Great British Architects: John Morow

John Morew was an important figure in the history of medieval Scottish architecture.

John Moreau is a figure less significant for what he built than for what he represents: the discovery of Scottish architecture at a crucial moment in its history to continental influence. In the mid-14th century, the Anglo-Scottish Wars damaged many of Scotland’s great churches and put an end to all major building projects. However, from the 1390s a remarkable architectural renaissance began, laying the foundations for the late medieval tradition of Scottish buildings.

Moreau was closely involved in this process and his work reflects the growing influence of French (rather than English) architecture in Scotland. All that is known for certain about Moreau’s career comes from an inscription in the great Cistercian abbey at Melrose. This explains that he was born in Paris and was responsible for “all the stone work of St. Andrews, the high kirk of Glasgow, Melrose and Paisley, Nithsdale and Galloway”. Recent research, especially by Richard Fawcett and Christopher Wilson, has helped uncover something about his career.

Nave, north and south aisles at Melrose Abbey, circa 1880 (1897). From The Ruined Abbeys of Britain by Frederick Ross. [William Mackenzie, London, 1897] Artist Alexander Francis Lydon. (Photo courtesy of Print Collector/Getty Images)

John Moreau’s training

Apart from the recorded details of his birth in Paris, nothing is known with certainty about Jean Moreau’s early life and training (as he was presumably first known). However, the technical details in his attributed work suggest that he was familiar with a series of building works undertaken by Charles V of France and his brothers between about 1360 and 1400.

Among these operations were alterations to the castle of Saumur, and it seems likely that Moreau was directly connected with them: not only are there certain connections between Moreau’s Scottish work and this building, but the architecture of this city seems to have been otherwise familiar to him.

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If Moreau was trained in the orbit of French royal works under the chief royal master mason Raymond du Temple, he was nonetheless also aware of architectural developments elsewhere. For example, his repertoire of window lace patterns is based on the example of Petr Parler, head mason of the Prague Cathedral in 1352 and a highly influential figure in Central European architecture.

Scottish practice

How and under what circumstances Moreau came to Scotland is not clear, but a large movement of Senior Freemasons is well documented throughout the Middle Ages. Similarly, in 15th-century Scotland there is evidence of importation of other skills: records of a legal dispute in 1441 show that the monks of Melrose not only made their choirs in Bruges, but also expected the city’s master carpenter to arrive. and install them.

The Melrose inscription suggests that Moreau built an extensive practice much like modern master masons in England: he was apparently employed by a group of large church organizations as their professional building adviser.

It is still possible to identify what are likely fragments of his work, apart from one of the sites mentioned in Melrose’s inscription: Glasgow and St Andrews Cathedrals, Paisley Abbey and Linkluden (“Knitsdale”) Collegiate Church. The reference to “Galloway” is ambiguous, but may refer to Whithorn.

St Andrew’s Cathedral, St Andrews, Scotland.

All reliably identified buildings share a common technical similarity. Melrose, Paisley and Linkluden have similar curved openwork patterns which are otherwise very unusual in Scotland. These include triangles with outward-curved sides. Meanwhile, in Melrose, Linkluden and Glasgow there are sculptures of crouched prophets. Similar figures, again, are unknown in Scotland, but common in French architecture of the time.

Something about Morow’s high position is strongly evidenced by the fact that he was allowed to keep such eminent monuments for himself at Melrose. It is not known when he died.

Originally published in Country Life in 2009.

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