CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe to Hertfordshire Life today CLICK HERE

Hertfordshire’s hidden art treasures

PUBLISHED: 13:16 02 January 2018 | UPDATED: 10:31 09 January 2018

The Adoration of the Magi at St Mary's Church, Hitchin

The Adoration of the Magi at St Mary's Church, Hitchin


Passed by, tucked away and sometimes unassuming, there are art treasures in the county that are little known but are among the most prized by museums, churches and institutions. Julie Lucas asked our curators and archivists to choose 21 objects that resonate with meaning

1. Adoration of the Magi, St Mary’s, Hitchin

The huge Adoration of the Magi which hangs over the north door of Hitchin’s parish church was presented by John Radcliffe of Hitchin Priory in 1774. The interior was remodelled to accommodate it as an altarpiece before it was moved to its present position. The three kings bringing gifts to the infant Jesus is a duplicate of Rubens’ c.1619 painting which hangs in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Lyons. The history of the Hitchin work before 1774 is unknown but it is thought to be 17th century Flemish and likely created by assistants in Rubens’ studio in Antwerp.

2. Launching the Lifeboat, Bushey Museum

Lucy Kemp-Welch is best known for her illustrations for the 1915 edition of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty but she was also the foremost painter of horses of her time, particularly those in military service during the First World War. Featuring a team of horses straining through the surf, the oil-on-board painting Launching the Lifeboat (1937) is on display in Bushey Museum. Kemp-Welch, moved to Bushey from Bournemouth and studied at the Hubert von Herkomer art school in the town, later running it. She became the first president of the Society of Animal Painters. Her work is also in Tate Britain and the Imperial War Museum.

Launching the Lifeboat by Lucy Kemp-Welch (Photo: David Messums Fine Paintings)Launching the Lifeboat by Lucy Kemp-Welch (Photo: David Messums Fine Paintings)

3. Stained glass, St Mary Magdalene, Barkway

Look down the north aisle in St Mary Magdalene church in the village of Barkway and you face a stained glass window designed by Alan Younger, who also created the rose window in St Albans Cathedral, completed in 1989. The Barkway window was commissioned by the Dimsdale family in the 1980s to commemorate those who fought in the Burma campaign of 1942-45, including villagers Baron Dimsdale and Freddy Dellow.

4. Stained glass, St Michael & All Angels, Waterford

The little village of Waterford just north of Hertford has stunning Pre-Raphaelite stained glass windows by Morris and Co, founded by Arts and Crafts textile designer William Morris. The trio in the east window of St Michael and All Angels depicts the Nativity by Edward Burne-Jones while the upper smaller four windows show angels by Morris.

The three window group is the East Window of St Michaels & All Angels Church, Waterford depicting The Nativity by Burne-Jones with the upper smaller four windows depicting angels by William Morris (Photo: Steve Baldwin)The three window group is the East Window of St Michaels & All Angels Church, Waterford depicting The Nativity by Burne-Jones with the upper smaller four windows depicting angels by William Morris (Photo: Steve Baldwin)

5. The Rainbow Portrait, Hatfield House

Perhaps the most famous portrait of Elizabeth I, The Rainbow Portrait looks out across the Marble Hall of Hatfield House. In the painting Elizabeth holds a rainbow, above which is written ‘Non sine sole iris’ (No rainbow without a sun), referring to the queen as a bringer of peace. It was completed in around 1602 in oil on canvas, when Elizabeth was in her late 60s – with the artist (possibly Isaac Oliver or Marcus Gheeraerts) carefully portraying the Queen as an ageless beauty. Look closely and you will see the surprising addition of eyes and ears on her gown – a reference to her omnipotence over the realm and her extensive spy network, run by her closest adviser, William Cecil, then owner of Hatfield House.

Rainbow Portrait, Hatfield HouseRainbow Portrait, Hatfield House

6. Martyr statues, St Albans Cathedral

Glancing up at these painted stone statues in St Albans Cathedral (see p100), you would be forgiven if you thought they had been here for centuries. In fact, they were installed in the medieval niches of the nave screen this year and are a rare edition to the cathedral. The seven martyrs include Britain’s first saint, Alban, but also modern Christian figures such as Oscar Romero, Archbishop of El Salvador – assassinated in 1980 for his stand against social injustice during political unrest.

7. Roman glass & metal vessels, Verulamium Museum, St Albans

Part of around 150 artefacts from two Roman graves discovered in 2002 by metal detectorists in Wheathampstead are two wine jugs from the first century. The elaborate bronze vessel came from a large rich cremation and is from the Campania region in Italy, while the yellow glass vessel, Rhenish in style (today’s Germany), was from a smaller one. These expensive imports may have been bought in the forum in the nearby Roman city of Verulamium. They were placed with the remains, and along with other finds, represent a feasting tradition. Tests on the remains suggest the burials are both women.

