Textile design by Geoffrey Webb

St Peter's, Great Haseley in Oxfordshire, is a building of much interest. It was a wealthy medieval living and in the later Middle Ages, the advowson was held by the Canons of St George's Chapel Windsor and that accounts for the large scale and lavish decoration of the medieval structure.

The chancel is an early Decorated masterpiece, that can be compared to the chapel at Merton College Oxford, an enormous liturgical space designed for carefully conducted liturgy.  At the end of the nineteenth century, Great Haseley, like many churches close to Oxford, was influenced by the Ritualist movement in the Church of England and a number of extremely high-quality medieval revival furnishings were introduced in the run-up to the Second World War.

Among the accomplished designers who were approached to provide furnishings at Great Haseley, was Geoffrey Webb (1879-1954).  Webb had trained at the Westminster College of Art and from there went on to be articled to Sir Ninian Comper.  He later worked as a designer for the glass painter C. E. Kempe, before establishing his own studio at East Grinstead in Sussex.  He developed a reputation as a stained glass designer, his work closely following the late-medieval visual aesthetic developed by Comper.  Webb converted to Catholicism at the age of 34 in 1913 and his work can be found in a significant number of Anglican and Catholic churches in the south-east of England.  Like his master Comper, he was also a scholar as well as an accomplished designer and he developed a particular interest in the development of the altar and its furnishings. In 1933 he published a short treatise on the subject called The Liturgical Altar, which is a useful little work.

Webb was first employed at Great Haseley in 1924 to furnish a chapel at the east end of the south aisle.  This chapel had already been restored by G. F. Bodley in the 1880s as a Lady chapel and a parclose screen had installed by Bodley to its north side and glass provided by his associates Burlison and Grylls.  Webb completed the work here by providing a new altar with iron riddel brackets, a simple reredos and charming images of the Virgin and Child and St John on either side of the east window; the former placed within a wonderful 14th-century sculptured tabernacle and the latter on a medieval bracket.  The figure of the Virgin and Child demonstrates amply how attuned and responsive Webb could be as a designer to the context he was working in; the swaying posture of the figure is borrowed from sculpture of the 14th-century and blends seamlessly with the Decorated niche it sits in.   

At some point after 1924 Webb was also employed to provide a new high altar in the chancel and it is this altar I want to focus on particularly and to illustrate in this article.  The altar is what Comper, Webb's master, would have called an 'English altar'.  It was Comper himself who coined this rather misleading term, to describe an altar that is enclosed on three sides with curtains hung from riddel posts.  

Here at Great Haseley Webb follows Comper's general format for this altar arrangement and the riddels are four posts painted in black and gilt, stencilled with flowers, which support four gilded angels holding candle prickets.

Sadly the textiles Webb designed for this altar are not complete and neither the antependium nor the riddel curtains by him now survive, but what does remain is the dossal curtain he designed to hang at the back of the altar.  Although dirty, faded and threadbare in places and covered in guano, it is still a strong piece and a superb example of English neo-Gothic embroidery.  Webb sticks very closely to the design principles of Comper in the composition and colouring of this piece and the whole dossal has a Comperian feel.  When I first saw and wrote about this object ten years ago I thought it was by Comper, until Fr Anthony Symondson put me straight.  I am grateful for his free and generous sharing of his knowledge. The base material for the embroidery on this dossal is Comper's design 'Van der Weyden' woven by Perkins and dyed in his unique colourway 'Comper Rose' and that's enough to lead you astray with an attribution.  I'm sorry to say that the base fabric has faded considerably across the surface and is much yellower in tone than it would have been originally.  

The embroidery doesn't follow a complex design and has a pleasing rhythm that is minimalist, bold and visually effective. The ground of the dossal has been powdered with a series of large, identical embroidered flowers, reminiscent of the water-flowers found on late medieval English vestments. These are laid out in three groups of five.

Standing between the three groups of flowers and breaking up this ground, are two figures of the resurrected Christ and St Peter, the patron of Great Haseley church.  The two figures portray Christ's commission and reinstatement of Peter on the lakeside from John 21.15.  Christ holding the vexillum and his hand in blessing salutes Peter: 'Feed my lambs, feed my sheep'.

Peter, keys in hand, faces his Lord and responds: 'Lord thou knowest that I love thee'.  The texts here are on scrolls that wrap around the heads of the figures and this visual device effectively draws the eye towards the upper body and heads of the figures.

As for the heads, they deserve some close-ups, for although showing their age, the quality of the embroidery is exceptional. Coloured silk is for the drapery and for the skin tones, with a combination of split-stitch and satin stitch to give a lively and realistic feel to the hair. This in combination with an accomplished use of couched gold, gives the figures a richness of effect.

The overall colour palette of the embroidery is restricted: a purple-blue, green, white, flesh tones and gold are the only colours used.  This 'less is more' approach is again very effective, this restriction in colour giving a jewel-like quality to the work and unifying visually both the figures and the flowers.

This is a very refined piece and there is really only one possible place where Geoffrey Webb could have had such embroidery executed and that is the embroidery school of the Sisters of Bethany at Lloyd Square in Clerkenwell.  They were Comper's embroiders of choice and he had overseen the development of their workroom and as Fr Symondson writes in his article on their work, many of Comper's pupils, including Webb, used them to realise their designs.   

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.