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

Monday 24 August 2015

Getting into churches

I first entered a church in autumn 1957. It was All Saints, Leavesden, Herts, a fairly undistinguished effort by George Gilbert Scott of 1853, but I hope I can be forgiven for not assessing its aesthetic merits at the time as I was only a couple of months old and the occasion was my baptism. (I'm not sure why my parents went in for this ceremony as they weren't and aren't religious; I assume their motives were social rather than spiritual.) I must have entered churches occasionally over the next few years as a child and teenager, but the first time I went out of my way to see one was in summer  1976, between A Levels and university. (I went alone, but I was inspired to go by my old English teacher, Ray Winch, with whom I was to visit many more churches in the following decades.) The church in question was St Nicholas, Hurst, Berks. I can't remember much now about the occasion or the church, but it must have made an impression on me because I rapidly became an addict, seeking them out wherever and whenever I could. I got into churches at the age of eighteen or nineteen, and I'm still into them now.

Perhaps one day I'll try to explain (to myself as much as to any readers this blog might have) why I'm so 'into' churches. But what I'm going to write about at the moment is the physical act of getting into a church, of being able to open the door and walk in.

Let me say from the beginning that I appreciate that what I'm asking for (reasonable access to churches) relies on the goodwill and efforts of a large number of people. Churches can't usually be open 24 hours a day, so someone will have to unlock and lock them, or be available to lend the key, which is a responsibility and time-consuming. I've never been responsible for the upkeep of a church, nor have I ever carried out any longterm voluntary effort; a reader of this blog could accuse me of sitting on my sofa tapping away at my laptop demanding that other people get up and do something while doing nothing myself, and I would have to plead guilty to this charge. So I'm going to try not to be too self-righteous. Forgive me if I don't altogether succeed.

Getting into churches really shouldn't be something we even have to consider, let alone write bad-tempered blogs about: nearly all churches should be accessible (during the day, most days) as they're part of our common heritage. They belong to everyone. Our ancestors paid for them and built them, presumably on the understanding that they'd be available to later generations. I accept that a few that contain portable valuables will have to have restricted access, but the others should be accessible, preferably by being kept unlocked, or, if there's a good reason why they can't be left open, reasonable  arrangements for visitors should be made. Permanently locking visitors out of churches is like putting razor wire around village greens.

Perhaps this sounds idealistic but impractical; if churches were open, wouldn't they be robbed and vandalised, and probably burnt to the ground for good measure? But (as I understand) insurers recommend that churches are kept open, because potential burglars and vandals will be deterred by the possibility that someone might walk in and see them. Determined burglars won't be put off by a lock anyway and will break in, causing damage.

Perhaps you're still not convinced. So answer me this: if open churches are going to be robbed and vandalised, why is it that the majority of churches are unlocked* and yet remain largely unrobbed and unvandalised? Consider the case of two churches not too far from Icknield country, St Paul's Walden and Kings Walden. As their names suggest, they're just a few miles from each other (but belong to different benefices). They're both country churches, with just a few nearby houses. I've visited the former many times over the decades, and I've derived great pleasure from doing so. It seems to be always open. The latter, on the other hand, seems to be always locked. I found it open once, about 25 years ago, but since then although I've tried the door when I've been passing several times at different time of the day and week, it's been locked. No information is provided about where the key might be found. What are the custodians of Kings Walden church frightened of? I can't believe that the various villains living in the locality who leave St Paul's Walden alone would decide to descend on Kings Walden, reducing it to an empty and probably charred shell, should it open its door. The answer must be that these villains are much fewer in number, and less active, than some people suppose.

It's the fear, rather than the real likelihood, of crime that keeps churches locked. What message does a locked church send? It says: This is a private club. Keep out. We don't want your sort, thank you very much. (This probably isn't the intended message, but nevertheless this will be what at least some people hear.) If churches are made inaccessible then they're going to lose their place (if they haven't lost it already) at the heart of the community. No one is going to 'get into' churches, as I did in my late teens, if they can't get into them. Why would anyone care about buildings that shut their doors against them? If churches want to become peripheral, forgotten and unloved, permanently locking themselves is a pretty good way of going about it.

A couple of years ago I visited a church in Suffolk on a Sunday afternoon. It was locked, so we phoned the churchwardens, who weren't available, and then the vicar, who agreed to let us in. They arrived a few moments later, so obviously hadn't had to travel far, and let us in, but did so with extraordinarily bad grace. All our pleasantries were rebuffed. They just sat with a face like thunder while we looked around, feeling about as welcome as a couple of recently off-duty chimneysweeps at a white tie ball.

It sounds a bit precious, but it was rather an upsetting experience. I wrote a letter about it, and the wider problem of locked churches, to the papers; only the Telegraph published it. The next day several letters were published in response, mostly saying that I was a naive fool. The one I remember best came from a Lady Something, dripping with patrician contempt for someone like me who presumed to have the right to enter what she clearly regarded as her own personal fiefdom. If she opened her church, people like me would be able to go in, and who knows what mischief we'd get up to. (A couple of days later, more letters on the subject were published, this time mostly taking my side. I even had a phone call from the churchwarden of a church somewhere in Leicestershire who'd taken the trouble to track down my number to say that his church was always open, and that I'd be welcome any time. The online comments were also about fifty-fifty pro and anti locking.)

I'm very grateful to the custodians, even the Lady Somethings, who look after our churches. It must be an at times onerous job, and I'm not sure that I'd be able to do it. Without them  churches would be in an even more perilous state than they are. Could those in charge of locked churches please advertise the whereabouts of keyholders, or times at which the churches are open? I always find that a pleasure shared is a pleasure more than doubled, and I'm sure that the custodians of the many open, welcoming churches get great pleasure out of their communal pride in their buildings, and sharing them with visitors. What pleasure does a permanently locked church bring?

The pictures of church doors are: firstly, the north door of Little Hormead church, Herts, much the best door in the county. It dates from c1150, and has superb ironwork. It is currently undergoing conservation and inaccessible, but is usually accessible via a keyholder.  The photo is from the website of Hugh Harrison Conservation. Secondly, the 14th century west doorway and door of South Mimms church, Herts, with decorative nailheads.  The church is usually locked but accessible via a keyholder. Thirdly, the 15th century south door and doorway of Reed church, Herts. Lastly, the 14th century south door and doorway of Clothall church, Herts. Reed and Clothall are open at all reasonable hours.

