Have you seen Samson and Hercules in Norwich?

The old Samson and Hercules building. Pic: Archant library

Samson and Hercules from an archive photograph - Credit: Archant

Statues of Samson and Hercules guarding a historic Tombland building have been loved by many generations of Norfolk people – and have their own fascinating history. 

Samson and Hercules first stood at the entrance to the building which once bore their names more than 360 years ago. Built as the home of a city mayor it went on to become a hugely popular dance hall, with a swimming pool beneath, in the 20th century. But the statues standing there today are replicas.  

Michael Knights, who was a building conservation officer and then heritage and landscape manager for Norfolk County Council, has researched the story of Samson and Hercules. “Current thinking is that the original figures dated from the mid 17th century and were placed outside the new house of the mayor, Christopher Jay,” he said.

17th century carving of Samson, Norwich

The painstaking restoration revealed the fine details of Samson's face which had been hidden under layers of paint - Credit: Norfolk Museums Service

They stood there for more than a century but in 1789 were moved to a courtyard behind the building where they remained for another 100 years - and were photographed in 1872. 

Michael said the picture shows the fine details of the wood carving had already been obscured by layers of paint. “The figures were returned to the front of the house in 1890 by the antique dealer George Cubitt. Both figures had suffered badly from rot over the years, and the original Hercules was in such bad condition that it could not be saved. So a completely new figure of Hercules was made at that point and there they remained until 1992 when Samson’s arm fell off."

The Samson and Hercules figures in Tombland. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The replica Samson and Hercules figures in Tombland in 2018. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2018

No-one knows where the original Hercules is, he has been lost for well over a century, but glass fibre replicas of Samson and the 19th century Hercules were made, and installed in front of their Tombland home n their original places in 1999.  

“It soon became clear that it would never be possible to re-install the originals,” said Michael. Instead they were restored by Norfolk Museums Service and experts Plowden & Smith. The original Samson has been painstakingly preserved and now stands in the Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell. 

Carving of Samson at Museum of Norwich

Samson on display at the Musuem of Norwich - Credit: Norfolk Museums Service

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“Samson – the figure with an ass jaw in his right hand - has been stripped of all later coatings, to reveal a very finely caved oak figure.” said Michael. “Hercules resides safely in store for the time being. This figure is in good condition, but is nothing like the original Hercules, so does not need conservation treatment at present. 

“Now that Samson has been revealed from under so many coats of paint, which formed a layer 1cm thick and detached from the timber itself, it can be established that the original figure is carved from one single piece of oak. Norwich at the time had many skilled woodcarvers who produced pub signs and also figureheads for ships. It is now thought probable that the man responsible was Fairchild, a famous carver who made a large wooden sign for the Scole Inn on the Norfolk/Suffolk border.  

“It was also discovered that originally some parts of the statue were gilded and there were traces of colour on the fox he carries for instance, but not overall. This decorative treatment was quite innovative at the time. After a few decades, Samson was painted all over with gritty light-coloured paint. This practice of painting wood grey or white seems to have taken off around the end of the 17th century as the look of stone became fashionable. 

“The wonderful colour schemes of medieval sculpture and furniture were rediscovered with enthusiasm in the mid-20th century and it was assumed for a while that Samson and Hercules must have been very colourful originally. This has now been disproved. They were repeatedly painted white for 300 years, creating a thick shell of paint, none of which was original and which has now been removed.  

The current facsimiles on Tombland show the figures before any conservation work was done, the thick paint giving them their strange appearance. For a year or two they were painted bright red, but are now back in more familiar white.” 

Painters have painted Samson postbox red, as rain holds up Hercules' makeover. Picture: DENISE BRADL

Samson and Hercules were painted red in 2014 - Credit: Denise Bradley

Due to Covid 19, The Museum of Norwich is currently closed. The story of Samson was featured as part of a summer series of short films highlighting the museum’s collections and can be seen on its Facebook page.

carving of Samson on display at the Museum of Norwich

Samson is on display at the Museum of Norwich in the Bridewell (currently closed in accordance with coronavirus restrictions) - Credit: Norfolk Museums Service

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