Painting, 'The Seneschal Buxton (The Buxton Achievement)', by unknown artist, c.1470; painted linen cloth; 142 x 112 cm; inscriptions now mostly illegible but recorded in an engraving from 1805: 'quicquid assequitur manus tua / ut facias pro facultate tua fac' (Whatever you undertake, do it as well as you can) / 'dies' (day) / 'nox' (night) / 'vita' (life) / 'laetetur homo in bonis diebus' (Let a man rejoice in good times) / 'mors' (death) / 'recordetur dies tenebrarum' (Let the day of darkness be remembered) / 'Clotho vitae stamen / Lachesis fortunam / Atropos finem dat' (Clotho gives the thread of life, Lachesis the fortune, Atropos the end)
This painted cloth, known as the Buxton Achievement, is a rare and fascinating survival from late 15th-century Norfolk. An achievement is a term to describe the complete depiction of all the heraldic components of an individual’s coat of arms.
The origins of The Buxton Achievement remain unclear, but there are tantalising clues contained in the object itself. The painting shows a great gateway, with crenellations and windows, and various figures appear at different windows and in the structure. At the heart of the composition, over the heraldic arms, are the words ‘le Seneschal Boxton’ (‘The Seneschal Buxton). A seneschal was a steward or estate official, suggesting that the individual celebrated by this painted cloth had served in such an office. There may also be some significance, that the prominent coat of arms in the Achievement is impaled, which is the technical description for the combination of two coats of arms. The two coats of arms here are those of the husband, the Seneschal Buxton, in the dexter half (the left as we view it) and his unidentified wife on the sinister half (the right as we view it). There is clearly a fascinating story here, but one almost entirely lost to us.
Paintings on fabric were produced in the medieval and Renaissance periods in large quantities - we know this thanks to documentary evidence such as house inventories. Painted cloths, as they were called, were an inexpensive way to decorate a home (in place of extremely expensive woven tapestries). They were also displayed at pageants, civic and religious processions, and at family events such as christenings, weddings, and funerals. They could be painted relatively quickly and cheaply using glue-size. This is a painting technique where pigment is fixed to the surface with the use of gelatine glue; it is still used today in theatrical scenery painting. These painted cloths were not generally made to last, and their quality could vary.
The immense significance of The Buxton Achievement therefore lies not only in its survival, when so many other works in textile have perished, but also due to its unusual and imaginative subject matter. The meaning of the picture would be unknown to us if it were not for an engraving made in 1804, which records the now-lost Latin inscriptions that were originally written on the scrolls.
The possible portrait of the Seneschal Buxton is accompanied by what could have been his life’s motto: ‘Whatever you undertake, do it as well as you can’. The patron and his family arms are accompanied by a complex composition of secular and classical themes relating to human life and destiny. These would have encouraged viewers to live a good life, but also reminded them of their mortality.
The complete picture of human life is represented by allegorical opposites. On either side of the presumed patron are the figures of Day (dies) and Night (nox). Below, on either side of the coat of arms, the figures of Life (vita) and Death (mors) look out of the open windows. The inscriptions remind the viewer that, because life will one day come to an end, it is essential to rejoice in good times now.
Perhaps the most fascinating and evocative scenes are located at the bottom of the picture, where the theme of the ages of man is depicted. Three figures representing the Fates from Classical mythology are shown here. On the left Clotho unwinds the thread of life; she is accompanied by a charming depiction of a little boy riding a hobby horse. In the centre Lachesis dances with a young man. On the right, Atropos continues to unravel the thread of life of an older, bearded man. The scrolls originally read: ‘Clotho gives the thread of life, Lachesis the fortune, Atropos the end’. The fashionable dresses of the Fates, including Lachesis’ Italian brocade dress and Atropos’ butterfly headdress, allow the painting to be dated to around1470.
The Buxton Achievement is unusual because, although many other works address the themes of armorial display, human life, and the ages of man, no other known late medieval work of art combines all three themes in a single composition. This makes the Achievement a remarkable survival. The non-religious character of the subject matter is also of crucial importance. It means our painting is a rare secular survival from the time where the Church was the leading patron of the arts.
The survival and relatively good condition of our ‘painted cloth’ is due, in large part, to the ambitions of one family—the Norfolk Buxtons. The painting was presented to the Norwich Museums by Mrs Maud Buxton in 1929. The Buxton family tradition believed that the painting was given to them by their patron the Duke of Norfolk as part of his loot from the Benedictine nunnery at Bungay, after the dissolution of the priory in 1537. What is not in doubt is the significance of the painted cloth in the broader history of the Buxton family. By the early seventeenth century, and certainly by 1613, the family appear to have appropriated the coat of arms in the painted cloth as their own.