*See The Digital Atlas of England Foundation (, the most comprehensive survey of its kind and a superb resource, which reveals that across the country 58% of churches are generally open, which another 12% advertise a keyholder. In Hertfordshire, 66% are generally open (but only 3% advertise a keyholder). See also
from another admirable website, Hertfordshire Churches in Photographs, which does exactly what it says on the tin plus a bit more. 

Friday 21 August 2015

The Grimes Graves Venus - fertility symbol or fake?

The Grimes Graves Venus - British Museum
Writing about the Verulamium Venus last week set me thinking about other famous and not so famous Venuses. The Willendorf Venus is probably the best known of the Paleolithic carvings of (often pregnant) women that were presumably made as fertility symbols ('fertility symbols' is a very simplistic description, but it will do for now).

The Venus of Willendorf - Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna

Several dozen of these figures, the oldest yet discovered being about 35,000 years old, have been found elsewhere in Europe, but none turned up in Britain until 1939.

In July of that year (incidentally, just when Sutton Hoo was being excavated too) archaeologist A.L. (Leslie) Armstrong was digging at Grimes Graves, near Weeting in Norfolk. Grimes Graves is a Neolithic flint mine which operated between about 3000 BCE and 1800 BCE; the flints were distributed by means of the Peddars Way and Icknield Way and used to make tools. Armstrong discovered at the bottom of a mineshaft the Venus figurine sitting on a flat slab of chalk. Nearby were also found a skilfully made chalk bowl, and a sculpted chalk phallus, along with some other artefacts. 

Grimes Graves Venus and phallus - British Museum
These objects were interpreted as being offerings to the Great Goddess, Mother Nature, as thanks for the flints that She had provided, and perhaps in the hope that She would continue to provide if rewarded with offerings. The flat slab of chalk was seen as an altar, and the crudely carved figurine of a heavily pregnant woman, together with the phallus, were taken to be inducements to encourage Her to 'grow' flints in what the Neolithic miners might have thought of as Her womb. 

This all seemed consistent with discoveries of other prehistoric Venuses elsewhere in Europe (and other parts of the world). Some archaeologists formulated the theory that ancient religion was dedicated to worshipping a Mother Goddess rather than God the Father; some went further, and claimed that prehistoric societies were matriarchal rather than patriarchal, with women in charge. Some archaeologists, such as Marija Gimbutas, dedicated their careers to propagating this theory.* It's certainly in some ways a very attractive idea: surely the world must have been a better place when women were in charge - aren't most of the world's problems (we might think) caused by wannabe alpha males? - and maybe if women could be more powerful in the future the world could once again become just and peaceful. As Ronald Hutton drily puts it in Pagan Britain, 'Whether or not there was an "Age of the Goddess" in Neolithic Europe, there certainly was one among European intellectuals in the mid twentieth century.'

The trouble was that all the evidence that could be interpreted to support this theory could very easily be interpreted in other ways. Believing this theory involves an awful lot of wishful thinking rather than hard evidence. Consequently the Great Goddess has drifted out of the critical mainstream in recent decades.

What of the lumpy and ungainly but not unendearing Grimes Grave Venus? The executors of Armstrong's will donated her to the British Museum in 1959 after his death the previous year, and she was put on display where she remained until at least 1998. But there had been doubts about her authenticity (and that of the other artefacts) right from the start (though these apparently didn't reach print until as late as 1986). Rumours circulated at the excavation site, and in the relatively small world of British archaeology, that she was a fake. 

Armstrong's excavation notes from the day when she was discovered are inadequate; on this day the other experienced excavators were absent from the site (apparently because Armstrong had sent them away); the objects look as if they could have been newly carved; their arrangement around an 'altar' just seems too good to be true; although other stone phalluses have been found in Britain, and round objects that might be intended to represent testicles have also been found, as far as I know (but I'm not an expert) no other phallus representing penis and testicles together has been found; no other Venus figurine has been found in Britain. What's more, one of the excavators, Mrs Ethel Rudkin, is known to have carved at least one other small chalk figurine.

In 1983 Kevin Leahy of Scunthorpe Museum met the then 91-year-old Ethel Rudkin. She had been a close friend of Armstrong and a fellow excavator on the Grimes Graves dig. She told Leahy that in 1939, on the day of the discovery, she had been sitting in the car waiting for Armstrong. When he appeared he handed the Venus figurine and phallus to her, asking her to look after them while he went back to the pit. While he was away, she took a nearby piece of chalk and fashioned an approximate copy of the Venus and placed it next to the real one on the car seat. When Armstrong returned and saw what she'd done he was furious. The situation escalated into a row and the end of their relationship.**

Rudkin produced, from under her bed, the copy she'd made in the car 43 years ago and presented it to Leahy as a donation to his museum. (If it's still there I don't know.) However, she insisted that she had no doubts about the authenticity of the figurine found by Armstrong.***

So is the figurine a forgery? As Rudkin showed, it's not hard to carve similar sculptures. Did Armstrong fake the Venus himself, presumably as a way of gaining publicity for his dig and academic kudos for himself? This could explain his anger when presented with Rudkin's copy (perhaps believing that she was mocking him), and why he'd sent the other diggers away. He seems to have kept hold of the figurine for the rest of his life; did he want to keep it away from objective scrutiny? On the other hand, if he was going to forge the figurine, why not forge excavation notes too? What's more, I can't find any suggestion that he was ever suspected of underhand activities, and it seems unlikely that a respected archaeologist would have behaved in such a way.

The consensus of opinion is that Armstrong wasn't the forger, but that he was hoaxed. Someone else made the figurine and placed it for him to find, either as a good-natured joke, or possibly maliciously (though I've no idea why anyone would want to do this). Could this someone have been Rudkin? It's obviously impossible to say. But if I'd perpetuated a famous hoax I'd want, sooner or later, to have my skill and audacity recognised, if only after my death. It's hard to imagine that the hoaxer, if there was one, didn't boast about it to friends, or write something down about it, rather than let their name and their part in the sting vanish. Maybe, however, the hoaxer's intention was to eventually come clean, but they were prevented from doing so because they died; after all, this was summer 1939, and many of the people at the Grimes Graves dig would have gone off to fight in the following months and years, and some of them would have been killed.

