Some dragons are hard to slay. The persistence of the attribution to Nottingham sculptors of the English medieval religious carvings sculpted in alabaster is both perverse and puzzling, given the clear historical evidence that points to the contrary. Another misconception is that such alabasters are generally rectangular panels of mediocre artistic quality. In this chapter I hope to demonstrate how this distorted view of the subject has come about – nurtured in a stream of publications from around 1890 onwards – and to suggest further areas of historical research into this important artistic material.
The spurious trail of the ‘Nottingham alabaster panel’ was laid by three prolific and – it must be said at once – learned and scholarly writers: Sir William Henry St John Hope (1854–1919), Philip Nelson (1872–1953) and Walter Leo Hildburgh (1876–1955). Hope is the subject of a short and impersonal account in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, but neither Nelson nor Hildburgh achieved that form of immortality. I have, however, drawn on an account of Nelson by Pauline Rushton in Apollo in 2001 and one of Hildburgh by Catherine Oakes in the Journal of the History of Collections in 2006.
Hope was far and away the finest scholar of the three, entirely at ease in searching for, and making transcripts from, medieval archival materials. He was a heraldist of great distinction, whose writings in this field show that he had an independence and originality of mind, and he was an architectural historian of exceptional thoroughness. He was awarded his knighthood for his two-volume architectural history of Windsor Castle. He has been less highly lauded as an archaeologist of the below-ground, trench-digging sort, Mortimer Wheeler once commenting that he dug up sites rather as a farmer might dig up a field of potatoes, just to see what came up.
Hope's first contribution to the making of the alabaster-publications industry was a paper in Archaeologia in 1890, in which he linked up some of the dozens of extant carvings of the Head of St John the Baptist with documentary references to Heads of St John which he had found in late medieval wills and inventories.