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

Saturday 27 February 2016

Forever blowing bubbles in Braughing church, Herts

Braughing (pronounced 'bruffing') is a large, almost extravagantly picturesque east Hertfordshire village. Two of the three roads from the west ford the River Quin (though Ford Street, confusingly, has no ford), so you're likely to enter it scattering ducks amid sprays of water. The weatherboarding, half-timbering, pargetting and lime-washed plaster on display makes it feel as if it's wandered over the border from Essex, and it's certainly worth doing your own wandering around before, or after, you visit the church (which is open at all reasonable hours).

The church is large, impressive and handsome. Essentially it's 15th century* Perpendicular (all heavily restored in the 19th century), though the chancel has some unattractively squat lancet windows, hinting at its 13th century Early English origins, and the brick north chapel (now a vestry) is of c.1630. This chapel is in the style known as Gothic Survival**, that is, it  uses Gothic elements, in particular pointed arches, at a time when Gothic was thought by most educated people to be a thing of the barbaric past and the Classical style was supposed to be dominant. In fact, there's a more or less unbroken chain of Gothic buildings running from the Reformation in the 1530s right through to what are often seen as the beginnings of the Gothic Revival in the mid 18th century. The chapel, however, like a lot of Gothic Survival structures, is mostly interesting because it exists, and isn't much to actually look at.

The tower has (according to Pevsner) 'a recessed spire rather than a spike'. How recessed does a spire have to be before it becomes a spike (a small, very sharply pointed spirelet)? I'll leave the subject of Hertfordshire spikes for another post another day.

The west door of the tower is very similar in style to the porch; they must have been designed and built by the same mason. The niches would originally of course have contained statues of saints, pulled down by puritanical, or perhaps mere common or garden, vandals. Incidentally, isn't it strange how the names of the Goths and the Vandals, Germanic tribes that had large roles to play in the fall of the Roman empire, have come to have such different meanings? When their names were first invoked in the late 17th century they both connoted the savage, brutal destruction of all things beautiful and  the antithesis of civilised, humane values, but, while the unlucky Vandals (who were very likely no more barbaric than any other people of their time) still have this meaning stuck to them, the Goths have wriggled out of it. They've managed to give their name not only to a style of architecture, but also to a genre of literature and a teenage subculture.***

The porch is prettily pinnacled and elaborately decorated; it was obviously intended to impress, and was perhaps the gift of a wealthy donor who wanted to advertise his money, taste and piety, and to earn himself some time off Purgatory. It's much taller than the aisle (creating appealing skylines as you walk around the south); originally it was two-storeyed and had a parvise (an upper room, used perhaps for storing records and valuables, or as a schoolroom). The floor of the room is long gone, but mysteriously there's no sign of a staircase leading up; how was it accessed? You might notice that the door leading into the south aisle isn't central in the porch, being too far to the west. Is it possible that originally there was a ladder to the east of the door?

Look up when you go through the asymmetrically-positioned door to see wooden angels and stone corbels. The former all have similar proud, rather snooty faces, while the corbels are all individual. The first photograph above shows a man apparently cowering in terror, perhaps from the nightmare figures of some of the other corbels, such as the second photo. The third shows someone staring intently, and the fourth a man grinning, manic and gap-toothed.

I think that the first and third photos above show original 15th century carvings, while the second and fourth look as if they date from the 19th century: the carving is still crisp and unworn, and the stone is that urine-coloured variety (a type of sandstone?) so often favoured by Victorian restorers. In this instance, the work of the Victorian sculptors stands comparison with that of their medieval colleagues.

The easternmost bay of the nave roof is richly painted; the angels, golden wings outstretched, seem to be lazily soaring in the starry welkin.