On the British Museum website the Curator's Comments end: 'It is unlikely that their status [ie of the Grimes Graves artefacts] will finally be settled until similar objects are found elsewhere, or someone writes their memoirs.' These comments are dated 1990, when it was possible that someone involved in the dig was still alive and might yet spill the beans; a quarter of a century later that possibility has all but disappeared. So we'll just have to wait and see if another British prehistoric Venus ever emerges from the ground.

But is it possible that in the last quarter of a century a scientific test has been developed that could confirm the figurine's status? I have an idea that there is a method of dating objects by determining how long light has been playing on their surfaces. I don't know if this can be used on chalk carvings, but if it can, wouldn't it be good if we could find out if the Venus is 4000 years old, or a mere 76?

And wouldn't all this make a terrific television documentary, one with factual voiceovers and talking heads alternating with slightly dodgy reconstructions with actors no one's ever heard of playing the protagonists? There's the added excitement of having two parallel narratives, one in which the figurine is genuine, the other in which she's a fake. In the former, I can envisage a scene in which Armstrong discovers the Venus with great elation, but then in a dramatic reversal of fortune has the big row with Rudkin in the car. In the latter, the skulduggery of the villain (or villains) will be very entertaining - we could be cheering them along or booing them, whichever the screenwriter decides. It's got everything: a love interest (Armstrong and Rudkin), passion, betrayal, a plucky hero (Armstrong, in version A), a roguish crook (Armstrong, in version B, or Rudkin, or A.N.Other), forgery, men in tweed jackets chewing pipes, and all set against a background of the impending war. And at the climax (assuming that the scientific test is a reality) the truth about the Venus will be revealed. Either she's a fake, so it becomes detective story, or she's real, which is even more exciting. I shall be content with just a small percentage of the proceeds in lieu of a fee when it gets made.

* in The Civilization of the Goddess, 1991, she says of the Grimes Graves Venus and her attendant objects, 'These were all placed in a spent shaft and are clearly a religious feature that must be accepted by even the most intransigent doubters.' An ironical comment given the severe doubts that now plague the artefacts.

** I'm sure I've read elsewhere that not only were Armstrong and Rudkin (though presumably this is her married name and at the time she would have been known by her maiden name) 'close friends' but were actually engaged, and that this row ended their engagement. But unfortunately I can no longer find this reference, so perhaps I've invented this detail.

*** My source for the story about Leahy and Rudkin is Lost Civilisations of the Stone Age by Richard Rudgley, Century, London, 1998. Rudgley however doesn't give his source for the story.

UPDATE 2020: The story of the Grimes Graves Venus has some remarkable parallels with that of an alleged 17,000 year old Venus excavated in Romania in 2019.

Monday 17 August 2015

North Mymms (with a 'y') church

Having recently been to South Mimms, North Mymms seemed the obvious next place to visit. (Apparently South Mimms can be spelt with either an 'i' or a 'y', while North Mymms always takes a 'y'.) I'm glad I did. It's just a mile and a half from the M25, and a mere twenty from Charing Cross; what's more, traffic on the A1(M) rushes past only about 500 yards away. Yet it's almost rustic, set in rolling parkland; you're only distantly aware of the nearby maelstrom.

The church essentially dates from the early 14th century, and is in that subcategory of the Gothic style known as Decorated. Decorated (or 'Dec' as it's familiarly known) is pretty indisputably the best Gothic style; I continue to lament the fact that round about 1350 masons decided to switch to the more austere Perpendicular style.* What were they thinking?** At North Mymms the most noticeable feature of the Dec style is the net-like reticulated tracery in all the windows, but the architecture, attractive though it is, isn't really what makes this church worth going to see. 

In the north aisle there's a tomb-chest of the late 16th century, with the extremely striking figure of a woman incised on the top. The lines are picked out in what is said to be bitumen.

She is naively stylised, especially her face; I think the lack of sophistication in the design is one of the things that gives her so much charm. As well as being stylised, she's very stylish. The sinuous flowers on her sleeves and the cushion on which she rests her head make lovely linear patterns. Her small feet poke impishly out of the bottom of her dress; she has preternaturally long legs. There's an inscription, very worn, running around the edges, and on the sides of the chest some heraldry showing chained bears. The church guide booklet calls it the Beresford tomb, and claims that records state that it commemorates two sisters who died in 1584. The date can't be far wrong, but why one effigy for two people?

In the chancel there's a large monument to John Lord Somers, who was Lord Chancellor under William and Mary and died in 1716.

It's by the highly accomplished Flemish sculptor Peter Scheemakers (he carved the well-known figure of Shakespeare in Westminster Abbey). The woman represents Justice; she holds a pair of scales in one hand and brandishes a scroll (presumably containing laws) aloft with the other. She is dressed in a brilliantly carved and ebullient robe, and is perched precariously on a tomb. She's flanked by genial lions.

The base incorporates a marble door, which once gave access to the burial vault but now leads, tamely, simply to the vestry. I must admit I find this door disconcerting. It's too chthonic for me. It looks as if it might lead straight to (or straight from) the Underworld. There doesn't even seem to be a lock on it.

Next to the Somers monument is a brass; I'm not usually very interested in brasses - they're often too stereotypical - but this one's a corker. It shows a priest, William de Kesteven, who died in 1361 (so his brass is a fairly early example).

He appears to be levitating a chalice. (Originally the brass might have been horizontal rather than vertical, as it is now, which half explains his conjuring trick. But even so, there's often a spatial ambiguity in recumbent effigies, including those carved in the round on tombs: is the figure standing or lying? It might seem obvious that they're lying down if they're recumbent, and after all they represent dead people, but often some little details make it appear that they're standing, such as grass growing at their feet, so their feet are on the ground.)

At the top are intricate canopies; God sits in the central one with William's soul sitting on his lap. Above the canopies are roof tiles, completing an imaginary building.

