Magazine article The Spectator

Norman Wisdom

Magazine article The Spectator

Norman Wisdom

Article excerpt

As a child I would stand looking in fascinated horror at the enormous polar bear pinning down an unfortunate seal.

Then on to the equally immense tiger 'shot by King George V', roaring and prowling in its glass case. Followed by the mummy, donated in 1827 by 'J. Morrison, London'.

Who was J. Morrison of London and why was he wandering round Norfolk with the 3,000-year-old corpse of an Egyptian woman? History is silent.

Bear and tiger and mummy remain in silent companionship in the vast building that is Norwich Castle Museum, but great changes have been taking place around them. The Castle is among the very largest of Norman keeps, a square box squatting menacingly on its high mound. How on earth did the Normans achieve this, piling thousands of tons of stone on a newly heaped-up mound? They did the same at Guildford but there the mound is of chalk, which compacts under pressure. Here, the substratum is mostly gravel.

But they built well so that, nearly a thousand years later, the keep dominates the skyline of Norwich along with its enormous stone contemporary and neighbour, the cathedral. We marvel at the builders of the pyramids but surely the Normans were as remarkable, studding the land with these immense buildings within a few years of the Conquest.

The keep, a roofless shell, was the core of a large prison until 1894 when a local architect, Edward Boardman, was commissioned to restore and turn it into a museum. He did his work well, avoiding the excesses of Victorian 'Gothic' when he refaced the exterior of the keep. He roofed it over and built a massive oak balcony at what would have been the floor level of the Great Hall.

The adjoining prison had been constructed of large cell blocks radiating from an open courtyard. Boardman turned the cell blocks into galleries. The courtyard was subsequently roofed over to form a rotunda. It is still the core of the Museum, the logical point of departure for exploring it.

'Provincial' is a pejorative word in English. Norwich Castle Museum is provincial in exactly the sense that a museum in Florence or Siena is provincial, celebrating the locality. Here is the glittering collection of the local art form, Norwich silverware. Here are the local magnates both as munificent patrons and subjects of innumerable portraits. Here are the local artists -- Crome, Cotman, Lound, Hodgson -- founders, in 1805, of three generations of the Norwich School. …

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