December

Angels of the Refectory

Next time you go in for a bite, have a look up and consider the historic origins of Bath Spa's architectural art

Have you ever noticed the carvings on the refectory building? Do you know what they mean? We would like to tell you the great story behind them.

A black and white photo from the 1950s of a smiling woman and man standing in front of building with large windows 

Shown above: The Refectory's architect, Molly Gerrard, and chief officer of works in front of the assembly hall in 1950 - note the missing carvings!

As education students taking the history and heritage of education module, we got an opportunity to look through Bath Spa's archives, which  included pictures, letters, and old versions of the university magazine. That is when we came across a photo of the refectory building (then the assembly hall) on its opening day, and noticed the carvings were incomplete.

A black and white photo of a man with a chisel working on a wall sculpture of an angelLooking further into the archives, we found a series of letters between Mary Dawson (the founder and Principal of Bath City College, now Bath Spa University) and Peter Watts, the sculptor. In the first letter from 1956, Watts writes to Dawson, telling her his ideas for the carvings. We discovered from the letter that the four carvings represent the four figures from St John’s Apocalypse representing the four gospels - the winged man (Matthew), the winged cow (Luke), the winged lion (Mark) and the eagle (John), as can now be seen in the four corners of the building. As Watts noted to Dawson in 1956, 

I thought of winds and wings, then I hit on the idea of the Four Living Figures from St John’s Apocalypse – usually taken as symbols of the Evangelists but also of Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection and Ascension. The winged Man, the winged Calf, the winged Lion and the Eagle. I don’t think one could do better for symbolic significance.

From the letters exchanged it seems two of the carvings had been finished by November 1957, and Mary Dawson wrote to Watts telling him that the students had almost raised enough money for the other two. From his response, it seems that Watts had originally planned to complete the carvings the following May. We then found an additional letter from Watts to Dawson from September 1958, excusing his lateness in starting:

I have by no means forgotten about your carvings...

It seems that Miss Dawson had written to Watts, asking for an explanation as to why he had not yet started. This was typical of the tenacity and determination which marked Mary Dawson’s personality and leadership style.

The carvings were eventually finished in October 1958, almost 10 years after the assembly hall was first opened, and are still in place now, over 60 years later.

Disclaimer: The Bath Spa blog is a platform for individual voices and views from the University's community. Any views or opinions represented in individual posts are personal, belonging solely to the author of that post, and do not represent the views of other Bath Spa staff, or Bath Spa University as an institution.

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