There are several other monuments and brasses worth a look. I'll mention just one more, in the north aisle, of George Jarvis who died in 1716. His demi-figure is a bit baroquish; his left hand touches the right side of his chest. Normally it would be his right hand touching his heart. I can't explain this oddity. He looks like a southpaw reaching for his wallet.

There are also some fragments of medieval stained glass in the north chapel, mostly heraldic, and three Victorian windows, containing those livid electric colours they were so fond of; but I'm rather partial to them too, so that's all right. In the north aisle there's an Edwardian window, (commemorating a death in 1905), a description that normally would make me shudder and move swiftly on, as the early 20th century was (on the whole) a low point in English stained glass. But I like this one.

The church guide says it's probably by Ernest Heasman (1874-1927), of whom I'd never heard but seems to be a Hertfordshire artist I should know about. (He's not mentioned in Martin Harrison's Victorian Stained Glass.) On the other hand, the indispensable website Church Stained Glass Windows attributes it to Herbert Bryans (1855-1925), a pupil of Clayton and Bell (the second best Victorian firm of stained glass manufacturers, after Morris and Co.). I like the hat in the second of these two pictures. 'Jewel-like' is a standard term to describe stained glass, and it certainly applies here.

North Mymms is an exceptionally welcoming church. It's not only open (despite being isolated and having just a few houses near it) but also has a portable billboard outside welcoming visitors. If only all churches were as friendly. Inside it's a bit murky, because the windows without stained glass have opaque glass. Why? But despite the literal gloom, it feels metaphorically bright and cheerful.

The church is more or less in the grounds of North Mymms House (or Place), a major Elizabethan building, which seems to be completely inaccessible (I think the gardens are open once a year, however). Distant views are the best you can hope for. But you can see this magnificent (?bronze) gate; I assume it's the one Pevsner dates to 1893-4 and calls 'extremely juicy'. A greater contrast to Scheemaker's gateway to the nether regions could scarcely be imagined.

* I make no apologies for being upset about something that happened over six hundred years ago.

** Some claim that they were thinking of the very recent Black Death, and that the exuberance of Dec was no longer appropriate. Maybe they felt that God had been punishing them for being too carefree, and that Dec was a visible expression of this blithe spirit. There's something penitential about some Perp buildings - all those endlessly repeating grid-like windows, for example, ground out like a thousand mumbled paternosters. There could be some truth in this, though as far as I know there's no documentary evidence for it. Against this theory it can be pointed out that early Perp, i.e. immediately after the Black Death, when you'd think they'd be most breast-beating, is often highly exuberant in its own way. The choir of Gloucester cathedral is an obvious example.

Sunday 16 August 2015

Stained glass and monuments in South Mimms (or is is Mymms?) church

South Mimms (sometimes spelt Mymms) is Hertfordshire's most recent colonial annexation. When Middlesex was deemed to no longer exist, in 1965, it was acquired by Herts, which means that it's been part of its new county for half a century. Strangely enough, when I visited earlier this week I didn't see any bunting out to celebrate this fact.

Equally strangely, even though it's practically on the hard shoulder of not only the M25 but also the A1(M) (road numbers with part of their nomenclature in parentheses are so much more classy than those common bracketless roads, don't you think?) it still feels like a village. The church, like so many in Herts (and elsewhere) was substantially restored in the 19th century (in this case by Street in the 1870s), but retains plenty of interest inside (some of it contributed by Street himself, who was much more than simply a ruthless restorer).

What caught my eye first on entering were the seven substantial fragments of stained glass in the windows of the north aisle and north chapel. (The photos below show them in order, from west to east.) They depict members of the extended family of Henry Frowyk, a wealthy City merchant, at prayer. They are donor figures; when individuals or families paid for windows (or paintings) like these they wanted to advertise their piety, wealth and taste by having themselves included in the finished artworks. The surviving fragments are all at the bottom of the outer lights of three-light windows; originally the figures would have been seen to be praying to God and the saints depicted in the larger parts of the windows, now lost.

The donor figures must have survived when iconoclasts turned up at the church one day to smash all images then seen as idolatrous. I wonder how the villagers of South Mimms/Mymms reacted? How did the surviving Frowyks react? (This was probably in the mid 16th century, under Edward VI, or possibly a century later, under Cromwell.) As the Frowyk family are there in the glass to be admired rather than worshipped, the iconoclasts let their images remain. So at least there's now something left for us to admire, though these fragments are a rather pathetic reminder of how much more has been lost.

As you can see, the glass is in a poor state; in particular, the painted details (especially the faces and hands) have faded badly, so most of the heads look ghostly. But the colours are still bright, and I think you'll agree that there's plenty to enjoy in them. (I think the sixth window is my favourite.) The figures kneel at lecterns with open books; men are in the left lights, women in the right, except in the sixth window, which shows a couple. The windows reveal an age when religion permeated all aspects of life, but people didn't see why they shouldn't indulge in a little simultaneous shameless self-promotion.

Pevsner says that two of the windows are dated 1526, and I'll take his word for it. I can see that the first and third windows have what look like lower case Roman numerals (Arabic numerals weren't widely used at this time), but I can't read them. 1526 was the year before Henry VIII first set about trying to get a divorce, so these windows were made just before the English Reformation. Indeed, they very likely survived only 25 years or so before they were so piously smashed.

At first sight it looks as if the stained glass artist made a mistake in this window (above), as the (female?) figures are facing away from instead of towards the central window light, and thus are turned away from the saints they're worshipping. But if you look carefully at the writing underneath, even though it's more or less illegible you can make out that the letters are backwards. What's happened is that at some time the glass has been removed, probably for restoration, and then put back the wrong way round, so we're now seeing it as if in a mirror.*

The Frowyks also paid for the north chancel chapel, and maybe the north aisle, to be built. Henry Frowyk the Younger, who predeceased his father at about the same time the glass was made, is buried in the chapel.

This is a pretty standard though well done late Gothic affair, in the style known as Perpendicular. Henry's effigy rests his head on a very elaborate helm; is it topped by a bird? (It's hard to photograph adequately.) One of his gauntlets is on the 'ground' by his knees; it looks disconcertingly like the star of the old horror film The Beast with Five Fingers.

The monument of Henry the Elder in the chancel is much more interesting. 

