David Duce and Laurence King
18 February 2017
J.C. Norris in his history of St Michael's Church 1867-1967  discusses the East Window, but is silent about the decoration to the east end of the church. Our Notes for Visitors say: "The mural on the east wall dates from 1882 or 1883 and is believed to have been designed by a Mr Drake of Exeter. Plans for another, on the north wall of the chancel, came to nothing (1887-9)." We recently (2016) discovered more information about the origin of the mural and Mr Drake of Exeter.
An article in the Reading Mercury for Saturday 15 December 1883 reports: "Another important addition to the chancel adornments of St. Michael's Church has been completed during the past week. The east wall, which always presented very bare appearance, has been artistically painted and decorated by Mr. F. Drake, of the Cathedral Close, Exeter, and the effect is admirable, and gives much satisfaction".
Who was Mr F. Drake? Frederick Drake (1838-1920) was born in Devon and established himself as a glassmaker in Exeter . "He studied at the local School of Art and was apprenticed to the firm founded in the city by his uncle Robert Beer (formerly Conibeer) (c1799-1850), but then operated by his cousin Alfred Beer (1830-66). Frederick Drake was in business by himself until In 1897 he bought this company as well, known by then as Beer and Driffield. Most of the work of the two businesses he came to control was local, chiefly in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset. He had two sons who followed his trade and were first apprenticed to him and then joined him in business; the arrangement had been formalised by c1896, the earliest known date for glass by Frederick Drake and Son, The sons were named Wilfred and (Frederick) Morris (1875-1923). After Frederick's death Morris, who had done much of the design work previously, took over the firm for what proved to be a brief period and it continued for some years after he himself died."
Another source records that Frederick Drake lived at no 4 Cathedral Close Exeter sometime after 1865 . He was a stained glass window maker who went on to restore the Great East Window of the Cathedral in 1884 to 1896. He was an important and prolific craftsman, who restored and put in windows into many Devon churches.
An appreciation of the life of Frederick Drake, written by his sister Daphne, appears in The Journal of Stained Glass . In it she writes "He was also commissioned to decorate many churches including St. Michael's, Exeter, under Sir Reginald Blomfield, and St. Michael's at Abingdon". It turns out that there are many churches dedicated to St. Michael in and around Exeter, and indeed he was for some time churchwarden at St. Michael's in Teignmouth where a stained-glass window was installed in his memory.
Which St. Michael's in Exeter did Drake decorate? St. Michael and All Angel's, Dinham Mount, consecrated in 1868 (the year after St. Michael's Abingdon). Drake decorated the north, east and south walls of the chancel. The Historic England register entry  records "There is extensive chancel mural decoration on the E wall as a memorial to William Gibbs, executed by Frederick Drake". The decoration of the north wall contains images of the Apostles and Old Testament Prophets. At the time of visiting the church in November 2016, plans were being put in place to restore the murals that were currently visible and to uncover decorations on the north and south chancel walls that had been whitewashed over some years ago. The east end decoration is visible in a photograph from their twitter feed, a visit of the suffragan Bishop of Crediton, the Rt. Rev'd Sarah Mullally to St Michael's. The Exeter Memories web site  has a photograph of the lower part of the east end decoration.
So far few internal records have been found about the murals. At the time the work was undertaken, the curate who took responsibility for St. Michael's was the Revd. Charles Dendy Blakiston, who was in Abingdon from 1881 to 1884. The parish magazine for February 1884 records "It is with sincere regret that those who attend [St. Michael's] Church will part with the Rev. C.D.Blakiston, he has been with us now just three years and during that time has worked hard and successfully in that district of the town in which the Church of S. Michael is situated. This Church like S. Nicolas, has the advantage of having most of its sitting free and unappropriated and the way in which the free seats are filled, especially on a Sunday Evening tell of the work done in the district far better than any words of ours could do. The Church too, since Mr. Blakiston has had charge of it has undergone a great change, the decoration on the eastern wall having been carried out greatly through his zeal and liberality."
The Rev. Charles Dendy Blakiston studied theology at Bishop Hatfield's Hall, Durham and was ordained deacon by the Bishop of Oxford in Cuddesdon Parish Church 26 May 1872, according to a report in the Reading Mercury for Saturday 1st June 1872 and served a curacy in Monks Risborough 1872-74. He then moved to Willingdale-Doe, Essex, 1874-76; St. Wilfrid, Hayward's Heath, 1876-78, Rugby, 1878-80, before coming to Abingdon in 1881. In 1889 he became vicar of Exwick, Exeter, according to the Western Daily Press (2nd September 1889. It is thought that he was born in Sussex in 1848, but no connection with Exeter has been found so far prior to his move to Exwick.
Mr Drake is known to have done glass work in Wellingborough Northants in 1880, and probably in Bexhill (date unknown), but otherwise does not seem to have worked much outside Devon and Somerset. No records have been found so far of any discussion leading to the choice of Mr Drake for this work at St Michael's and the reasons why he was chosen remains a mystery.
A minute book has been located which contains the following entries.
But there the trail goes cold. The first designs that Mr Drake submitted have not been discovered, it is not known why they were not thought suitable. It is not known whether a fresh plan was ever submitted. The north and south walls of the chancel remain plain to this day.
(Web sites last accessed 14 February 2017.)
Page last modified 18th February 2017 by David Duce