On the north wall of the nave is a large oil painting of the Resurrection****. Although it's not art  gallery quality, it's much better than the usual easel paintings found in parish churches, and it's frustrating that so little information seems to be available about it. I'd guess that it's 17th century north European, maybe Flemish. Or could it be a later, perhaps 19th century, imitation? The angels moving the tomb slab are feeble - they look like grumpy children with fancy dress wings in a bad society portrait - but the soldiers in the foreground are quite dramatic. The one at the bottom left, for example, successfully conveys a sense of awe, and his armour is skilfully depicted. My notes from my first visit to the church in 1993 say 'The faces remind  me of a picture I can't quite place', and 23 years on I still can't place it.

In the east window of the south aisle is a First World War memorial (its designer and maker seem to be unrecorded), though specific references to the war are very discreet. The central figure is St George, and on the left is Godfrey, presumably Godfrey of Bouillon, one of the leaders of the First Crusade and the first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. On the right is Major-General Charles Gordon ('Gordon of Khartoum') (1833-85). In 1918 Godfrey and Gordon could still just about  be unequivocally admired, but they're much more ambivalent figures nowadays. The Crusades can no longer be seen as noble endeavours, and Gordon's associations with empire and colonialism, among other things, have stained the almost saint-like reputation he had in late Victorian and Edwardian times. Nevertheless, I like the bright blues and reds and all the incidental details at the top, sides and bottom. Above Godfrey we see what looks like a country house by Lutyens, and above George St Paul's cathedral. (Gordon has a walled city with domed buildings, probably representing Khartoum, during the siege of which he died.)

The chancel is the highlight of the church for anyone, like me, who enjoys funerary monuments. There are two large ones, and several smaller (but the chancel is a bit gloomy, so try to see them on a sunny day).

This monument to John Brograve (d. 1625) and his younger brother Charles (d. 1602) is against the north wall. They both wear armour, though the figure at the top (I assume John) has a cloak and a ruff too; his elbow rests on a cushion, while his brother has to lean on a shield; most uncomfortable. The elder brother also has military emblems by his head and feet (not visible in these photos).

At the top two small putti flank the heraldic cartouche. The one on the left holds an hourglass in his right hand, and has his foot on a skull. But what is the stick-like thing in his left hand?

The left spandrel has a figure of a putto blowing soap bubbles, a symbol of the brevity and uncertainty of life. I'm reminded of the Seven Ages of Man speech from As You Like It (written about 25 years before this tomb was erected), in which Jaques speaks of the 'soldier . . . seeking the bubble reputation/ Even in the cannon's mouth.' I wonder if the Brograve brothers-in-arms ever faced cannons.

The Brograve monument is almost too elaborately decorated, which isn't a charge that could be laid against the austere one to Ralph Freman (d. 1772), which faces it across the chancel. This also commemorates his wife and two other relatives and their spouses. The three low-relief portrait medallions (earlier monuments would have used three dimensional sculptures) are well characterised,  and the use of contrasting marbles is effective, but altogether its stately elegance is too steely. The putti on top, apparently holding the heraldic cartouche, look awkward; the one on the left looks as if he's anxious about slipping off.

This monument commemorates Augustin Steward (d. 1597); his armour and ruff are as stiff as a surgical collar. On the top are a sphinx (probably intended as a symbol of wisdom) and a stag or hart, on the left a rootless, branchless tree, and on the right a broken sword, both symbols of life cut short.

This heraldic monument commemorates Sir John Brograve, d. 1593, presumably the father of John and Charles. Whoever erected it (probably the sons)  was evidently very concerned to establish their aristocratic antecedents. Heraldry often includes odd details, and here it's the two-headed cockerel on the left helm.

There's one last Brograve monument, to Simeon (d. 1638); it has a proto-baroque air about it. The main plaque isn't rectangular but irregular in shape, and on either side are scrolls and fruit (pomegranates?). The rectangular plaque at the bottom was probably intended to record the death of another family member, but for some reason has been left blank. At the top of the monument is another double-headed cockerel.

The Brograves may have vanished like soap bubbles, but their monuments and the church that shelters them remain.

* The Victoria County History suggests c.1416, citing as evidence a will of that date leaving £5 for the building of the church. But surely even six hundred years ago £5 wouldn't have bought you very much architecture, and for all we know the money could have been intended as a contribution to a planned building, which might not in fact have been started for decades, or to pay for some improvement to the completed church.

