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Ipswich Museum, Suffolk

(52°3′40″N, 1°9′3″E)
Ipswich Museum
TM 161 450
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Suffolk
now Suffolk
  • Ron Baxter

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Feature Sets

The museum contains only one object of interest to this project, but it is an important one. The fragment of a Tournai marble font bowl was discovered eight feet underground in the filling of the Tower Ramparts ditch on the north side of the town when foundations were being dug for Pretty and Co.'s Box factory in 1894. The author is grateful to David Jones, Keeper of Human History at the museum, for arranging access to the store.


The font is usually assumed to have been made for the Austin canons’ priory of the Holy Trinity, Ipswich, founded, according to Leland, by Normanius Gastrode, filii Egnostri. This priory was sometimes known as Christ Church, a name that occurs as early as the reign of Richard II. At the beginning of the 13thc. the priory held considerably possessions, including the Ipswich churches of the Holy Trinity, St Lawrence, St Mary-le-Towers, St Mary-at-Elms, St Michael, and St Saviour, and the churches of 'Wilangeda,' Henham, Layham, Foxhall, and Preston, and moieties of the churches of Tuddenham and Mendham. It also held lands in Nacton, Helmingham, Hemingstone, Bramford, Delf, Coddenham, Tunstall and Tuddenham. The font may not have survived that long. In 1194 the priory was rebuilt by John de Oxford, Bishop of Norwich following a fire, and Blatchly and Haward suggest that the font may have cracked and been discarded when it was subjected to the intense heat. The house was suppressed in 1536-3and and the site and lands subsequently granted to Sir Humphrey Wingfield and Sir Thomas Rushe. Christchurch mansion, on the priory site, is now part of the Ipswich Museum Service.


Loose Sculpture


The so-called Tournai marble is a dense carboniferous limestone quarried on the banks of the river Scheldt near Tournai and either exported as freestone for decorative carving (as at Lewes Priory (Sussex)) or worked nearby and the products, mostly fonts, exported. This vigorous industry extended from the 12thc to the end of the 15thc. An English group of seven Tournai School fonts was established by Allen and Kitchen in 1894 articles. They were: St Mary Bourne, East Meon, St Michael’s Southampton and Winchester Cathedral (all Hants), Lincoln Cathedral and Thornton Curtis (both Lincs), and St Peter’s Ipswich (Suffolk). This fragment was added to the group in 1894. Since that date, three other fonts have been attributed to the group: Boulge, Romsey Abbey (Hants) and Iffley (Oxon) – see Eden (1909) and Dunning (1944). More recent scholars, notably Drake (2002) and Anderson (1999) have cast doubt on these attributions. According to Drake, the Romsey Abbey font was said to have been destroyedc.1850 during a restoration, but there is no other evidence that it ever existed. The Iffley font is of black limestone but is uneven in shape, undecorated and unlike other fonts in the Tournai group. As for the Boulge font; Drake asserts that the finish of the bowl is too smooth for decoration to have been chiselled off it (as suggested by Eden), and points out that the bowl is too tall for its width, in comparison with genuine Tournai School products. Drake has suggested that the bowl originally had a pair of dragons on each face, whereas Blatchly and Haward proposed that the side faces had only single beasts. The present author prefers the latter interpretation: if the bowl were square, there would not have been space for a pair of similar-sized beasts on each side face. It is also worth noting that the surviving beasts all differ, unlike the lions on the Ipswich St Peter's font which are all similar. In comparison with that font too, greater care has been lavished on surface decoration. This is slightly smaller than the St Peter's font, which is 1.11 m wide. Blatchly and Haward compare the curve of the tail of the dragon on the right face with that on the relief of St Michael in St Nicholas, Ipswich, but the motif is a common one and the beasts are not otherwise similar. The font is generally assumed to have come from the Austin priory of the Holy Trinity (later Christ Church – see VII History). The reader interested in these fonts should consult Ghislain (2005) - see bibliography.

C. S. Drake, The Romanesque Fonts of Northern Europe and Scandinavia. London, 2002, 46-59.
C. H. Eden, Black Tournai Fonts of England. London, 1909.
G. C. Dunning, 'The Distribution of Tournai Fonts', Antiquaries Journal, 1944, 66-68.

J.-C. Gislain, 'Les fonts baptismaux romans en pierres bleues de Belgique et leur diffusion en France aux XIIème et XIIIème siècles', PhD thesis, Université de Liège 2005.

J. Blatchly and B. Haward, The Tournai Font in St Peter’s, Ipswich. Ipswich Historic Churches Trust 1983.
Victoria County History: Suffolk II (19and5), 103-05