Icknield Indagations

Church architecture in Hertfordshire and elsewhere, art, books, and whatever crosses my path

Thursday, 24 December 2020

Abbots Langley church, Herts: a quarter of a million pounds monument

I write this as Covid seems to be upping its game, condemning us to a bleak early winter, which will perhaps extend to equally bleak mid and late winters and, who knows, a bleak spring. I find some comfort and escape in looking through photos I took and notes I made when life was more innocent, and in writing about churches that will, I trust, remain whatever else changes. Maybe you will find some comfort and escape in reading about them.


According to Matthew Paris (a monk in 13th century St Albans, a writer and artist and one of the most fascinating people of his period) Nicholas Breakspear, the only English pope, was born in Abbots Langley. On the other hand, Paris also said that Breakspear's father was called Robert when in fact his name was Richard, so we can't assume he's always correct. Nevertheless, Abbots Langley is proud to boast of Breakspear, who was born sometime in the early 12th century, as the local-boy-who-done-good. In fact, he left England soon after being ordained as a priest, probably aged about 20, and spent most of the rest of his life in France, Spain, Scandinavia and Rome. But he seems to have remembered his home county with affection as he granted numerous privileges to St Albans Abbey. 


His papacy, which began with his election, as Adrian IV, in December 1154, came at a difficult time, as shown by the undignified spat that arose between him and Frederick Barbarossa, the newly elected Holy Roman Emperor, the following June. Frederick was keen to have his position cemented by being crowned by the Pope, but at the same time was determined to show that he was the one with the true power. When the two first met Frederick refused to ceremonially lead Breakspear's horse and help him dismount. Breakspear retaliated by refusing the Emperor the kiss of peace. I like to imagine them, arms tightly crossed and lips pouting, stubbornly saying 'Shan't' to all entreaties from their advisers. 


It took more than a week for things to be patched up enough for the coronation to go ahead. The Pope must have smugly thought that he'd got the upper hand as the Emperor did lead his horse, but when it came down to it Frederick casually abandoned any allegiance he may have explicitly or implicitly promised. He failed to come to Breakspear's rescue when King William of Sicily threatened the Papal States from the south, and, as at the time many of the citizens of Rome were hostile to the papacy, the pope found himself a virtual exile in Tivoli, some miles outside the city.


However, altogether the only English pope is considered to have done a reasonably good job in trying circumstances; at least he managed to keep the Church more or less united. After his death in 1159 the papacy was riven with internecine squabbling and for 20 years there were rival popes jockeying for power. 



Unfortunately there's nothing in Abbots Langley church from Breakspear's lifetime. The first and oldest things the visitor sees on entering are the two bay late Norman nave arcades, which probably date from thirty or forty years later, the reign of Richard I (1089-99), which was in its own way just as fractious as Breakspear's.* The turbulent times don't seem to have prevented church building taking place in the county, for example the nave of Hemel Hempstead, which was probably constructed just before Abbot Langley's, or that of Kimpton, just after.



The arches are handsomely decorated with billet moulding (like a cable which has had numerous short sections chopped out of it) and chevrons (a sequence of shark's-teeth triangles), which point away from the wall rather than, as is more common, into the middle of the arch. 



Most of the piers have scalloped capitals, though the one above is surely more properly called a trumpet capital as the cones terminate in circles, not semi-circles, giving the impression that a heavenly fanfare is being blasted across the church.



However, the south pier has a very different capital. Bettley/Pevsner, in The Buildings of England, say 'the pier was renewed in the early 13th century with a shallow stiff-leaf capital'. The pier looks identical to that on the north; why renew it with one just the same? It would have been an awful lot of work for very little result. Wouldn't even just renewing the capital have been a fairly major engineering project? The Victoria County History says 'The capital of the middle pillar of this arcade is carved with good foliage without a trace of romanesque feeling; it may have been reworked, but in view of the date of the arcade the carving may be contemporary and an early example' (i.e. of stiff-leaf). We can only speculate, of course, but let's leave open the possibility that this capital is, as the VCH suggests, not a later replacement but a precursor of the Early English style that was dominant in the 13th century.**




In the early 13th century the lower stage of the tower was built, and the tower arch is acutely pointed in the then very new Gothic manner. It has two quite freely-carved stiff-leaf capitals. Early Early [sic] English foliage carvings tend to be very unnaturalistic in their rigid poses, but these (like, possibly, the capital of the south nave pier) seem to be signs of things to come.






The next major building phase in the early 14th century resulted in the south chapel, which is best appreciated from the outside. The display of flint and limestone chequerwork is probably the best in the county, and is a very welcome improvement on the numerous plain flint churches that dominate the whole of the east of England. 