This can't be more than a dozen or so years later than the previous monument (Pevsner says c.1540), yet the style, while retaining Perpendicular features, is very different. The basic layout is the same (minus the effigy), the arches are still pointed in Gothic style, and there are still quatrefoils on the tomb chest. But otherwise the detail is lavishly Renaissance. This is a remarkable transitional piece, showing (as Pevsner says) 'the gusto with which craftsmen at some distance from the Court threw themselves into the new Italian fashion.' Paradoxically, the medieval elements also show innate conservatism, using a style (i.e. Perpendicular) that was almost two hundred years old. Was it designed and/or made by one or two hands?

There are several other interesting wall tablets in the church along with other objects of note, such as the 16th century screens in the north chapel, and Street's rood screen. Outside, by the south porch is this 18th century tomb, complete with skulls carved in fine detail but poor perspective:

And at the far end of the churchyard we find this forbidding Doric mausoleum:

The Shell Guide to Hertfordshire calls it 'po-faced'. There are no visible inscriptions (but it was built c.1900 for the Cavendish-Bentinck family) which makes it seem all the more sinister and alien. It stands a few yards from the playground of a junior school; I hope the children's games of hopscotch (or whatever children play nowadays) aren't too overshadowed by this brooding building squatting just the other side of the fence.

I timed my visit to South Mimms (or should that be Mymms?) perfectly: the church was locked as I arrived so I set off to find the key, but I'd gone no more than a few paces when two very nice ladies arrived to do the flower arrangements, and they very kindly let me in. Then, when I'd finished looking around the churchyard and just as I was almost back at the car, it started to rain heavily, so I escaped a soaking. Then I was soon on the A1(M), being careful to once more savour those parentheses, and I was heading north to Icknield country.

* I wrote this so confidently, and felt so clever when I wrote it, but looking at the lettering again I'm no longer convinced that it's reversed. The figures are facing the wrong way, though, and there must be a reason for this. They've probably been moved from a different window.

Saturday 15 August 2015

John Piper's photo of Durham cathedral

I lived in Durham for a year, and have visited since quite often, but, as I mentioned in a previous post, I couldn't remember ever seeing this view of the cathedral. Had Piper climbed a tree in order to get this shot?

I asked my Durham Correspondent to investigate for me. It turns out that a tree (or, rather, trees) is the answer, though not in the way I'd surmised. This is the view from 40 South Street and it must have been taken before the trees grew on the river bank. Here's the same view now:

As you can see, you can glimpse the tops of the towers, but everything else is obscured by foliage. As my Correspondent remarks, while trees are a Good Thing, there is a case to be made for judicious pruning at times, and this is one of those times.

On the Tate website you can see several other Piper photos of the cathedral. The one chosen is the most arresting because of the very close cropping, and the use of a telephoto lens which foreshortens the image, creating an intriguing series of geometric shapes.

Friday 14 August 2015

Kenny Wheeler's 'Sweet Time Suite'

Kenny Wheeler on flugelhorn
I first heard of Kenny Wheeler in the late 80s, when I was looking through secondhand LPs in David's Book and Music Shop in Letchworth, Herts. I came across his Gnu High* (1975), which I think caught my attention because of the colourful abstract photo on the sleeve (I'm still not sure what it depicts, if anything), and because it's got Keith Jarrett on piano. I bought it, took it home, played it, liked it. But I don't think I investigated any more of Wheeler's music until 1990, when there was a broadcast on Radio 3 of one of his concerts. I taped it**, and listened to it over and over again.

Kenny Wheeler was born in Toronto, Canada, in 1930, and moved to England in 1952, where he was based for the rest of his life. He played trumpet in many groups in the 50s and 60s, but didn't make a record under his own name until 1969, when he recorded his suite Windmill Tilter (inspired by the story of Don Quixote) with the John Dankworth band. (The fact that his career didn't really get going until he was nearly 40 should give encouragement to late starters everywhere.) He became a composer of rare talent; The Sweet Time Suite (the main piece in the taped concert) was written for a tour celebrating his 60th birthday.

You can listen to it on Youtube here***. It's scored for a big band****, is in eight parts and lasts about 49 minutes. As it's a suite, the composer has tried to structure it to make a coherent sequence, but obviously there's nothing to stop you listening to individual movements. Even more obviously, there's no requirement to read my half-baked thoughts on it. I recommend you just listen to it. It's beautiful.

Part I (disappointingly called 'Opening' - Wheeler seems to have used up all his creativity in the music in this suite and had little left over for the titles) begins with a gorgeous saxophone choir, with Norma Winstone's wordless vocals blending in so seamlessly that at first you hardly notice they're there. If dawn were audible, this is what it would sound like - the promise of a new day, a new beginning. If the suite is 'about' anything, I suppose it takes us through the hopes and, even more so, the worries of a day, of a lifetime. (Instrumental music isn't 'about' anything, but this suite does contain a song, which is about something, and this colours the whole suite.) The 'sweet' of the title is partly ironic, because there's plenty of doubt and even anguish along the way, but there is real sweetness too. 

Part II ('For H.') picks up the pace, with trumpets raising the roof, as they're apt to do in big band music. Stan Sulzmann's tenor solo***** builds beautifully, with confident support from the brass. At 6.10 Part III ('For Jan') begins with an elegant time shift from 4/4 to 3/4 and a simply lovely valve trombone theme statement, followed by another statement from Wheeler himself on flugelhorn******. This is such a fabulous, gently melancholy tune. Wheeler's flugelhorn solo seems to be searching and aspiring and longing, but ends questioningly. Winstone sings her own lyrics to Wheeler's melody, a portrait of a woman getting through the day. The line 'her smile hints at sadness' emphasises the light and dark within the suite. I'm not  fan of jazz vocalists, but Winstone, with her pure, unbluesy (could I say very English?) voice suits Wheeler's music perfectly.

Part IV ('For P.A.') begins very tentatively, feeling its way as if unsure which direction to take. Evan Parker's tenor sounds troubled, and even when the tempo picks up at 15.30 the tone is still far from sunny. The tenor gets more and more agitated, perhaps even angry, and at 16.30 bursts out into a brief tumult of disorientating free jazz anarchy. 'Life's never easy, life's never fair' as the lyric in the previous part has reminded us. This is quelled at 16.44 by assertive chiding from the band, (I originally wrote 'assertive chording',  but then autocorrect intervened; I like 'chiding' so I'll keep it), and at 19.41 a triumphant new theme emerges. However, at 20.18 the quietly questioning tenor returns. This is the most varied and emotionally complex of all the movements.