** 'Gothic Survival' is often a misnomer, implying as it does that the style survived just because provincial builders didn't know any better. Many so-called Gothic Survival structures are very likely examples of the early Gothic Revival, in other words the builders took a conscious choice to build in that style. However, the simplicity and naivety of the Braughing north chapel makes me think that it probably is an example of a genuine style survival.

*** Which brings to mind a good joke in the Guardian style guide, reminding its writers when to capitalise:
Goths: Germanic tribe, invaded Roman empire.
goths: Sisters of Mercy fans, invaded Shepherd's Bush Empire.

**** It doesn't appear on what used to be the Your Paintings website, which has recently become Art UK, which includes all the publicly owned oil paintings in Britain, presumably because it's owned by the church, which doesn't count as public ownership. The site doesn't seem to include paintings owned by the monarchy either.

Sunday 21 February 2016

John Collier - 'Sacred and Profane Love' and other images of women

'Sacred and Profane Love' (1919), John Collier, Northampton Museum and Art Galleries

The name of the painter John Collier (1850-1934) isn't widely known eighty years after his death. Probably only specialists in British art of the period would recognise it, and there doesn't ever seem to have been a book devoted to him. Yet there are no fewer than 182 oil paintings by him in British public collections (see here), (two thirds of them portraits), he has a reasonably substantial Wikipedia entry, and at least three of his pictures would be familiar to most dabblers in the arts ('Godiva', 'Lilith', and his 1881 portrait of Charles Darwin*).

His 'Sacred and Profane Love' is in the collection of Northampton Museum and Art Gallery, but is rarely on display.** (I've visited the gallery half a dozen times or more over the years, but I've only seen the picture once.) It shows two women seated on a sofa in a grand Georgian room; the one on the left, evidently representing 'sacred love', sits in sedate though relaxed style, her left arm propped up on a cushion and her gaze demurely directed away from that of the viewer. She is holding a furled fan in her lap, perhaps suggesting reticence, and is wearing a fairly modest (though probably expensive) full-length dress. Her dark hair is neatly coiffed. 

The other woman ('profane love'), who is blonde, is perched on the sofa's arm, as if she's ready to spring up and into the arms of the viewer, whose eyes she meets with an uncompromisingly direct gaze. She flourishes an extravagant fan in the form of a feather with tipsy abandon, and is wearing a shimmering emerald dress (a prototype of the flapper dresses of the Roaring Twenties) which leaves plenty of flesh exposed. (Collier's painting of the dress is literally and metaphorically brilliant.) She hasn't got her feet on the ground, or hardly - merely a toe-tip, unlike her more grounded, down-to-earth and reliable companion. The tassel of the bright red cushion on which she leans hangs, lustrous and free.

In the round mirror on the wall behind them (though Collier allows only a little more than a half of it to feature in his composition) we see the reflection of a man who has presumably just entered the room to find the two women awaiting him. He's a soldier; he seems to be wearing campaign or medal ribbons. I can't make out his rank, but given the high social status of his surroundings I assume he's an officer. 

The date of the painting adds poignancy: 1919. We can guess that the soldier has recently returned from the war, and will perhaps soon be demobilised, and is considering which path to choose. Will he pick the steady, serious first woman, and the steady, serious life that she'll bring, or the fun, frivolous life that will come with the second? He might well think that he deserves some light-hearted pleasure after the terrors he's escaped. 

Are the two women in the picture painted from the same model (though with different hair)? If so, then perhaps we're justified in interpreting the picture as not being about the soldier's choice between two mutually exclusive opposites, but instead seeing it as implying that women, and men, and indeed life itself, should be simultaneously sacred and profane, serious and frivolous. The soldier hasn't got to choose between two women and two lifestyles: he can live a life combining both. The brunette and the blonde are two sides of the same coin, two aspects of the same personality. 