The two south windows each have a spherical triangle containing a sexfoil in their tracery (yet another forward thinking motif), while the east window is a clear development of Early English intersecting tracery. All three lights have a small arch at the level of the springing, and the mullions divide into two as they branch and spread, crossing over near the top, creating six shapes in the tracery. Each shape is foliated. It's a simple design, nothing like as complex as many of the windows created during the lamentably short-lived Decorated period, but it has poise.*** Compare it to the bog-standard-boring 15th century Perpendicular window in the flanking chancel. I suppose they called it progress and said you had to keep up with the times.








At the west end of the south aisle there's a monument to the first Lord Raymond, Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench and Baron of Abbots Langley, who died in 1733.**** In 1729 he presided over the case of Thomas Woolston, who was tried for blasphemy, having written books maintaining that the Bible must be interpreted allegorically rather than literally (for example, he questioned the literal resurrection of Christ). He was found guilty, and Raymond sentenced him to one year's imprisonment and heavy fines. He couldn't pay them and thus had to stay in prison, where he died in January 1733. Less than two months later Raymond followed him; maybe Raymond was able to pompously lecture Woolston about how wrong he was when they met in a literal Heaven, or maybe not. (In England and Wales blasphemy laws were in force until 2008; they had been largely quiescent for many decades before then, though the editor of the magazine Gay News was given a suspended prison sentence for the crime as late as 1976.)


Raymond leans on a pile of books and holds the Magna Carta. He seems very self-satisfied, holding out his left hand to a putto, deferentially crouched, who offers him a coronet. He doesn't deign to look at the poor young servant, but turns his head away in what looks like a deliberate snub. I suppose anyone with a wig as splendid as his is likely to have his self-importance go to his head.


His wife sits next to and behind him, looking down on him and holding a portrait medallion of their son. Her expression is inscrutable. What is she thinking as she surveys him?


The monument (which allegedly cost £1000, the equivalent of a quarter of a million today, an extraordinary sum if true*****) is prominently signed by Westby Gill (1678-1745), who was an architect and master carpenter. However, he only designed it; the hard work of actually carving it was down to Henry Cheere (1703-81), who was knighted in 1760 and created a baronet in 1766. Nevertheless, he signs it rather modestly. Raymond could have learned a thing or two from him. 





Raymond's son, the second (and last) Lord Raymond, who died in 1756, is commemorated in this monument by Peter Scheemakers (1691-1781), a Fleming who became one of the most prominent sculptors in Britain in the 18th century. On the left a figure representing Plenty, with a fruit-filled cornucopia in her lap, decorously dabs her eyes with her hanky, while on the right Hope refuses to give in to such girly emotionalism and grasps her anchor steadfastly.




My favourite monument is this one, to Dame Anne Raymond (d.1715), the first Lord Raymond's mother. She sits mournfully, reading a book held in her right hand; her left hand has the fingers broken off but she appears to be making an enigmatic gesture by raising her hand, palm first, to the viewer as if to say 'Keep back'. Her square-toed shoes project out of the 'frame' of the composition. 


She sits within a Corinthian aedicule, entirely typical of its period in its cool classicism, but beneath her are three naively conceived and carved wickerwork cribs, representing three of her grandchildren 'Who all dyed within few weeks after theyr Births'. They could come from a monument a century older. 



In the north aisle is this unusual and eye-catching monument to Ambrose George Armstrong, who died in 1894, aged 11. It was designed by his grieving father, Thomas, who was the Director of Art at the Department of Science and Art (which became the Royal College of Art in 1896) in South Kensington. The inscription at the bottom means 'May the angels lead him into Paradise.' In the middle is a lunette with a painted alabaster portrait head of young Ambrose. The two panels are painted plaster; on the left the young Christ disputing with the Doctors in the Temple, and on the right the Rest on the Flight into Egypt, both subjects suitable for a child. 



At the top are the figures of St Ambrose, pen in hand, and St George, who's in the act of killing the dragon. They were carved by Ruby Levick (1871-1940) who was a student at the time, and are apparently portraits of Ambrose's godfathers, which is very touching even though the figures are really too small to distinguish their facial features. The Corinthian pilasters and quantities of gilding make this a very imposing object.


15th century stained glass showing St Lawrence with a gridiron, the instrument of his martyrdom
 











The east window of the south chapel (with the Decorated tracery discussed above) contains 1911 stained glass by James Powell and Sons. It's a Benedicite, in which all of Creation praises God. There are nine scenes within the lush swirling monochrome foliage, including a starlit, icicle-threatened snowy landscape and church in the top left, a valley thick with corn centre middle, an angel sending fertile rain to the pasture top right, and a manically staring Moses with his eyes boring mercilessly into the viewer's bottom right. Altogether it's a magnificent Edwardian Arts and Crafty work.



