjoyed by everyone. Detail of a winged angel below © Royal Albert Memorial Museum.