In April 1819, two pairs of Coade stone statues arrived at Malvern Hall, Solihull, following a journey from London by canal. Malvern Hall was the home of Henry Greswolde Lewis, a patron of John Constable who, in December 1818, had ordered the statues from the London firm established by Eleanor Coade.
Coade stone was actually a ceramic but was marketed as an artificial stone, which was tough and hard-wearing. It was used by the leading architects of the day to create architectural details, monuments and sculptures.
Unlike traditional stone, Coade stone sculptures were not carved but were created using moulds. The raw mixture – clay, previously fired stoneware, glass and flint – was assembled and then pressed by hand into plaster moulds and fired in kilns. The Landmark Trust has a detailed guide to the process.
The four statues ordered for Malvern Hall depicted a Vestal, a Sibyl, an Ancient Briton and a Norman, and apparently cost £157 8s 4d (John Constable’s Correspondence vol. IV, ed. by R B Beckett). It appears that the Vestal and Sibyl were standard orders from the company catalogue, whilst the warrior statues were bespoke.
The two female figures were installed in niches in the gate posts facing the hall (pictured above), whilst the two male figures stood on plinths in front of the building. The warrior statues can be seen either side of the entrance on this postcard of Malvern Hall, postmarked 1909.
Horace Brueton (1882-1950) bought Malvern Hall in 1915, following its sale after the death of its owner, David Troman.
In 1926, Horace Brueton sold the hall to Warwickshire County Council for the sum of £5,700 so that it could be converted into a secondary school. Since 1931, it has housed a succession of schools.
The Vestal and Sibyl statues
In March 1922, Mr Brueton sold “his antique and modern furniture and effects” in a sale that comprised 1300 lots and lasted for four days. Although the statues weren’t specifically mentioned in newspaper reports, it is possible that the Vestal and Sibyl statues were sold at this point.
Another suggestion is that they were taken by Horace Brueton to his subsequent home, Greswolde Lodge, Blythe Way, Solihull, and then sold at a later date. The Coventry Telegraph 17th September 1965 mentions that the statues were removed after the First World War, first to Copt Heath and then to Lapworth, before being returned to their original home after the Second World War.
By the 1940s, the statues were at Hill Park, Lapworth, which was owned by Mr Harry Dare (1898-1979), a notable local builder. Apparently, the headmistress of Solihull High School for Girls, Miss Flora Forseter, discovered that the statues were at Hill Park and asked Harry Dare if he would sell them to the school but he declined. However, following his relocation to South Africa, Hill Park was advertised for sale by auction in May 1949. The property sold for £12,250 and the following month a two-day sales of furniture and contents was held.
Miss Forster learned that the statues were coming up for auction with the sale of the Hill Park estate and, with permission from the school governors, she was able to purchase them for the school, where they still remain today.
The return of the statues was a notable event in the life of the school and was the subject of a play performed by the girls in 1957. The girls also wrote a number of poems that were published in the school magazine, including one by J. Black, which included the lines:
They sought those statues eighteen years,
A most inspiring tale,
Until at last through fortune’s whim
They found them at a sale;
“Bid anything,” the Gov’nors said,
“But buy them without fail.”
“Ah! Got them!” the Headmistress said,
“I’ve always had an itch
To get that pair of statues back-
I hate an empty niche…”
The warrior statues
According to the Malvern Hall sale catalogue 1896, the statues of the Ancient Briton and the Norman were 7ft 4in tall and stood on plinths carved with flowers and foliage. The Ancient Briton was on a plinth to the left of the hall’s entrance (as viewed from the entrance gates), whilst the Norman was on the right.
The fact that these statues were produced in the early 19th century via a process using artificial stone seems to have been forgotten by the 1940s. None of the articles about the return of the Vestal and Sibyl mention that they were Coade stone, and there were even suggestions that the warrior figures dated from the 17th century. An article by Vivian Bird in the Birmingham Weekly Post of 19th September 1952 suggests that the warrior statues, described as guardians of the drive, were “thought to be the work of Cibber [1630-1700], who did some of the sculpture at St Paul’s Cathedral.”
