Waterleaf and Flat Leaf capitals

Waterleaf and flat leaf capitals are closely related forms that enjoyed a brief heyday in the last quarter of the 12th century in England. The simpler flat leaf capital has a concave bell bearing a broad flat leaf at each angle. The leaves have pointed tips above broad shoulders and taper down to a shared collar. Between each pair the gap has a rounded lower termination. The leaves themselves are usually keeled.  Waterleaf is similar except that the tips of the leaves are turned inwards. The rim of the bell of the capital is sometimes visible between the tips of the leaves.  While I am happy with this description I am also aware that pictures do the job much better:


A flat leaf capital at St Nicholas, Kennett (Cambridgeshire)


A waterleaf capital at St John the Baptist, Healaugh, West Riding. Copyright Rita Wood and the CRSBI.

Typically for transitional capitals there is a smooth transition from the slender shafts to the bell of the capital, interrupted by the necking.

The waterleaf design can be multiplied on wide arcade capitals


Repeated waterleaf designs on a nave arcade capital at All Saints, Ravenstone (Buckinghamshire)

The two forms can even form overlapping registers, as on the S doorway at Kenton (Suffolk).


S doorway capital at All Saint, Kenton (Suffolk)

The church of St Thomas at Ramsey (Huntingdonshire) is convincingly dated to the 1180s, and offers an insight into the possibilities of waterleaf and flat leaf designs. It will also be noted that keeled shafts and waterleaf often go together.


Variations of waterleaf in the Ramsey nave arcades

Before its appearance in England, waterleaf (feuille d’eau) was commonly found in mid-12th century French Cistercian abbeys such as Senanque (Vaucluse, founded 1148) and Silvacane (Bouches du Rhone, founded 1144), and from this context it reached Cistercian houses in England, notably Fountains Abbey (North Yorkshire) whence it was rapidly dispersed throughout the north of England.


Waterleaf cloister capitals at Senanque (Vaucluse). Creative Commons ‘Chapiteau en feuille d’eau. Auteur: Greudin’

At the same time, but probably independently, it appeared, not on capitals but on the bases of William of Sens’s work at Canterbury after the fire of 1174,. From here it spread to Kent, on similar bases at the ruined abbey of Lesnes, founded by Richard de Lucy in 1178, and Sussex, e.g. at New Shoreham in the late-12th century chancel arcading.  In fact it became so widespread in this country that there is probably no English county without waterleaf capitals. The map below shows the distribution of waterleaf capitals in England taken from the Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture website. Gaps in the distribution of waterleaf capitals are likely to represent areas not yet recorded.


Distribution of waterleaf capitals in England according to the CRSBI website

A close reading of the Pevsner architectural guides suggests that the great man may have had had an alternative derivation for the motif in mind, based on a variation of the Romanesque volute capital in which the volutes spiral inwards instead of out as at St Michael’s in Toseland, but visually this seems a world away from the true waterleaf (as well as being at least 70 years earlier), and there is no evidence I can find of such a development playing out.


A volute capital on the chancel arch at Toseland (Huntingdonshire) said by Pevsner to foreshadow the waterleaf capital

Fonts and pillar piscinas

Capital forms are often used for Romanesque pillar piscina bowls (which are, after all, no more than hollowed-out capitals mounted on shafts), so it is not surprising to find waterleaf and flat leaf capitals used in this way, as at Lambourn (Berkshire). Fonts conceived as oversized capitals are rarer, and the short lifespan of this ornament makes waterleaf font bowls extremely unusual. I have only come across one in my own fieldwork: the rather heavily carved font at Great Wilbraham.


The waterleaf font at St Nicholas, Great Wilbraham (Cambridgeshire)

By 1200 the waterleaf had more or less died out, to be replaced by crocket and stiff-leaf forms, hence its presence suggests a date of c.1175-1200, and it is a useful diagnostic indicator for dating.

Waterleaf capitals have a simple elegance that marks a break from the rich complexity of forms that had gone before.  The idea that the motif is derived from the lotus seems unlikely since that plant is native to southern Asia and was introduced to Europe in 1787 as a stove house water lily by Joseph Banks. It would be surprising if it was intended to represent a specific plant at this date: naturalistic foliage did not begin to appear in Europe until the well into the 13th century at Reims and Naumburg. The term itself was first recorded in a will of 1444, referring to cushions decorated with ‘waterlefe’, although there is no way to know what kind of ornament was being described.  It was used by builders and architects by the later 18th century. The Builders Price Book of 1776 offers a ‘Gothic cornice, 2 members enriched with Water Leaf in Cove and Ovolo’, and from this time onwards it can be traced in an unbroken tradition from the works of architectural writers like Ruskin and Sir George Gilbert Scott.

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2 Responses to Waterleaf and Flat Leaf capitals

  1. Andrew Robert King says:

    Hi – There is an experimental waterleaf capital detail at St Chads Church Seighford, Staffordshire (and also an experimental scroll corner detail ) which appear to have originated from a mistake in a typical 1150’s scalloped capital at the same church. Pevsner originally dated the work to 1150 but changed it to after 1170 because of the presence of the waterleaf – which I am convinced followed directly from the scalloped not later than 1155. The church was built or rebuilt by the Noel family who lived nearby and also built Ranton Abbey two miles away “In the lifetime of Celestria, wife of Noel who came in at the Conquest” – Celestria was the daughter of Bishop Robert de Limesi, 1st Norman Bishop of Lichfield who began rebuilding St Chads Cathedral there in 1085 – I have photos of the capitals concerned if you are interested.


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