Part V ('Know Where You Are') is the most straightahead, swinging movement, (is this the meaning of the title?), with stabbing brass chords and a graceful piano solo from John Taylor*******. Do I even hear a brief quotation from Gershwin's big band staple 'Fascinating Rhythm' at 23.28? But even here there are some unsettling rhythmic shifts, for example at 24.48, and John Abercrombie's guitar solo sounds somehow otherworldly.

Part VI is called 'Consolation', and it is indeed consoling, another bewitchingly sublime tune. Like Part IV, the beginning seems to be seeking something as Winstone floats around, but eventually the theme is found, the bass stating it particularly tenderly. Ray Warleigh's alto solo is yearning, but altogether this movement is radiant and restful.

Part VII ('Freddy C'), however, throws us right back into troubled waters. The free jazz intro creates tension, and is almost sinister. Peter Erskine's drum solo is quite unlike those featured by more conventional big bands - forget Gene Krupa. The rhythm is disruptive and disturbing, but gradually the tempo coalesces  and at 39.30 the band plays the rising theme. Wheeler's flugel solo swings but is still sad, to my ears at least, though Duncan Lamont's tenor solo is much breezier. At 45.24 the trumpets follow each other joyously, (one of my favourite passages in the whole suite), but at 46.45  introspective anxiety seems to be winning again. Part VIII ('Closing') repeats Part I, but this time with Wheeler's flugel spinning over the top. If Part I was sunrise, this must be sunset and oncoming night, and there are certainly hints of darkness and unease, though if it's melancholy, it's beautifully melancholy. The very last note Wheeler plays is a flat fifth (in this case a G in the key of D flat), a note traditionally associated with disharmony (it used to be called 'the devil's interval').

I think that The Sweet Time Suite is a masterpiece. It was released as the first disc of a two disc set called Music for Large and Small Ensembles; the second disc contains three more big band pieces, plus (as the title suggests) some for small groups. Youtube reveals that the suite has entered the standard big band repertoire, and that there is a second recording of it with Wheeler playing with a band from the University of North Texas. As jazz uses improvisation, every performance of a particular composition will be different, sometimes radically different. I wish I'd kept the tape of the live performance from 1990.

I saw the Kenny Wheeler big band twice, in 2010 and 2012 (on both occasions the whole sax section and many others in the band were the same as on the 1990 recording). They didn't play Sweet Time, but new compositions (specially written for his 80th birthday tour) that were released under the title The Long Waiting (2012). By that time he was old and frail, especially on the second occasion, but although he took ages to shuffle across the stage to get to his chair and music stand, (being rousingly applauded every step of the way), and I was worried  that he was going to trip over a cable and have a fall, he still played with his customary vigour and lyricism. I was struck by the obvious respect and affection all the musicians had for him.

I also saw him play with a small group, usually a quintet, half a dozen times, and once, late in his career, in the Vortex, a tiny club in north London. My legs didn't comfortably fit under the table so they were stretched out, and he came, very doddery, down the gap between the tables ('aisle' is far too grand a word), and I had to move my legs to avoid tripping him over. Such was my brush with my hero.

Kenny Wheeler died on the 18 September 2014. He carried on playing, composing and recording almost until the end, making his final record, Songs for Quintet, in December 2013. He was famously self-deprecating and unassertive; although I went to quite a few of his gigs, I almost never heard him speak. He let his compositions and his playing do that for him, and thankfully they'll continue to do so.

* Composers of nonpopular (which isn't the same as unpopular) music - what would generally be called 'classical' music, I term I try to avoid when possible - are usually content with titles such as Symphony no. 7 or String Quartet no. 23 for their instrumental works. Most popular music is vocal, and songs naturally have titles because they have words, so there's rarely any problem in naming them. But jazz, being predominantly instrumental, doesn't have it so easy. Which means that jazz composers have to come up with lots of titles. One of the ways Wheeler generates titles for his compositions is by wordplay. 'Gnu High' is a pun on 'new high', a phrase familiar from weather forecasts; 'Sweet Time Suite' obviously puns on sweet/suite. Other examples of titles that use language skittishly are 'Double, Double You' (i.e. WW), 'Kayak' (because it's a palindrome), 'Ma Bel Helene' (named after his sisters Mabel and Helen), 'Hotel le Hot' ('le hot' is an anagram of 'hotel'), 'Deer Wan' (a pun on 'dear one'), 'Flutter by, Butterfly' (a spoonerism), 'Going for Baroque' (obviously a piece in a jazz version of the baroque style; the title works if you use the US/Canadian pronunciation of 'baroque'), and 'See [sic] Horse' (from a suite in which the letter C, and the sea, play a part). Okay, the wordplay isn't James Joyce, but on the other had I bet James Joyce couldn't write pretty tunes.

** I used to tape lots of jazz concerts from Radio 3, but I threw them all away as outdated technology when I moved house about ten years ago, which I now very much regret - I mean I regret throwing them away, not moving house.

*** I listen to plenty of music on Youtube but feel a bit guilty about doing so; if I don't pay the musicians how are they going to feed their children? This goes especially for jazz musicians, who scrape a living at the best of times. But I assuage my conscience a little by reflecting that at least I buy their CDs and concert tickets too.

**** A big band, in jazz, isn't just any old band that's big, but has a precise meaning - five saxophones (two altos, two tenors, one baritone), four trombones (one of them often a bass), four trumpets, and a rhythm section of bass, drums, and piano and/or guitar. There are sometimes some minor variations in this line up, such as there being only three trombones, or the addition of a vocalist, and the saxophonists often double on soprano sax and/or flute and/or clarinet, but otherwise the format has remained more or less the same for about eighty years, since the swing era.

***** In jazz, calling something a 'solo' strongly implies that the musician is improvising rather than following the notes written by the composer.

