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

Tuesday 27 October 2015

Tickencote church, Rutland

A couple of weekends ago I found myself in Rutland, with Tickencote high on my list of places to visit. You approach the church from the north, and if (as in my case) all you know about it is that the Norman chancel arch is outstanding, your first view is puzzling.

Tickencote, view from north
The details are broadly Norman in character, yet they're like nothing built in the 11th or 12th centuries. The windows are too big and are separated by round pilasters which look as if they want to be Tuscan columns, and which have two string courses running across them, cutting them into thirds. What seems to be a transept has a blank north wall except for the string courses. The chancel has blank arcading of intersecting arches, such as are often found inside greater Norman churches (less often outside), but again the details are all wrong.

Tickencote, south chancel
For example, of the four bays of blank arcading seen in the picture above, three (the exception is the second from the right) have two solid continuous mouldings separated by a wide deep groove, so they look like railway tracks. The bays on the left and right have big zigzag decoration, but the apexes point away from the wall instead of parallel to it, so the decoration is hidden away (and hardly visible in the photograph). The second from right bay has odd diamond shapes. The clerestory windows have a cross between dogtooth and beakheads, and look almost like Art Deco.

The west front is even more bizarre.

Tickencote, west front
The pilasters loop to form a hoodmould, but the window has Gothic cusping and doesn't fit under the hoodmould, leaving a blank crescent-shaped tympanum, and an awkward space beneath the window where normally you'd expect to find a richly moulded doorway. Compare this to a genuine Norman parish church west front, the famous example at Iffley in Oxfordshire:
Iffley, photo by ceridwen
Nothing looks right at Tickencote, either as genuine Norman work or as Victorian revival (Victorian architects might well take liberties with the style, but not in this gawky way). However, everything becomes clear when you realise that what you're looking at is Georgian Norman Revival.

Although the Gothic Revival is usually associated with the Victorians, its origins go very much further back. A good case can be made for saying that St John's College Library, Cambridge, built in the 1620s, is the first Gothic Revival building, and by the 1790s (when Tickencote was built) it was well established. Norman ecclesiastical architecture, however, for whatever reason didn't receive the same attention until the 1820s at the earliest. There are some 18th century examples of Norman Revival castles, or houses made to look like castles, but churches are very much rarer. If you know of a Norman Revival church earlier than Tickencote, please let me know.

This explains the unarchaeological naivety of the church: the architect was a pioneer and working in the dark. He had no pattern books to help him. In the circumstances he did extraordinarily well.

He was Samuel Pepys Cockerell (1753-1827) (so named because he was a great-great-nephew of the diarist). He built very few churches; Sezincote House, Glos, is probably his most well-known work. In 1792 (the year in which Tickencote was built and repaired) he was a successful London architect, being Inspector of Repairs to the Admiralty, as well as Surveyor for the Foundling and Pulteney estates and the Victualling Office. How he came into contact with Eliza Wingfield, who paid for the rebuilding, I don't know, but perhaps she went looking for the best man for the job. Cockerell didn't let her down.

One of his smartest moves, and we must be very grateful to him for this, was that, when it wasn't necessary to do something, he did nothing. In particular, he left the magnificent chancel arch, the feature that above all else brings Tickencote its renown, untouched.

Tickencote, chancel arch

Oddly, Pevsner doesn't assign a date to this in the main text, which I assume is an oversight; in the caption to the photograph it's dated 'c.1150-60(?)'. Whatever its precise date, it's endearingly wonky and extraordinarily, wonderfully over-elaborate.  Why was such fecundity of decoration thought necessary? Six richly carved arches nestle inside one another like Russian dolls; I can't think of any other Norman parish church with so many layers of embellishment (again, if you can, please let me know).

Most of the layers have repeated decoration. The outer arch has what Pevsner calls 'a kind of stepped abstraction of beak-heads' (which seems to have been Cockerell's source for the decoration at the top of the chancel clerestory windows), the next has zigzag. The third I'll come back to in a moment. The fourth has crenellations (like the battlements on a castle wall) combined with zigzag, the fifth beakheads, and the inner arch a simple roll moulding.
Tickencote, chancel arch, north

Tickencote, chancel arch, south

Tickencote, chancel arch, beakheads
As I've implied, it's the third layer that's the most interesting as it doesn't repeat motifs. It features stylised heads, both animal and human, and leaves.

Tickencote, chancel arch, heads

Tickencote, chancel arch, heads and leaves
In the picture above, there's a green man at the bottom and what looks like a ram above.

Tickencote, chancel arch
In the picture above, top right there's a frog or toad.

Tickencote, chancel arch, heads and leaves
In the picture above, there's a bear wearing reins or a muzzle, and at the top what seems to be a face with a snake slithering out of the mouth.

Tickencote, chancel arch, capitals on the south
The font is of about 1200. The faces at the tops of the angles are very genial.

Tickencote, font

Tickencote, font
Behind the arch the chancel is genuine rather than revival Norman (though restored by Cockerell). It has a sexpartite vault, with heavily zigzagged ribs.

Tickencote, chancel
The east front seems to follow the original design, though the details are probably all restorations. It's a very pleasing design, quite unlike the west front. The upper window lights a now inaccessible priest's room over the chancel.

Tickencote, east front

Tickencote, south
High on the west front, in the bottom corners of the gable (where no medieval mason would ever have put them) are Cockerell's versions of Norman grotesque carvings. I think they're very successful, especially the one on the north (in the bottom picture).

Tickencote, west front, detail

Tickencote, west front, detail

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