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Reading Museum and Art Gallery, Reading, Berkshire

(51°27′27″N, 0°58′9″W)
Reading Museum and Art Gallery, Reading
SU 717 737
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Berkshire
now Reading
  • Ron Baxter
7 May 1992, 9 September 1992, 22 June 1993, 17 August 1993, 9 March 1994, 16 January 1995, 1 June 1995

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Feature Sets

Reading abbey stones

1. Holme Park, Sonning (Keyser)

In 1912 Charles Keyser was engaged in excavating the site of the palace of the bishops of Salisbury on the Holme Park estate, Sonning. While the excavations were in progress, Keyser took the opportunity to look around the house (now Reading Blue Coat School) and its gardens about a quarter of a mile away, and he noticed some Norman capitals lying about in the flower-beds. He soon discovered that the stones had not been in the gardens at Holme Park for very long, but had come there from an outlying part of the estate called Borough Marsh, some two miles down the Thames. He obtained the owners' consent to remove them from Holme Park, and by 1916 the fifteen capitals and two voussoirs had been deposited in Reading Museum. Keyser (1916) illustrated all the stones, and numbered the capitals from 1 to 15. He did not number the voussoirs.

2. Shiplake House

In 1889, twelve voussoirs and fourteen double springers were erected by the Rt. Hon. Sir Walter Phillimore, Bart. to form an arch over the path between Shiplake House and the church, and a decorative coping on top of the wall to either side. Keyser discovered their provenance while he was at Sonning. One Mr Palmer, the owner of Holme Park estate at some time in the late 19thc., had paid a visit to Borough Marsh and interrupted two young men in a punt who were busy removing several carved stones which were in use as steps leading up from a landing place on the island. The young men had come from Shiplake House, which faces Borough Marsh across the Thames, and Mr Palmer gave them permission to carry the stones away on condition that they did not take any more. The stones were seen in situ at Shiplake by Keyser, and he numbered them (Keyser (1916)) according to their positions: the voussoirs from 1 to 12 counting from the left of the arch; the springers from 1 to 7 from right to left along the wall to the right of the arch, and from 1 to 7 from right to left along the wall to the left of the arch. These identifying numbers are given in the entry headings below. He also noted three carved stones built into the wall but did not illustrate them. The voussoirs and double springers were purchased by Reading Borough Council from Col. Phillimore in 1977, when they were dismantled and removed to the museum.

3.Borough Marsh (CL#)

In view of the discoveries described above, Keyser visited Borough Marsh and was attracted by signs of a ruined building which led him to the opinion that excavations at Borough Marsh might result in more finds, but the Great War intervened and he was never able to carry out his plans. In 1948, George Zarnecki of the Courtauld Institute of Art was alerted to the presence of carved stones at Borough Marsh Farm similar to those forming the Shiplake arch. The owner of the farm generously gave the stones to the Courtauld Institute. In fact, Borough Marsh Farm was not the site that had attracted Keyser's attention thirty years before, but this did not become apparent until Dr Wilfred Bowman, owner of Barn Acre Cottage, Borough Marsh, built himself some new gate-posts using carved stones he had found in his garden. News of these stones quickly reached Zarnecki in London, and in the autumn of 1948 he led a group of staff and students from the Courtauld Institute to Barn Acre Cottage.

What he found left him in no doubt that he had found the site that Keyser had hoped to excavate. The garden was bounded by the River Loddon, and its level had been artificially raised by a 16thc. embankment wall to prevent flooding and soil erosion. Some of the fabric of this wall was reused 12thc. stone, clearly from Reading Abbey. In the garden of Barn Acre Cottage, Zarnecki's team also uncovered the foundations of a building complex, made of brick reinforced with stone.

Zarnecki's excavation at Barn Acre Cottage brought to light some sixty carved stones, including two of the four great corner springers which marked the angles of the cloister arcade.

The stones were generously given to the Courtauld Institute by Dr Bowman, and after cleaning they were lodged in the Victoria and Albert Museum until such time as they could be accommodated in the Reading Museum. Plans for a new museum building were approved by Reading Corporation in 1973, and in the same year the Courtauld Institute Management Committee accepted Zarnecki's proposal that the stones be transferred from the V and A to Reading as a gift to the museum. The transfer was completed on 16th. October 1975. These stones were marked "CL" followed by a digit (for Courtauld Loan), and these identifications are given in the entry headings below.

4.Avebury Manor

A capital at Avebury Manor, Wiltshire, carved with men and dragons, which had been taken there from a garden in Reading was first examined by Zarnecki in 1959 and proved to be another Reading Abbey cloister capital. After lengthy negotiations it was purchased by Reading Museum for the sum of £6,250 (including a grant of £1,000 from the National Art Collections Fund) in 1971.


Three further pieces, a double springer carved with birds, a lion capital and a bird beakhead voussoir, were purchased by Zarnecki from a private collector in Twyford, Berkshire, and offered to the museum on loan on 2. September 1971. They have now joined the other fragments in Reading Museum.

6. Plummery wall

7.Forbury Gardens rockery

8.Wall to west of St James's church

9.Unprovenanced fragments

By and large the museum has been assiduous in keeping records of provenance, but in 1993 when all the stones were at last moved into the enlarged premises in the Town Hall it was discovered that there were several which had been in store for many years for which no provenance was known. They may have been there for many years: Keyser (1916) refers to "a few (stones) in the Reading Museum dug up in various parts of the town."


Loose Sculpture


See entry on Reading Abbey. Other stones from Reading Abbey are described in the entries for Reading, Forbury Gardens; Reading, St James RC church; Reading, St Laurence; Reading, St Mary; Windsor Castle (Berks).


English Romanesque Art 1066-1200, Arts Cuoncil exhibition, Hayward Gallery, London 5 April-8 July 1984. Catalogue with introduciton by G. Zarnecki.

C.E. Keyser, 'Norman capitals from Sonning, Berks. and sculptured stones at Shiplake and WIndsor Castle, probably brought from Reading Abbey', PSAL 2 series, 28 (1915-16), pp.234-44..

E. Ettlinger, 'A Romanesque Capital from Reading Abbey in the Reading Museum and Art Gallery' Berkshire Archaeological Journal 68 (1975-76), pp.71-75.

G. Zarnecki, 'The Buried Sculpture of Reading Abbey: Chapters of an Archaeological 'Detective Story', Illustrated London News, April 16, 1949, 524-25.

G. Zarnecki, 'The Coronation of the Virgin on a Capital from Reading Abbey', Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 13 (1950), 1-12.