The two other windows in the south chapel are also worth a look. This one is quite early, c.1842, by Robert Morrow (he signs it with his initials). He's an obscure figure, not featuring in Martin Harrison's Victorian Stained Glass. This window depicts scenes from the life of Christ; it's very effective from a distance with its blues and reds, though close up the drawing is rather crude.



This one is by Hardman and Co, 1870, depicting (I think) the Parable of the Talents and the Good Samaritan. By the mid-Victorian period the production of stained glass had reached a high level of competence and confidence, which can be seen when comparing this window with Morrow's slightly tentative work.








In the nave there are ten terrific 15th century corbels (though for some reason I have photographs of only six of them). The Statutory Listing says they've been renewed, but I can't see any reason to think that; they look untouched to me. Many of them stick their tongues out and grin, one mouth-puller among them. They're an amusing and intriguing bit of folk art, an entertaining contrast to the solemn, sometimes grandiose, monuments over which they preside.


The first time I visited Abbots Langley church, in 1994, there was a large and aggressively worded notice in the porch forbidding photography. I'm glad to say that on my most recent visit that was gone, and that the church was open and welcoming.



* Witness for example the rebellion in 1196 in London led by William Fitz Osbert (also known as William with the long beard), one of the first significant popular uprisings in English history. This was aimed at the wealthy (though not the monarchy) and allegedly attracted a following of 52,000. Predictably it didn't end well; he was torn apart by chains attached to horses, alongside nine accomplices. Many saw him as a martyr; half a century later Matthew Paris, with whom this account began, regarded him as a hero.


** I've just spent half an hour trying to find a date for the first use of stiff-leaf, without success. I have books about Saxon, Norman, Decorated and Perpendicular architecture, but nothing on Early English (is there one?), which is where I'd be most likely to find the answer. Eric Fernie's The Architecture of Norman England (Oxford, 2000) has a paragraph about how 'changing tastes from the 1150s to the 1180s' affected capitals, which mentions stiff-leaf, but the only example given is of Glastonbury Abbey in the early 13th century. He doesn't state or imply that this is the earliest example. It's entirely possible that no one knows when and where stiff-leaf was first used.


*** I've tried to explicate some of the complexities of Dec tracery here.


**** The inscription says 1732, but this is because Britain was still using the old Julian calendar in which the year begins on March 25th, and he died on March 18th. See the footnote here.


***** Surely it can't be true that this monument cost £1000. Another monument  by Cheere, that to Captain Philip de Sausmarez who died in 1747, cost £270.  (It's in Westminster Abbey; you can see it here.) Admittedly it's smaller and less elaborate than the Raymond monument, having no large figures, only two putti and a portrait medallion, though the pedestal and background are fancier. Even so, it's hard to believe that the monument in Abbots Langley cost almost four times as much as the one in the Abbey. Another monument in the Abbey, that to Admiral Vernon who died in 1757 (see here), cost £650, and it's roughly comparable in size and complexity to Raymond's.  I think we must conclude that the figure of £1000 is a pious exaggeration, similar to the claim sometimes made about the Saunders monument in Flamstead, Herts.












Sunday, 13 December 2020

Inigo Jones' chancel screen for Winchester cathedral, now in Cambridge

 

Over the last few days I've been writing a post about the Gothic Survival and Oxhey chapel. It seems to be an appropriate time to take a look at what styles, other than Gothic, could have been available to those who designed and built it. 

Classical forms of architecture, filtered through various European Renaissance styles, began to arrive in England from the 1520s, and by the 1570s were well established. However, the few church buildings, or additions to existing medieval churches, of the latter half of the 16th century continued to be mostly in a simplified form of Gothic (with occasional exceptions, such as the west porch of Sunningwell, Berks, of c.1551, which combines Renaissance details with Gothic).


The first English architect to fully embrace classicism was Inigo Jones (1573-1652). He built the first fully classical church in the country, St Paul's, Covent Garden, in 1631. From 1634 to 1642 he was involved in repairing Old St Paul's Cathedral, including building an entirely new classical west front (which was of course destroyed, along with the rest of the cathedral, in the Great Fire of 1666). 

Much less well-known than either of these projects is Jones' chancel screen for Winchester Cathedral, made in 1637-8. It's little-known because it was removed in 1820 and replaced by a stone Gothic screen designed by William Garbett. Garbett's work lasted only half a century before being in turn replaced by a wooden Gothic screen designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott.