Intriguingly, Collier had two wives, who were sisters, daughters of Thomas Huxley (who was extremely important in making Darwin's theories widely accepted). He first married Marian or Marion (known as Mady) Huxley (1859-1887) in 1879. She was a painter, studying like her husband at the Slade, and exhibiting at the RA and elsewhere. There are unfortunately only two oil paintings by her in British public collections, portraits of her father and husband, both very accomplished.

'John Collier' (1882-3), Marion Collier, National Portrait Gallery
In the portrait of her husband she depicts him painting her (a version of his portrait of her seen below) in what looks like their home, rather than a studio, and dressed in everyday clothes, rather than an overall or apron. He's caught very much in the act, palette knife in hand and, slightly comically, paint brush between his teeth. The foreshortened and diminished picture of her on the easel regards her husband steadfastly as she, the painter, examines him clinically, though not without affection.

Very sadly, after the birth of their only daughter, Joyce, she suffered from severe post-natal depression (mental health problems ran in the Huxley family) and was taken to Paris for treatment, where however she died of pneumonia aged only 28. 

'Marion Collier, nee Huxley' (1883), John Collier, National Portrait Gallery
It's tempting to think that one can see evidence of this distress in Collier's portrait of Marion: the downcast eyes, the sombre expression, the black clothes, the bleak background.

Joyce Collier went on to become a successful portrait miniaturist (as Joyce Crawshay-Williams, and from 1918 as Joyce Kilburn), and lived until 1972.

Two years after Mady's death, Collier married Huxley's youngest daughter (there were five in all), Ethel (1866-1941), in 1889. The wedding had to take place in Norway, as at the time it was illegal in Britain to marry one's wife's sister, even if the former were deceased. John and Ethel had a son and a daughter; their son, Laurence (1890-1976) became a diplomat and kept up the family's Norwegian connection by becoming Britain's ambassador to that country from 1939-50.

It is merely the wildest speculation to suppose that when Collier was painting 'Sacred and Profane Love' he was thinking of Mady and Ethel. (You'll notice, however, that by simultaneously mentioning and discounting this possibility I'm having my cake and eating it.)

Nudes aren't common in early Victorian art (Etty is one of the few painters who broke this convention), but in the later Victorian and Edwardian periods artists such as Alma Tadema, Waterhouse and Poynter painted unclothed females, usually in historical or mythological settings (so they're not strictly nudes), and Collier joined this trend.

'Lilith' (1889), John Collier, Atkinson Art Gallery Collection, Southport
Collier painted this picture of Lilith (Adam's first wife, according to Jewish folklore) in 1889, the year he married Ethel.*** This appears to be among his earliest nudes, and it's certainly one of his most striking. Lilith is depicted as a dangerously desirable sexy succubus; she's evidently on more than good terms with the snake. Any love one gets from her is going to be as profane as profane can be.

'Maenads' (1886), John Collier, Southwark Art Collection
More dangerous women are seen in 'Maenads' (the 'raving ones' of Greek mythology); I wouldn't put much money on the safety of the animal (deer? goat?) on the bottom left, or indeed on the safety of anything or anyone who happens to cross their path.

'Clytemnestra' (c.1914), John Collier, Worcester City Museums
Clytemnestra is the most fatale of all Collier's femmes; she strides towards us, blood dripping from the sword with which she's just murdered her husband, Agamemnon, and the Trojan princess Cassandra. Collier was drawn to this subject; this is his second version.

'Clytemnestra' (1882), John Collier, City of London Corporation
I prefer the second version: she looks defiant (rather than stunned, as in the first) but her bare breasts make her look vulnerably human, and the drip of blood on the stone floor is a superbly dramatic touch.

'Godiva' (1898), John Collier, Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry
'Godiva' is perhaps Collier's best-loved painting. Sacred love is evident in her youth, beauty and innocence. Her lack of clothing is quite unlike the defiant nudity of Lilith. She is sacrificing her dignity to help the citizens of Coventry; her downcast eyes reveal her acute embarrassment, and perhaps also relate her to his first wife.

