Angels in waiting

10 Nov 2017

Hi, my name is Philip Wise and I am the Heritage Manager at Colchester + Ipswich Museums. I’m also the curator of the new exhibition at Christchurch Mansion – ‘Thomas Wolsey: Ipswich’s greatest son’.

Thomas Wolsey has been a large part of my life for three years now. In the summer of 2014 I first became aware that the Victoria and Albert Museum were fundraising to purchase the four angel figures, intended for the tomb of Cardinal Wolsey who died in 1530. From this starting point grew the idea of organising a major exhibition about Wolsey in his home town of Ipswich.


Wolsey’s Angels are amazing. The cardinal insisted on the best that money could buy. For his tomb there could only be one artist – the Italian, Benedetto da Rovezzano, who had at one time worked with Michelangelo. Now in England, Benedetto had the vision and expertise that Wolsey needed. His design was unparalleled – it was on a massive scale and used the most expensive materials, gilded bronze and marble.


The first step was to approach the V&A with a request to borrow the Angels. This was approved and I began to think about what else we could include in the exhibition. An obvious choice was the portrait of Wolsey in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Although painted some years after his death, this is thought to be based on a lost earlier portrait and is accepted as a good likeness.

Later my colleague, Elle Root suggested that we borrow two documents relating to the school, Cardinal College, which Wolsey founded in Ipswich in 1528. These were the foundation charter held by The National Archives and the statutes, or school rules, now kept at Christ Church College, Oxford which was also originally founded by Wolsey. Both loans were approved and we had the core of the exhibition.


Much reading about Wolsey then followed, because although I had done the Tudors for A level, my knowledge was a bit rusty. I also visited the V&A twice to see the Angels on display and even managed a trip to Leicester Abbey to see the site of Wolsey’s grave.

The Wolsey exhibition has taken me into new areas of activity and involved finding solutions to various curatorial and design challenges. Chief amongst these has been how to display the angels to meet the V&A’s requirements for presentation and security. The V&A were clear that the Angels should be displayed slightly above head height and in such a way that they were out of the reach of gallery visitors. Any display solution also had to ensure the stability of the angels on their plinths. After much consideration by the design team led by Darren Stevens it was decided to commission a purpose-built platform formed of a steel framework clad in wood to support the Angels.

This may be the first exhibition anywhere in the country to focus specifically on Thomas Wolsey. It has been a very exciting project and I have greatly enjoyed bringing the Angels to Ipswich.


Where will your adventure start?