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A brief introduction to John Browne and his illustrations of York Minster

John Browne (1793-1877) is best known for his historical research on York Minster and for his high quality illustrations of architectural details.

The artist and author John Browne was born in Walmgate Bar on the 2nd of May 1793. He was the eldest of 18 children. He attended a nearby school for a while, but he soon declared that he knew as much as his teachers and left. After spending some time in domestic service (to ease the financial burden on his parents), he moved to his grandfather’s house in Walmgate and began trading as an ‘artist decorator’, specialising in the faux wood and faux marble effects that were becoming popular at the time. During this period, he developed a fascination with architecture and architectural drawing and he devoted much of his spare time to developing both his artistic skills and his knowledge of architectural history. In 1825, he became a member of the York Union Lodge of Freemasons and he quickly mastered the core knowledge and skills associated with the stone-mason’s craft. In 1828, he moved to new premises at 21 Blake Street (close to the Assembly Rooms), where he set-up an art studio and bookshop. Although he was still running a decorating business, he began to devote an increasing proportion of his time and energy to his architectural passions. This culminated in the publication of his seminal work: a highly illustrated book entitled "The History of the Metropolitan Church of St. Peter, York" (published in 1847 by Longman & Co., London). In 1856, the authors J.J. Sheahan & T. Whellan described Browne’s book in glowing terms:

"This great work, which was commenced in 1827, and completed in 1847, is in 33 numbers (4 to Elephant1) to correspond with Halfpenny's "Gothic Ornaments" or in two vols. It is illustrated by extracts from authentic records, by plans, sections and engravings of architectural and sculptural details; and some of the best authorities have declared it to be, not only the best History of the Cathedral, but to be of more practical service to the profession of the Architect, than any other work published on pointed architecture and its decorations."

Source: Sheahan, James Joseph and Whellan, T.: "History and Topography of Yorkshire, Volume I", 1856
Note 1: 'Elephant' in this context is a publishing term associated with the size of a sheet of paper or a printed book. An 'elephant folio' is a large book that is up to 23 inches tall.

Volume 2 of the two-volume set is especially recommended as it contains the plates (150 illustrations). As can be seen from the examples below (Images 1 to 18), these works of art show a fascinating level of detail.

The publication is now 'copyright expired' and digital versions of the two-volume set can be downloaded free of charge from the Internet Archive website (see External Links below).

Browne had unprecedented access to York Minster and he was able to get close to some of the high-level details by climbing scaffolding that had been erected to facilitate cleaning and maintenance work following the fire of 1829. When drawing the ceiling bosses, he had to lie on his back, holding his sketchbook and pencil aloft for hours at a time. Some of these sketches became invaluable after part of the Minster’s nave was destroyed by another fire in 1840. To assist with the rebuilding works, John Browne created enlargements of his sketches and these were subsequently used by the woodcarvers to recreate some of the original roof details. He describes this process in his description to accompany Plate 129 (see Image 16 above):

With this plate the author closes a series of representations selected from the drawings he made with much anxiety and attention from all the bosses and brackets in the nave of the Church during the month of December 1834, and the early part of the year 1835, when a scaffold was erected for the cleansing of the nave. The object then was to take representations of all those ancient sculptures, and, at leisure, to select the most curious for illustrating the history of the Church; but the lamentable destruction of the vault, and its admirable carvings, on the 20th of May 1840, proved that the drawings had been made, undesignedly, for a more extensive undertaking than it had entered into the author's mind to conceive, and gave to them a far higher value than he had ever thought they could possess; for they now exist as unique drawings, and have been the gratuitous means of producing a tolerable restoration of the ornaments of the vault of the nave. Note 1

Note 1: The bosses attached to the new vault were sculptured by our fellow-citizen and ingenious artist, Mr. Wolstenholme, from these drawings, gratuitously supplied by the author; but as the bosses are now only attached to the ribs, several of the graceful terminations, which lay on portions of the ribs worked in the key-blocks of the original vault, could by no means be restored; thus compelling stiffness and abruptness to exist, where ease and freedom were formerly displayed.