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Tristram, E. W.

    Full Name: Tristram, E. W.

    Other Names:

    • Ernest William Tristram

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1882

    Date Died: 1952

    Place Born: Caracas, Distrito Capital, Venezuela

    Place Died: Newton Abbot, Devon, England, UK

    Home Country/ies: United Kingdom

    Subject Area(s): Medieval (European)


    English medievalist art historian; painter. Tristram was the son of Francis William Tristram and Sarah Harverson. His father was a railway inspector. He attended grammar school in Carmarthen, where he excelled in both chemistry and studio art. Tristram went to the Royal College of Art on a scholarship, studying under the medievalist scholar and artist W. R. Lethaby. As a student, he visited France and Italy on a travel scholarship, studying the medieval works for their ornament in preparation for this design degree. He documented his trip with hundreds of watercolor copies of the monuments he saw (now in the Victoria and Albert Museum and Buckfast Abbey, Devon). After graduation he joined the Royal College of Art in 1906, rising through the teaching ranks. He became a Roman Catholic in 1914. Tristram married Mary Esther Hedgecock (b. 1892/3) in 1920, but the marriage was annulled. His copies of medieval art were exhibited as part of the British primitives exhibition at Burlington House in 1923 and in a catalog written in 1924 by the National Gallery curator W. G. Constable. Tristram developed a fascination with medieval wall painting, combining his knowledge of art materials from his studio training with his knowledge of the monuments. He published an early thesis on the subject, “English Methods of Wall Painting” in 1924. In 1925 he was appointed professor of design at the Royal College. A second article on the wall paintings of a church in Northamptonshire was written with Monty James in Archaeologia in 1926. The following year, English Medieval Painting, written with Tancred Borenius, appeared. Tristram provided the images and much of the analysis. His accomplishment replaced the by then outdated third edition of C. F. Keyser’s A List of Buildings in Great Britain and Ireland Having Mural and other Painting Decorations (1883). In 1934 he married a student of the Royal College, Eileen Maude (b. 1902/3). During this time, he also began the restoration and “cleaning” of the wall painting he documented. Unfortunately, the general knowledge of chemistry of conservation was poor and Tristram was responsible for some damage. He documented and conserved the wall painting in Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, and Buckinghamshire. He reported on conservation of medieval monuments to The Times (London), the Burlington Magazine and to the Walpole Society for most of the pre-World War II years. In 1944 and 1950 Tristram published first two volumes of English Medieval Wall Painting, for the Pilgrim Trust and the Courtauld Institute of Art. The volumes, which covered wall painting for the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, were his finest effort and comprised a serious inventory of British medieval in situ painting. He retired emeritus from the College in 1948. Tristram died in a nursing home in 1952. The third volume of English Medieval Wall Painting, for the fourteenth century, was published postumously in 1955, by his wife and Monica Bardswell. English Medieval Painting (1927) showed both Tristram’s skills and limitations as an art historian. His dating, based on style and intuition than documentary evidence, proved faulty at times. He erred in his interpretation of some of the scenes due to a lack of medieval hermeneutics. His methods for cleaning and conserving painting damaged some of his projects. His use of wax as a fixative for mural painting prevented the walls from breathing (allow moisture out). His conservation work at Westminster, in which he cleaned and conserved the coronation chair, and the newly discovered wall paintings of the incredulity of St. Thomas and St. Christopher, is particularly admired.

    Selected Bibliography

    and Borenius, Tancred. English Medieval Painting. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1929; English Medieval Wall Painting. volume 1. London: H. Milford/Oxford University Press, 1944, volume 2. London: H. Milford/Oxford University Press, 1950; and Tristram, Eileen, and Bardswell, Monica. English Wall Painting of the Fourteenth Century. London: Routledge & Paul, 1955.


    Harvey, J. C. “Tristram, Ernest William.” Dictionary of Art; Rouse, E. C. and Mitchell, Rosemary, “Tristram, Ernest William (1882-1952).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; [obituary:] The Times (London) January 12 1952.


    "Tristram, E. W.." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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