What is the Buxton Achievement and why is it so amazing?

The Buxton Achievement Picture: Norfolk Museums Service

The Buxton Achievement Picture: Norfolk Museums Service - Credit: Norfolk Museums Service

“Historians could hardly believe their eyes.” A piece of cloth painted in Norfolk in 1470 is one of the world’s most remarkable examples of medieval linen art.

The Buxton Achievement Picture: Norfolk Museums Service

The Buxton Achievement Picture: Norfolk Museums Service - Credit: Norfolk Museums Service

The centuries have not been kind to many different types of medieval art. Entire genres have been forever lost to us. Or at least they may seem so, until some extraordinary survivals are discovered (or rediscovered) and made famous. One such object, deserving of fame, can be found at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery.

The Buxton Achievement is a painting on linen cloth that survived against the odds. Paintings on fabric were produced in the middle ages and Renaissance in large quantities. They were an inexpensive way to decorate a home (in place of extremely expensive woven tapestries). They were also made to display at pageants, civic and religious processions and at family events such as christenings, weddings, and funerals. They could be painted relatively quickly and cheaply using a painting technique where pigment is fixed to the surface with gelatine glue. It is still used today in theatrical scenery painting.

These paintings were not generally made to last but this did not make them an inferior art form. Extraordinary works of art painted in the same technique include the famous Triumphs of Caesar by Andrea Mantegna and the Adoration of the Magi by Peter Bruegel the Elder. The survival and relatively good condition of our Norwich ‘painted cloth’ is due, in large part, to the preservation and ambitions of one Norfolk family - the Norfolk Buxtons.

The Buxton Achievement was presented to the Norwich Museums by Maud Buxton in 1929. The family believe the painting was given to them by the Duke of Norfolk as part of his loot from a nunnery at Bungay, after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1537–38. By 1613 the family appear to have appropriated the coat of arms in the painted cloth as their own.

The origins of The Buxton Achievement remain unclear, but there are tantalising clues in the object itself. The painting shows a great gateway, with crenellation and windows, and various individuals appear at different windows and in the gateway. At its heart, over the coat of arms, are the words ‘The Seneschal Buxton (le Seneschal Boxton)’. A seneschal was a steward or estate official. We must suppose that the individual celebrated by this painted cloth had served in such an office.

The subject of the painting is as rare as the object itself. The meaning of the picture would have been obscure to us if it was not for an engraving made in 1804, which recorded the now lost Latin inscriptions. And so, the possible portrait of the Seneschal Buxton is accompanied by what could have been his life’s motto: “Whatever you undertake, do it as well as you can.”

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The patron and his family arms are accompanied by a complex composition themes relating to human life and destiny, promoting attention to good life, but also reminding spectators of their mortality.

On either side of the presumed patron are the figures of Day and Night. Below, the figures of Life and Death look out of open windows. The inscriptions remind the viewer that, because life will one day come to an end, it is essential to rejoice in good times.

Perhaps the most fascinating and charming scenes are at the bottom of the picture, where the theme of the ages of man is depicted. Three figures representing allegorical Fates are shown here. On the left Clotho unfolds the thread of life, accompanied by a little boy riding a hobby horse. In the centre Lachesis dances with a young man. On the right, Atropos continues to unfold the thread of life of an older, bearded man. The scrolls read: “Clotho gives the thread of life, Lachesis the fortune, Atropos the end.” The fashionable dresses of the Fates, including Atropos’ butterfly headdress, allow us to date the painting to about 1470.

Many other works have similar themes but no known late medieval work of art combines them. The Achievement is also a rare secular survival from a time when the Church was the leading patron of the arts.

The immense importance of The Buxton Achievement lies not only in its survival, when so many other works in textile have perished, but also due to its imaginative subject matter. In the words of Norfolk Museums Service’s former head of conservation Cathy Proudlove: “This painting should be famous. Perhaps the reason it is not known is that historians looking at it could hardly believe their eyes.”