The Norman statue is believed to reference Henry Greswolde Lewis’s claimed ancestory, Humphri de Grousewoulde, who came over to England with William the Conqueror.
John Constable had been commissioned by Henry Greswolde Lewis to paint a picture of Humphri “as a Norman warrior in his Norman armour for a panel in the stair case window…” (Constable at Malvern Hall by R. B. Beckett, in Connoisseur Year Book 1959, pp.81-84. Copy at the Core Library, ref. NC). The painting was apparently completed by April 1819 but has long disappeared.
It was suggested that Constable’s figure was the model for the Coade figure (Mrs Coade’s Stone, by Alison Kelly, pages 130, 146, 385) but a sketch that was held by the Constable family featured in the Birmingham Weekly Post article in 1952 and seems to show a different figure.
It is known that Henry Greswolde Lewis took exception to Constable’s initial pencil sketch as it showed the Norman warrior with a javelin rather than a sword. A revised oil-sketch version saw Humphri depicted with a shield on which the Greswolde greyhounds were displayed.
Two of the teachers at Solihull High School for Girls – Miss Griffiths and Miss Bullock – nicknamed the warrior statues “Alfred” (the Ancient Briton) and “Sigismund” (the Norman).
Sigismund was “smashed to smithereens” when hit by a vehicle in the 1950s. The statue was in situ in 1952 but had gone by 1959. The school magazine of 1956 refers to “a recent shattering event,” suggesting that the accident took place during the 1955/56 academic year.
There are various vague accounts of the accident, the most enduring being that the statue was smashed after being struck by a lorry or, more specifically, a Council dustbin lorry. However, the most convincing seems to be a more detailed report by Miss Bullock in Memories of Solihull Village ed. by Edna Handley (pp. 20, 22-3). This describes how a young man visiting the school to see a play accidentally reversed his car into the plinth, causing the statue to topple and smash. He apparently offered the school caretaker a one pound note to pay for the damage!
It seems to have come as a surprise to the school community that the statues weren’t of more traditional stone. Fearing that the Ancient Briton statue (“Alfred”) was similarly vulnerable to damage, it was taken down from its plinth and put in the school’s garden in a protective crate. The broken plinth was rebuilt and the statues were replaced with ornamental urns.
The plight of “Alfred,” still in his crate in the garden, was the subject of a student’s poem in the school magazine of 1960, accompanied by a drawing of him as “The Prisoner of Malvern Hall.”:
with apologies to John Masefield
I must go back to a plinth again, to a plinth with a concrete base.
And all I want is a cosy niche, instead of this packing-case,
A lofty perch, a commanding view, and a landscape fore and aft,
Exposed to elements great and strong, instead of a nagging draft.
I must remember Sig, my friend, for Sig was here for ages,
He was a strong and noble lad, of him I could write pages.
And I was sad and very touched, exceeding was I sorry,
When Sig, in the prime of his concrete youth, was struck down by a lorry.
I must stay here in my misery, enclosed in an orange box,poem by Chris Duggan (nee Gatty), reproduced by kind permission of her family. A book of Christine’s collected poems has recently been published and a copy is available to view at the Core Library.
And all I want is an all-night fire, and a pair of woolly socks.
For all is well when Summer’s here, I enjoy the perfumed breezes,
But I’m in a windy spot just now, and it’s agony when it freezes.
The statue was subsequently sold during the time when Mrs Cotton was Headmistress of Solihull High School for Girls (1961-1972).
Local historian, Charles Lines, attempted to find the whereabouts of “Alfred,” with a letter published in Country Life in 1990, but it seems exact details were not forthcoming. All that was apparently recorded was a rumour that the statue had been seen in a private garden.
If you have any further information about “”Alfred” and his whereabouts, please let us know.
Library Specialist: Heritage & Local Studies
tel.: 0121 704 6977
© Solihull Council, 2021.
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