****** A flugelhorn is very like a trumpet except its main part is conical rather than cylindrical, which gives it a more mellow, less strident sound. Wheeler was very fond of the flugelhorn, and used it a lot more than the trumpet, especially in the last few decades of his life.

******* John Taylor was Wheeler's pianist of choice for forty years. He died last month, suffering  a heart attack while playing the piano at a concert.

Tuesday 11 August 2015

Photographs by John Piper in the Tate

I heard this morning on the radio that the Tate's collection of John Piper's photographs has been digitised and made available on the net. (They're asking for help in identifying some of the subjects.) Piper took numerous photos - there are nearly six thousand in the Tate archive - over about 50 years, from the 30s to the 80s; landscape and architecture were his commonest themes. As well as regarding photography as an art form in itself, he used photos in his prints (for example the Eye and Camera series) and as illustrations for the Shell Guides (which he edited for a couple of decades) and other publications. 

I think he ranks very highly as a photographer in his field, just below Edwin Smith, in fact. His photos (all black and white, as far as I know) often exploit high contrast, with deep, inky blacks making the whites seem supernaturally brilliant. Like his paintings, they're nearly always peopleless. His sense of composition, as you'd expect from a painter, is faultless. On the whole he avoids obvious subjects, preferring the road less travelled, but when he does photograph standard tourist spots he contrives to find something entirely new to say. See the picture of Durham cathedral below, for example; the west front has been painted and snapped many thousands of times, but Piper, by taking the picture from absolutely head on, produces an original, almost abstract pattern. (I'm not even sure how he got this view; I can't think of anywhere from where you can see this angle.) He's also wonderful at zooming in on textural details. Altogether, he reveals buildings and places that might, to a casual, averagely unobservant visitor, seem ordinary and even dull to be charged with atmosphere and drama. 

Piper was one of the many English artists who were born in 1903; he died in 1992. In 1987 the Tate published a book containing 119 of his photos.

Here are a couple of more or less randomly chosen double-page spreads:

The Hertfordshire Shell County Guide (1982) was the antepenultimate volume in the series, and although Piper was editor, it doesn't contain many of his photos. (The series as a whole, however, contains many hundreds of them.) In fact, the majority of the photos are by his son Edward, who was responsible for the design and layout of the books at this time. Here's one by John, of Bishop's Stortford.

Monday 10 August 2015

The Verulamium Venus

The Rokeby Venus, yes, the Venus de Milo, yes, but the Verulamium Venus?

She's to be found in the Verulamium Museum in St Albans, and in my eyes stands comparison with other more famous Venuses. (Some claim she represents Proserpina holding the pomegranate from which she ate six seeds in the Underworld.) She is small (less than a foot tall) and made of bronze; she dates from the 2nd century CE. She holds in her left hand the golden apple awarded to her by Paris, the Prince of Troy, as the winner of a beauty contest.  She makes an open-palmed gesture with her right hand, as if appealing to the viewer. I have to say that I’m with Paris, despite the fact that she doesn’t entirely conform to 21st century ideals of female beauty. I feel very ungallant in pointing out that she has very wide hips, no waist to speak of, and isn’t at all buxom. Also her left leg seems rather awkwardly posed, though this is obscured by the baroquely billowing robe that hangs so seductively on her hips and is such an eye-catching feature of the figure. Nevertheless, despite these ‘faults’ (or maybe because of them) I find her alluring and endlessly fascinating. 

She was found during an excavation of what was probably a collection of scrap metal waiting to be melted down and reused. How could such a beautiful object ever have been thrown away? And, once discarded, why was she never recycled? Perhaps she exercised her charm even from the depths of a bin of rubbish and contrived to survive to draw visitors to her many centuries after she was made. Replicas of her were at one time available in the museum shop, (though they seem to have disappeared  recently), and one of them is the tutelary deity on my desk as I write these words.

It’s a shame that she is displayed in a case that prevents her from being seen from any angle except the front. Free standing sculptures need to be seen from all round. The lighting isn't perfect either. The picture below is of my replica, just to give some idea of what he looks like from a different angle.

The Verulamium Museum is full of wonderful things, especially mosaics, but Venus outranks them all.

Saturday 8 August 2015

What does Pevsner say?


A visit to any building in England, for anyone with a more than casual interest in architecture, is practically unthinkable without the companionship of Sir Nikolaus Pevsner. His monumental county-by-county series The Buildings of England is a massively thorough work of scholarship, yet the individual volumes are accessible to the general reader and, equally importantly, the first editions are small enough to fit into a jacket pocket. They are indispensable cornucopias of knowledge. How many thousand times has the question ‘What does Pevsner say?’ been posed while looking around a church, country house or high street? 

Pevsner, who edited the whole series and wrote the great majority of the individual volumes, was born in Leipzig, Germany, in 1902, but left in 1933 to escape the persecution of the Jews. He’d converted to Christianity in 1921, but of course this cut no ice with the Nazis. He came to England, his wife and three children following in 1936. He and his wife committed what must be one of the most extraordinary parental misjudgements when they sent their children (aged 15, 13 and seven) to Germany for a holiday with relations - in August 1939, just weeks before the outbreak of  the Second World War.  This would be unfortunate enough for any children, but as the children of a Jew (even though Mrs Pevsner wasn’t Jewish) the situation was far more serious, for, as far as the Nazis were concerned, the children were Jewish too. Fortunately the younger two escaped back to England almost immediately, but the eldest was trapped in Germany, and spent the whole of the war there living with her mother’s sister, in constant fear of discovery. I’m glad to be able to say that the story had a happy end.

Pevsner was interred as an enemy alien for part of 1940, which seems an almost equally extraordinary misjudgement given that he’d been forced to leave Germany and had every reason to hate its government. Nevertheless,  he remained grateful to Britain if somewhat ambivalent about being British; I think that in some ways he always felt that he was really German. Despite this, after the war he stayed in England and  dedicated the rest of his life to the country’s art and architecture. When he was invited to give the Reith lectures on BBC radio in 1955 he chose as his subject ‘The Englishness of English Art’, as if to make a declaration as to where his professional interests, and maybe his loyalties lay, and from the end of the war until the end of his life much of his enormous energy and industry went into the study of English buildings and propagating and popularising the results. His knighthood in 1969 set the seal on his achievements and status.