'The Sinner' (1904), John Collier, Victoria Art Gallery, Bath
Sacred and profane love co-exist in the story implied by 'The Sinner'. The woman, beautiful and luxuriously clothed but wringing her hands in despair and distress, presses herself urgently against a confessional in a Catholic or Anglo-Catholic church. She has committed a sin - most viewers would guess it to have been adultery - and is now repentant and begging for absolution.

I've merely touched on one aspect of Collier's oeuvre, but he was prolific (many provincial galleries have examples) and worked in a wide range of genres - landscapes, problem paintings (a term he rejected), genre paintings, history paintings, as well as of course portraits, which presumably provided his staple income. He wrote manuals about how to paint, one of which seems to be still in print. He must have seemed terribly old-fashioned in the last few decades of his life, but with the perspective of history we can perhaps judge him more fairly, and, like many of the subjects I choose for these posts, I think he's been unjustly underrated.

I've written previously about another, even more obscure, Victorian artist, Eric Forbes-Robertson - see here.

* His portrait of Darwin at the end of his life is instantly recognisable, though there's nothing in it alluding to his scientific career. He has doffed his hat to the viewer, revealing a splendidly domed bald head, echoing that of the Pantheon (though I don't know if he, as a secularist, would have welcomed such a comparison).

'Charles Darwin' (1881), John Collier, Linnaen Society, Burlington House

** I believe that it's currently hanging in Northampton's Guildhall, opposite the Museum and Art Gallery, so at least it's seen by some, but I don't think you can just walk in off the street to see it.

*** Doctor Google can't make up his or her mind about when this picture was painted; dates range from 1886 to 1892. It's possible Collier painted more than one version, hence the confusion. 1889 is the date assigned to it by Your Paintings, which I assume is reliable.

