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To throw more light on Harry Hems, we have asked Dr Corinna Wagner, Senior Lecturer in English at University of Exeter, a series of questions that aim to locate Hems within the broader context of Victorian culture and history. Dr Wagner, together with Dr Joanne Parker, also from the English Department at University of Exeter, hold a large AHRC grant to study Identity, Community and Victorian Medievalism, exploring ‘how communities have turned to their regional histories and local landscapes in response to economic, technological and social change’. The project specifically looks into how Victorian artists like Hems ‘borrowed’ from the literary and visual artefacts of their region’s medieval past in order to ‘forge an aesthetic that they thought capable of inspiring “sensus communis” – that is a shared sensibility about what it means for a community to flourish

What do we know about Harry Hems?

Although not a native Exonian, Harry Hems became a well-known figure in the South West, and a significant member of late Victorian Exeter society. He was something of a celebrity for several reasons. First, he was an incredibly talented wood and stone carver, who collected a vast collection of medieval woodwork and sculpture, mostly gathered from churches he visited. He used these collected pieces as examples for his own designs, but interpreting them in a way that combined past and present. Quite wonderfully, he developed a meticulous understanding of medieval design but then creatively adapted traditional forms to reflect the tastes and priorities of modern Victorians.

There is also a second reason for his renown: Hems was a flamboyant character, and something of a self-promoter. He was passionate about what he did and he was a driven, disciplined craftsman. He expected much from his workers and was known for his fiery temper, which resulted in not a few lawsuits! Having said that, he could also be characterized as an old-school Victorian paternalist, who treated Exeter’s elderly poor to a Christmas meal each year.

Why is the Hems collection significant and distinctive?

The Hems collection, held at the RAMM, is significant for its sheer size, diversity and antiquity. There are hundreds of fifteenth-century carvings and architectural fragments, gathered from restoration projects in a variety of locations. These pieces could tell us much about the landscape, culture and social configurations of the communities that produced them, but alas, we don’t know where many of the pieces come from.

How would you describe Hems’ use of gothic?

To be honest, I’m not sure – yet – how I would describe Hems’ particular brand of gothic. This is one of the questions I want to answer in my project. What I can say is that he was something of a ‘bricoleur’ – that is, he is someone who borrowed from a wide variety of sources, and brought things together in new combinations. Clearly his carvings are traditional and religious, and use established symbols and designs. In addition, my research reveals his keen interest in recovering old methods of craftsmanship and in using time-honoured, local materials (like Beer limestone). Yet, he would re-interpret and experiment with the old in new ways, as can be seen in his award-winning neo-gothic furniture, which thrilled the judges at world exhibitions in Paris and America. The gothic became a brand of neo-gothic that combined the local with the global.

What do we know about how his art relates to other aesthetic movements?

Hems was part of the Gothic Revival, a much wider, international movement, which celebrated the aesthetics and social structures associated with the European Middle Ages. That he was extremely busy with commissions as far away as Africa, indicates the significance of this movement. There is also a political aspect to his aesthetics. Like William Morris, Hems related his art to his political philosophy (though he didn’t share Morris’ socialist leanings). Like Morris and John Ruskin, Hems saw the honest labour of craftsmanship as a deeply ethical enterprise; gothic design communicated important human values like vitality and honour. Hems identified a continuity between his aesthetics, his business, his participation in charitable organizations and his position as an Exeter city councillor.

How should we look at his bosses, what was the significance of these objects in situ?

I think we should attempt to read his bosses, to try to determine what it is they expressed and what they express to us now. We should ask ourselves:

  • How do these wonderfully detailed, meticulously carved ornaments affect us as viewers?
  • What values do they promote?
  • What do they tell us, if anything, about local identities?
  • What about changes in these identities, over time?
  • What are the differences between Devon bosses and say, Norfolk bosses?
  • People have observed that the bosses in the church at Honiton, Devon are among the most beautiful. Why?
  • What did the artist want to express?
  • Did he express something specific about that community?

As you can see, I have answered the question with yet more questions. I don’t have an answer, except to say that we must look at his bosses and when we do, we should work to understand what it is they say to us.