Roman metal jugRoman metal jug

8. Guinea Pigs, Lowewood Museum, Hoddesdon

English painter and engraver James Ward was one of the best known animal artists of the early 19th century. Also a landscape painter, the Royal Academician often depicted animals in dramatic circumstances or surroundings, such as the epic Gordale Scar (1812-14), which hangs in the Tate Gallery. Drama could not be claimed of this 1843 work, a tender painting of his granddaughter Henrietta’s guinea pigs, held at Lowewood Museum.

Double Portrait of Henrietta Ward's Pet Guinea Pigs by James Ward (Photo: Courtesy of Lowewood Museum)Double Portrait of Henrietta Ward's Pet Guinea Pigs by James Ward (Photo: Courtesy of Lowewood Museum)

9. Font, St Mary the Virgin, Ware

The beautiful font in Ware’s parish church dates to its construction under the patronage of Richard II’s mother in around 1380. It is decorated with the figures of eight saints and eight angels, all associated with childhood and baptism. The octagonal structure was described by architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘the most richly decorated medieval font in the county’. It is made of ‘clunch’ – a chalky limestone that probably originated in Bedfordshire. After more than six centuries, it is still used in baptisms.

Font, St Mary the Virgin, Ware (Luke Santilli Photography)Font, St Mary the Virgin, Ware (Luke Santilli Photography)

10. Roman signet ring, Welwyn Roman Baths

This bronze ring is set with blue glass, moulded to imitate onyx intaglio. It shows Ganymede – a handsome young shepherd carried away by Jupiter to act as an eternally youthful cup bearer to the gods. Wearing a short cloak and carrying a shepherd’s staff, Ganymede was a symbol of salvation as well as sexual desire. The ring dates from the third century AD and most likely belonged to a man. It was found during excavations in the 1960s and 70s in the bath house of a Roman villa near Welwyn. Did it slip from a finger during bathing? The bath house is now a museum preserved under the A1M.

Ring, Welwyn Roman BathsRing, Welwyn Roman Baths

11. Vertical Forms, University of Hertfordshire

Sculptor Barbara Hepworth was an international star and innovator of the Modernist art movement. Vertical Forms, in stone and completed in 1951, was commissioned by Hertfordshire County Education Committee for the then Hatfield Technical College. It exemplifies her abstract figurative style. The sculpture is on the main building at the College Lane Campus of the University of Hertfordshire.

12. Emperor penguin, Natural History Museum, Tring

Among Baron Rothschild’s remarkable collection of natural specimens, now the National History Museum, Tring, is a rather unassuming emperor penguin. But this animal has a remarkable tale to tell. It is one of the oldest specimens in the museum and was collected by the great British botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker during Captain James Clark Ross’ pioneering 1839-1843 Antarctic expedition to the south magnetic pole aboard HMS Erebus. Hooker, a close friend of Darwin, collected a group of emperor penguins from which the species was scientifically described and named. Its slightly awkward pose is due to the taxidermist having never seen a live penguin.

13. Banqueting Hall, Knebworth House

Winston Churchill was a friend of Lord and Lady Lytton (Victor and Pamela), who, with his wife Clementine, often visited them at their home, Knebworth House. During two of these visits in 1937, Churchill painted the interior of the Banqueting Hall. Nine years later Lady Pamela wrote, ‘Winston has sent me his painting of the Banqueting Hall beautifully framed... He loved the room... I am so very, very pleased to have it.’ The work is on display in the hall along with a copy of a letter from Churchill.

14. Letchworth, The Road, North Hertfordshire Museum, Hitchin

Visitors can view this vibrant painting of Letchworth by Camden Town Group artist Spencer Gore at the new North Herts museum in Hitchin. Letchworth, The Road was painted when Gore lived with his wife Mollie in fellow avant-garde artist Harold Gilman’s home at 100 Wilbury Way in the garden city in the autumn of 1912.

Until its official opening, the museum is open from December 2 to March 3 to coincide with a Shell poster exhibition or a behind the scenes tour can be booked via

Letchworth, The Road by Spencer Gore (©North Hertfordshire Museum Service)Letchworth, The Road by Spencer Gore (©North Hertfordshire Museum Service)

15. Stained glass, St Andrew’s church, Much Hadham

The marvellous Henry Moore Studios and Gardens at Perry Green is well known, but venture to a church in nearby Much Hadham and you’ll discover three of his works not many know at all. The west doorway of St Andrew’s is flanked by two stone heads of a king and queen carved by Moore in 1953. Go inside and you’ll see his simple yet striking Tree of Life memorial window, based on his etching of an apple tree in winter.