Friday 5 February 2016

School memories - 'Scratcher' Simpson goes bananas

This picture has nothing to do with the text. December sunset over wartime Nissen huts, Steeple Morden, Cambridgeshire.
My French teacher in the First Form at secondary school (1969-70) was Mr Simpson. He was one of those dangerously mercurial characters – most of the time he was genial and jolly, though fairly strict, but then just occasionally something would trigger off his dark side and he’d turn into a fire-spitting monster. A crazy look would take over his eyes, and he’d rant most alarmingly, great harp-strings of saliva twanging between his berserk lips. Mr Simpson’s nickname was Scratcher. I’ve no idea why, apart from the pleasingly sibilant alliteration. I suppose once some persecuted kid must have thought that Simpson scratched himself unusually often and focused on this perceived defect in revenge. 
Two specific memories: a normal lesson, Mr Simpson talking at the front, the class more or less paying attention. He notices that Mike Cresswell at the back doesn’t seem to be listening but is in fact doodling, and, without stopping talking, sidles over to Cresswell’s desk. Cresswell is so absorbed in his artwork that he doesn’t notice that anything is wrong. The rest of the class are observing with mingled dread, interest and (since only Cresswell is potentially in trouble) schadenfreude. Before Cresswell knows what’s happening, Mr Simpson is standing by him, looking down at his doodle. I don’t know if it was on a piece of scrap paper, or (obviously much worse) on the sacred pages of his French exercise book, but I remember that the doodle depicts a stick man, with a large – ahem – appendage dangling between his legs. This is crime enough, but the potentially most damaging detail is the one word written unmistakably as a caption: SCRATCHER.
Mr Simpson looks at the doodle. Of course, he knew what his nickname was, but I suppose he had to maintain his dignity by pretending not to know. His voice is dangerously calm. His finger stabs at the doodle, and he asks, ‘What’s this, boy?’ He’s offering Cresswell a safe exit. All Cresswell has to do is say, ‘It’s Gouldstone [or whoever], sir; we call him Scratcher,’ and he’ll in all likelihood get off with just a rebuke. However, with magnificent, you could even say superhuman gormlessness he fails to recognise this relatively comfortable option. The whole class has obviously swung round to witness this confrontation, and I can still remember the expression on Cresswell’s face as he looks up at Mr Simpson, ‘Scratcher’, looming ominously over him; it combines puppyish trust, innocence, honesty, but most of all stark staring imbecility as he says ‘It’s you, sir.’
The climax of this story should be Simpson’s record breaking bout of going completely bananas. But that’s where my memory ends. Was his rant so appalling that it’s been blocked from my memory? Was he so taken aback my Cresswell’s stupidity that he didn’t know what to say? Was his reaction overwhelmed by the gale of laughter from the rest of the class? Unlikely, this last one; I suspect we were too afraid to laugh openly, but struggled to contain our mirth. I still think those three simple words, ‘It’s you, sir,’ are just about the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.
I’ve been making fun of Mike Cresswell for his naivety in giving Mr Simpson an honest answer, but the truth is that I fell into exactly the same trap, lured perhaps by his seeming, or in this case probably perfectly genuine, geniality. We were working in our books, and I turned around to ask the boy in the row behind me, Ian Kellard, the time. Before he had a chance to answer, Mr Simpson saw what I was doing and called to me. He told me to leave my seat and walk up to the front of the room where I stood facing him. He wasn’t angry; I was a goodish pupil who hadn’t done anything significantly wrong in previous lessons. He gave me a mild lecture about the impropriety of turning round in my seat in the middle of a lesson to ask the time when I should have been working. It was all quite friendly. He asked me if I saw the error of my ways, and I agreed that I did. He concluded by saying ‘Well, Gouldstone, are you satisfied now?’ Without thinking – and I honestly wasn’t trying to be cheeky or clever, I just wanted to respond truthfully, man to man, as the interview up until that point had seemed to require – I replied, ‘No, sir, he didn’t tell me.’ 
He went mad. When we say this, it generally means that he became angry, which was certainly true; he was angry, of that there was little doubt, but he also seemed to go mad in a more literal sense. He slapped me at least once, possibly several times. He seemed possessed. Words, abuse and spittle flew in several directions. I can’t remember his exact words, of course, but their general drift was that I was a thing of little or no account. Eventually the storm died down a little and he sent me back to my seat, telling me to see him at the end of the day (I think this lesson was in the morning).
I spent the rest of the day in fear of this second encounter. If he was capable of such a torrent of invective on the spur of the moment, how much worse would it be when he’d had several hours to prepare his lines? It just didn’t occur to me that by slapping me he’d seriously overstepped the mark of what was permissible (presumably even by the standards of 1970). So after the last period I, with great fear and trepidation, went and stood outside his room. Eventually he appeared from down the corridor. He was talking to someone, possibly another teacher, and when he caught a glimpse of me it became obvious that he’d forgotten all about this rendezvous. He wordlessly waved me away. The whole incident was never referred to again.

Despite all this, on the whole he was a good teacher, and if he’s still alive (as is perfectly possible - he was I imagine in his thirties) I wish him well.


I wrote the above a couple of years ago in response to a request from a colleague in the school where I teach. He wanted to give our students an impression of how frequently corporal punishment had been used in schools until relatively recently. It emerged that a surprisingly large number of the staff had been hit by teachers.
I'm still friends with a few of the members of that French class (though not Mike Cresswell or Ian Kellard), and they confirm the broad outlines of my anecdotes. Their memories differ from mine in some details, however - hardly surprising after more than forty years, but this makes me question the accuracy of my account. One friend wasn't aware of the sexual aspect of Cresswell's Scratcher doodle; have I invented this detail to make the scene more dramatic and comic? For that matter, how could I have seen the doodle at all, as Cresswell was at the back of the class and I was near the front? Maybe Simpson held the drawing up (unlikely), or perhaps I saw it later. Or perhaps I didn't see it at all, but only heard about it later. 
The same friend reminds me of a famous exasperated outburst from a different French teacher at our school, faced with a particularly dim pupil: 'It's like a foreign language to you, boy!'