Monumental English Brass Rubbing

by Angie Magruder 

A Rubbing of a Monumental English Brass plate is an exact replica of that brass plate, created through a process called Brass Rubbing.

The Plate from which a rubbing is made is called a brass. Brasses were made from 1100 - 1600 as a commemoration to the dead or for a special church-related event. Brasses were made to take the place of granite and marble tomb stones in many instances during that period of time because the brass alloy used was sturdier, lasted much longer, and was considered more attractive (they were sometimes inlaid with colorful enamel work).

Brasses were, and still are, found throughout Great Britain and Europe. However, because metal and enamel were such a precious commodity, many of the brasses on the European continent were destroyed and melted down (presumably to create armament for the various warring factions).

A brass rubbing is created by stretching paper over the deeply etched brass plate and rubbing vigorously over the paper's surface with a hard crayon-type wax cake (some cakes have gold, silver, copper or brass incorporated into them creating a metallic sheen on the paper's surface). In doing this, an exact copy of what lies under the paper is created. In the 1300s, a Vicar in a small church school in England is said to have discovered this process by using linen and a ball of black heelball wax, thereby recognizing its aesthetic and decorative appeal.

When it was discovered that a form of art could be created in this manner, it caused great excitement, as there was no art available to the common man. The only art of that time was owned by nobility and usually consisted of tapestry and oil paintings. The popularity of brass rubbing caught on and sky rocketed. People sailed from all over the world to be able to participate in this new art form.

Brasses have been found as small as 3" x 4" and as large as a figure brass, standing over 6 ft in height. Larger scenes were known to have existed, but have been destroyed over the ages. Rubbing a clear and neat image is essential and not always easily achieved. Today, brass rubbings can be done in a variety of wax and paper colors, unlike the limited black wax on white paper as was used for hundreds of years. Imperfections that are seen in the rubbings result from damaged brasses, since the rubbings are exact copies.

The brasses that are being rubbed today are - with very few exceptions - exact replicas created from the originals that can still be found in the churches and chapels of England and Europe. Some of the brass copies today are also produced in miniature sizes.

Brasses in our young nation of America are nonexistent except in private collections. For this reason brass rubbings are relatively rare and their origin all but unknown. The history behind each is a fascinating insight into medieval times throughout Europe and Great Britain.

Brass Rubbing - Sir John D'Aubernaun
Sir John D'Aubernon, 1277
The earliest surviving brass in England. His arms borne on the flat shield are "azure, a chevron or" and the blue enamel has also survived. Note the stitching on the sword belt so clearly shown, and the decoration on genouilleres and guige. Sir John's tough dominant face looks you straight in the eye across the centuries, even though the left shoulder strap of his surcoat, like the Venus de Milo's draperies, seems irretrievably to have slipped.
Margaret Cheyne (Boleyn)
Brass Rubbing - Robert the Bruce
Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland
Lady Margaret Peyton
"The Lace Lady"
Nicholas Wadham
AD 1609
St. Marys, Wminster
Somerset, England
Dorothy Wadham
AD 1618
St Marys, Wminster
Somerset, England
Thomas Bullen, Earl of Wiltshire
Richard and Elizabeth Wakehurst
Marguerite de Scornay
The Abbey of Nivelles was one of the most important in Belgium. Marguerite de Scornay was elected abbess in 1443 and a seventeenth century manuscript of the lives of the abbesses recorded that she had built “the great gate of the abbatial house and her arms were carved on the front.” She also founded “a daily Mass to be celebrated by the common chaplains at 11 o’clock in the chapel of Our Lady” and this plate was set in the wall by the altar to record the fact.
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Lady Margaret Peyton

"The Lace Lady"