Henry Moore memorial window in St Andrew's church, Much Hadham (Photo: Henry Moore Archive, reproduced by permission of Henry Moore Foundation)Henry Moore memorial window in St Andrew's church, Much Hadham (Photo: Henry Moore Archive, reproduced by permission of Henry Moore Foundation)

16. Cassiobury Casket, Watford Museum

In this small wooden box is preserved a bloodstained handkerchief reputedly used by Lord Coningsby to stem a wound in the shoulder of William III at the Battle of the Boyne – the decisive 1690 battle for the English crown. The casket is decorated with miniature portraits of the two men painted by Sarah, Countess of Essex. Watford’s Cassiobury Park was part of the estate of the Earls of Essex.

The Box, Watford Museum (Photo: Watford Museum Service)The Box, Watford Museum (Photo: Watford Museum Service)

17. Rosewood pipe, Bishop’s Stortford Museum

The image of Cecil Rhodes has been carved into this briar wood pipe, dating to the late 19th century. Although the identity of the original owner is unknown, it is tempting to believe it was Rhodes himself or possibly a gift from him to a friend. Imperialist, mining magnate and politician, Rhodes’ face was one of the most famous in the world, but this may be one of its strangest depictions. It’s held at Rhodes’ birthplace, now Bishop’s Stortford Museum.

Rosewood Pipe, Bishops Stortford MuseumRosewood Pipe, Bishops Stortford Museum

18. Bronze bust of Shaw, Shaw’s Corner

Writer and playwright George Bernard Shaw sat for this sculpture at his friend Rodin’s Paris studio in 1906, the same year he moved to Ayot St Lawrence. While he and his wife Charlotte were in Paris, they saw the unveiling of Rodin’s The Thinker. Shaw was later photographed by Alvin Langdon Coburn in the same pose, nude. Shaw displayed Rodin’s sculpture at his home, Shaw’s Corner, now a National Trust property preserved as he left it.

Bust of George Bernard Shaw in the Drawing room of the house at Shaw's Corner, Hertfordshire. The Edwardian villa was home to the renowned Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw ©National Trust Images/Paul WatsonBust of George Bernard Shaw in the Drawing room of the house at Shaw's Corner, Hertfordshire. The Edwardian villa was home to the renowned Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw ©National Trust Images/Paul Watson

19. Henry VIII patent, Hertfordshire Archives & Local Studies, County Hall, Hertford

This illuminated letter H from a royal letters patent of 1545 depicts a beneficent Henry VIII granting the manor of Codicote in Hertfordshire and the rectory of Kirklington in Oxfordshire to John Penne and his wife Lucy. Penne was Henry’s barber-surgeon and groom of the privy chamber. Codicote had belonged to St Albans Abbey until it was seized by Henry in 1539 during the Dissolution. The charter has the king’s royal seal and is one of many fascinating documents held at Herts County Council’s archive.

Henry at the Hertfordshire Archives (Photo: Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies)Henry at the Hertfordshire Archives (Photo: Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies)

20. Eclipse, Royal Veterinary College, Brookmans Park

Eclipse (oil on canvas 1770) by master equine painter George Stubbs is reputedly the only painting of this famous racehorse to be made from life. During his career Eclipse won 18 races, most emphatically. When the horse died in 1789 a post-mortem was carried out by Charles Benoit Vial de Sainbel who founded the first British veterinary college, which later became the Royal Veterinary College. The painting is on display in the college’s Hawkshead campus library.

Eclipse by George Stubbs (Photo: Royal Veterinary College)Eclipse by George Stubbs (Photo: Royal Veterinary College)

21. Medieval linked pin, North Hertfordshire Museum, Hitchin

This beautiful gilt silver linked pin inlaid with five small garnets and dating to the ninth century would have been one of a set comprising two or more linked by a chain. They were used to hold the cloth of a lady’s outfit – burial evidence suggests they pinned clothing around the shoulders. The medieval artefact was found in 1889 during the construction of a classroom at St Andrew’s School, Hitchin.

Linked pin, North Herts Museum (©North Hertfordshire Museum Service)Linked pin, North Herts Museum (©North Hertfordshire Museum Service)

All the items listed here can be seen by the public. For some it is necessary to make an appointment, so do check before visiting.


Welcome , please leave your message below.

Optional - JPG files only
Optional - MP3 files only
Optional - 3GP, AVI, MOV, MPG or WMV files

Please log in to leave a comment and share your views with other Hertfordshire visitors.

We enable people to post comments with the aim of encouraging open debate.

Only people who register and sign up to our terms and conditions can post comments. These terms and conditions explain our house rules and legal guidelines.

Comments are not edited by Hertfordshire staff prior to publication but may be automatically filtered.

If you have a complaint about a comment please contact us by clicking on the Report This Comment button next to the comment.

Not a member yet?

Register to create your own unique Hertfordshire account for free.

Signing up is free, quick and easy and offers you the chance to add comments, personalise the site with local information picked just for you, and more.

Sign up now

Most Read

Latest from the Hertfordshire