He started work on the books that were to become The Buildings of England soon after the war, and the first volume, Cornwall, was published in 1951, perhaps giving the impression that the country was going to be covered systematically, following the arrangement of a standard road atlas with Devon coming next, then Dorset and so on. In fact the volumes appeared in apparently random order; Nottinghamshire was second, then Middlesex, jumping from one end of the country to another in a crazy cartographical cakewalk. The first volumes were published by Penguin in paperback, and cost just three shillings and sixpence (17.5.p), an absolute bargain considering the work, detail and scholarship that went into them. (An average Penguin paperback novel cost two shillings in the early 50s.) The learned but readable introduction to each volume beautifully summed up the architectural character of the county, but the bulk of the books was made up of the gazetteer, a place-by-place listing of all the significant buildings, from prehistoric stone circles to concrete tower blocks, giving you all (or nearly all) the facts. If you wanted to know when something was built, or who designed it, or to read a perceptive description of its main features and an opinion on its artistic success, Pevsner was the place to look.

The only slightly disappointing feature of the books was the central 64-page section of monochrome photographs, which were too few, too small and too grey; presumably the books couldn’t have been published economically had they been better illustrated. Even so, Penguin endured (in Pevsner’s words) ‘substantial losses’ in publishing the series, and financial support from charitable foundations had to be found. (The more recently published volumes have improved the illustrations.)

Astonishingly, the entire country was covered in 46 volumes in only 23 years, an average of two books per year. Pevsner wrote 32 of them himself and co-wrote another ten; all this while he was simultaneously editing other series of books, not to mention holding down a day job as lecturer and professor. Naturally, he had research assistants and secretaries, but even so one can only quail at the thought of his workload. He wasn’t paid handsomely, either, and at least to begin with he had to pay his secretary and for some of his expenses out of his salary. He was able to dedicate only a single month to the fieldwork for each county, initially being driven round by his wife in a 1933 Wolseley Hornet borrowed from Penguin, using a special allocation of petrol coupons. He visited almost every building he described; this is such an outrageous statement that I’m going to repeat it: he visited almost every building he described, and remember that he wrote or co-wrote the volumes on every county except Gloucestershire and Kent. While no doubt sometimes ‘visiting’ meant no  more than a quick glance at the facade out of the car window,  no one else can have come close to visiting a higher proportion of England’s architectural heritage, nor is anyone ever likely to.

The final volume of the first editions was Staffordshire, published in 1974, when he was 72. The very last building he visited for the series was Victorian architect William Butterfield’s parsonage at Sheen; he makes no acknowledgement of this fact in his description beyond allowing himself to be a little more verbose than such a relatively undistinguished building would usually require. What were his feelings as he completed this final stage of his journey? Relief that a task that had absorbed him for more than a quarter of a century was at an end? Or regret?

The first editions were written in a terrific rush and inevitably contained many mistakes and omissions; he described them as ‘only ballons d’essai’, (initial experiments), and stated that ‘it is the second editions which count.’ The second editions started appearing in 1965, long before the series was complete. He didn’t write these himself, but such is his powerful contribution to the format and philosophy of the series that even the volumes written by others are still commonly known as ‘Pevsners’. The process of revising the first editions (and early second editions, which are themselves badly in need of updating) is still only about three-quarters complete.  How much longer have I got to wait for an update to Hertfordshire?

The Buildings of England volumes have been joined by those covering Wales, Scotland and Ireland, now officially collectively known as the Pevsner Architectural Guides, and are published by the Yale University Press. Regrettably, they’re no longer pocket-sized; since 1984 all the extra information that’s been crammed into the new editions has made them thicker and taller. They might fit into a winter coat pocket, but jacket pockets will struggle to accommodate them. I’ve taken to keeping the newer  volumes at home for reference and storing the old ones in the car for use in the field. They haven’t got pocket money prices any more either, though £35 per book (an exactly two hundredfold increase since 1951) is still outstanding value when the wealth of information they contain is considered.

One of the charms of the books is that, while they are obviously mostly factual, Pevsner’s personality (and those of the other authors) is allowed to intrude occasionally, so they are not merely dry catalogues. My favourite example of this comes in Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire, which is dedicated ‘To the inventor of the iced lolly.’ He is not averse to expressing forthright subjective opinions about the buildings, sometimes entertainingly, occasionally even wittily. He doesn’t flinch from calling the Faculty of History at Cambridge ‘actively ugly’, and says of the door of Liverpool’s Roman Catholic cathedral that it’s ‘decidedly frightening’ (‘It might be the introduction to some cruel Mexican ritual’). Even when he’s critical he makes you want to go and see for yourself. But much more often he’s infectiously enthusiastic about the buildings he describes, and often he describes them in meticulous, clear-eyed detail. I’ve spent many happy hours walking around cathedrals, letting what Pevsner says guide me. I think that one of the great pleasures of an architectural perambulation (a word much favoured by Pevsner) is finding that I share his opinion of the merits (or the dating or authorship) of a building. In fact, the only thing more enjoyable than agreeing with him is discovering that I disagree with what Pevsner says, for then I feel, however fancifully, that I am engaging in an intelligent, lively dialogue with him.

Pevsner (who died in 1983) has had his detractors. John Betjeman for many years edited the Shell County Guides and believed that this series was in competition with Pevsner’s (in retrospect it’s easy to see that they aren’t rivals at all, but complement each other beautifully). Betjeman took to calling him ‘Herr Doktor Professor’, presumably to emphasise his unEnglishness and the supposed academic dryness of his work. More seriously, the Pevsners have been criticised for seeing each building in isolation and not paying enough attention to their context. What these critics don’t explain is how room could be found for such information in the already tightly packed text.

In Britain we perhaps take the books for granted; the architectural information is always at our fingertips. Whenever I’m looking round a foreign building, I desperately want Pevsner to be my guide, to be at my side allowing me to look knowledgably, to see through his eyes. But there is no equivalent of Pevsner anywhere else in the world (not even in his native Germany). Guidebooks exist, of course, but they’re of widely differing quality and rarely as comprehensive. We should celebrate our good fortune that whenever we have a question about our rich architectural heritage, we can always easily discover what Pevsner says.