Engraving by G. Woodfield, from S. Gale's History of the Cathedral Church of Winchester, 1715, reproduced in English Cathedrals: The Forgotten Centuries, by Gerald Cobb




Steel engravings from John Britton's The History and Antiquities of the See and Cathedral Church of Winchester, 1820

Pictures survive to enable us to see what it looked like in situ. I think it suits the space rather handsomely. When it was replaced, fortunately it wasn't destroyed but put into store in the crypt.

In 1910 Sir Thomas Graham Jackson (1835-1924) was hired to build the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge. He was already, from 1899, the consulting architect for Winchester Cathedral, and had the idea that the central section of Jones' screen could be incorporated into the fabric of the new building. And that's where it remains today, accompanied by anthropological artefacts from around the world.*










The reconstructed central section, comprising a little more than a third of the whole (the rest is still in the crypt), lacks the urns and also, most unfortunately, the symbolic female figures reclining on the pediment seen in the Woodfield picture. (One of the Britton pictures (though not the other) also shows the urns.)

Given that this is a pioneering work, it's surprising that it's so confident and accomplished. Jones had been to Italy in the party of Lord and Lady Arundel in 1613-14, and took with him his copy of Palladio's 1570 book Quattro Libri dell'Architettura, in which he made notes. (This copy still exists in the library of Worcester College, Oxford.) He clearly learnt a great deal from this experience, and this is reflected in the Winchester screen. Not only is the design absolutely convincing, but also the workmanship; the mason or masons who carved it must have been very familiar with the conventions of the Corinthian order (or Jones was able to direct them very well).

When Jones erected the screen in 1637-8 it was presumably admired by the educated. (It's hard to know what 'ordinary' people thought about it as they have left fewer records.) Everything associated with ancient Greece and Rome was considered refined and emblematic of civilisation. Medieval art and architecture came to be seen as coarse and even barbaric. The term 'Gothic' was originally used (in the later 17th century) as an insult (as we use 'vandal' as an insult today). Consequently throughout the 18th century styles of architecture based on classical models dominated.

This began to change in the mid 18th century, when the picturesque elements of Gothic began to be appreciated. But as late as 1771 Tobias Smollett, in his novel The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker, could write these words:

As for the Minster, I know not how to distinguish it, except by its great size and the height of its spire, from those other ancient churches in different parts of the kingdom, which used to be called monuments of Gothic architecture; but it is now agreed, that this stile is Saracen rather than Gothic; and, I suppose, it was first imported into England from Spain, great part of which was under the dominion of the Moors. ...

The external appearance of an old cathedral cannot be but displeasing to the eye of every man, who has any idea of propriety or proportion, even though he may be ignorant of architecture as a science; and the long slender spire puts one in mind of a criminal impaled with a sharp stake rising up through his shoulder—These towers, or steeples, were likewise borrowed from the Mahometans; who, having no bells, used such minarets for the purpose of calling the people to prayers—They may be of further use, however, for making observations and signals; but I would vote for their being distinct from the body of the church, because they serve only to make the pile more barbarous, or Saracenical.

These are the opinions of a character, Mr Bramble, not necessarily those of Smollett. He's writing (as it's an epistolary novel) about York Minster; the reference to a spire is puzzling as although the central tower did once have a wooden spire it was long gone by 1771. Perhaps Smollett hadn't actually seen York, or was mixing it up with somewhere else. Bramble is rather irascible and also criticises the Georgian architecture of Bath, but there must have been plenty of people at the time who shared his view that Gothic is 'displeasing to the eye of every man, who has any idea of propriety or proportion'.

In the 19th century the vogue changed again, and classical architecture gradually declined in status while Gothic, which was being properly studied for the first time, came to be seen as the true expression of the British. In his 1820 book about Winchester Cathedral John Britton wrote this:


That's telling it straight! 

Consequently, as we've seen, the screen was dumped.

At first it was thought sophisticated and beautiful, then 'bad' and 'unsightly'. In the 20th century tastes changed again and it was rescued from its ignoble descent into the crypt and obscurity. Now it's on public display, but who knows how many people know it's there or look at it. Thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges.




* Currently (until March 2021) near the screen is a small exhibition of contemporary woven mats made by Asman people of Papua, Indonesia (see here). They're Catholic, and their take on traditional Christian iconography is very eye-catching. In this Nativity scene, for example, the animals come to worship include fish, lizards, a jellyfish and a lobster. From now on I just don't think any lobsterless Nativity scene will cut the mustard. In fact I'm going to recruit a team of daredevil interventionist artists who are going to roam the country undercover, equipped with sacks of model crustaceans, intent on infiltrating a lobster into every Nativity in the land.