An Unusual Memorial

Object 61: A History of Charterhouse in 100 Objects

Few Carthusians stop to give the strange stone cylinder in the centre of Scholars’ Court a second glance and yet it is an ancient artefact, many centuries older than the surrounding buildings. It is in fact a well-head, carved from Istrian stone in North-East Italy in about the 11th to 12th Century BC.

The decorative reliefs carved into the stone are typical of early Medieval Venetian designs and similar well-heads can still be seen throughout Venice. The cylinder features seven arches, each one containing a different motif. The clover-leaf scroll, fern, cross and rosette motifs are widely found in architectural decoration across Northern Italy. Above the arches is a band of interlaced strands, topped by a wave-crest pattern; the arches sit above another band with a wave-crest design.

If you look carefully at the square base you will realise that it does not match the cylindrical well-head sitting on top: the recess in which the well-head sits is slightly too large, suggesting that the two parts were not originally made for each other. Experts believe that the base was originally used on its own to frame the top of a well - the stone has been worn by ropes as water was hauled from below. The small bowls scooped out in two of the corners were a common feature of well-heads in Venice, serving as drinking bowls for animals and birds. The more fancy cylindrical well-head is similar stylistically, but has clearly been added to the base at a later date.

So how did the well-head come to be at Charterhouse? It was probably brought to England by art dealers in the 19th century and it was given to the School in 1959 (as the Latin inscription on the lid explains) as a memorial to an Old Carthusian, James Frederick Macleod Prinsep (Weekites 1874- 1878). James Prinsep was an exceptional sportsman, playing for the Charterhouse Cricket and Football 1st XI teams, and in 1879, aged only 17, he played in the England Football team - he held the record as the youngest England player until Wayne Rooney made his debut in 2003. James Prinsep’s son inherited two very similar well-heads from a cousin: he presented the larger one to Charterhouse and sold the smaller one to a retired beak, who installed it in the garden of his family home near the School.

Charterhouse 1st XI Football team (Prinsep back, 3rd from right)

Next time you are walking through Scholars’ Court take a closer look at the intricate designs created by stonemasons in Medieval Venice and check out the inscription to Charterhouse Football legend, James Prinsep.

For more information see: "Two Medieval Venetian Well-Heads in England" by Paul Hetherington (Estratto Arte Veneta Annata XXXIV, 1980).