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

Monday 29 August 2016

The Battle of Montevideo in Odell church, Beds

Odell church, Beds, is an imposing Perpendicular structure, dating almost entirely from the 15th century. The tower is particularly impressive; but I'm going to focus on a few of the objects contained within the church. 

Two windows, in the south aisle and chancel, have original stained glass surviving in the tracery lights; the iconoclasts didn't consider them idolatrous, or they were too lazy or incompetent to be bothered to climb up to the higher windows to smash them.

There are four complete and one fragmentary figures of angels; they stand on wheels, which identify them as Ophanims* (also known as Thrones). The yellow, very typical of windows from the 14th century on, is achieved by applying silver sulphide to the white glass before firing. There's also a small head of Christ in the top central light, and a bishop in the left (no doubt not in situ), and other fragments in the tops of the main lights.

In the second tracery light in this window is the ox of St Luke, in the fourth the eagle of St John, then the human of St Matthew, and finally the sacred monogram IHC (the first letters of 'Jesus' in Greek).

In the chancel is this fine if over-busy late 17th century baroque monument to the Alston family, probably of 1678.  It's been attributed to Abraham Storey (who died c.1696).

The Alstons first arrived in Odell in 1633, and they seem to have run the place for the next couple of hundred years. A Thomas Alston was made a baronet in 1642. Another Thomas, another baronet, became the MP for Bedfordshire in 1747; his wife ran off with a horse dealer from Stafford in 1752. He was, poor chap, for some time confined to a madhouse, excessive drinking perhaps being the cause. Nevertheless he was re-elected unopposed in 1754. (Insert you own joke about the mental capacities of current MPs here.) He died in 1774 and scandalously willed his property to his 'housekeeper', Margaret Lee, who eventually passed it on to their natural (i.e. illegitimate) son, who was, just to keep things simple, also called Thomas. 

Facing the Alston monument across the chancel is this monument to yet another Thomas Alston (I think the grandson of the disreputable Thomas) who must have helped restore the family's good name by getting himself killed, a few weeks short of his 23rd birthday, at the Battle of Montevideo in 1807. It is by John Bacon the Younger (1777-1859), a very prolific sculptor. In about three decades (1793-1825) he produced a couple of hundred church monuments, and then seems to have more or less retired for the last three decades of his life. 

The top half is typical of its period, with cod classical symbols and motifs combined in a not particularly convincing manner. A clothed female, accompanied by an urn (symbolic of the immortal soul) and an anchor (Christian hope), gestures up towards the light of Heaven. The monument's interest is in the bottom half, with its breathlessly patriotic inscription - he 'fell, in the Prime of his Youth, at the Head of his gallant Soldiers, Upon the Breach, at MONTE VIDEO, In the Moment of Victory!' The exclamation mark leaves no doubt that the reader is meant to be stirred to martial action by Thomas's inspiring acts. (It's also interesting - at least, I find it interesting - to note that it was still considered acceptable to sprinkle capital letters around in order to emphasise key words, a convention that gradually died out in the following decades.) 

Most interesting of all is the relief panel showing the battle, with cannons and billowing gun smoke galore. If you're like me, you haven't heard of the Battle of Montevideo before; it was a sort of sideshow in the Napoleonic Wars, in which the British and the Spanish (soon to be united against Napoleon, but in 1807 still enemies) fought over the lands around the River Plate in present day Uruguay, hoping to expand their trade empires. This particular battle was a victory for the British, but the campaign as a whole was unsuccessful (Montevideo was held for only seven months). The British commander, Lieutenant-General John Whitelocke, was court-martialled and dismissed from the army as a result. This didn't help young Thomas Alston, however, who, like so many men, young and old, of all nations, became a victim of clashing wannabe empires.

I'm away for the next couple of weeks, so no posts for a while.

* The Victoria County History identifies them as Seraphs.

Friday 26 August 2016

A knight on the tiles: Meesden church, Herts

Meesden is a small one-street village in north-east Hertfordshire, almost on the Essex border. However, if you go there and walk down that street expecting to find the church, you'll be disappointed. It's not there. It's not in the village, and while it's only half a mile or so away it's unsignposted, and hard to find*. But although it was substantially rebuilt in 1877 by the prominent Victorian architect Sir Arthur Blomfield (1829-99), it's very much worth seeking out.

Its first attraction is its romantic location, hidden away from the world on the edge of a wood, alone except for the enormous former rectory (originally Queen Anne, but much rebuilt), with expansive views over bucolic farmland to the north. And although it's a mostly Victorian building,  Blomfield did a good job.

You approach from the west, and the first view is of Blomfield's fine timber shingled bellcote, with Perpendicular-style blind tracery, which replaced a much plainer one seen in a watercolour by Buckler displayed in the church, showing the building as it was in the earlier 19th century**. 

The Tudor brick south porch is one of the church's two outstanding features. It was built c.1530, and no one seems to know why such a large, elaborate, splendid structure was added to what's always been a small, out-of-the-way church. By rights it should be the gateway to a much grander building, and the contrast is almost comically bathetic. But there's something a little tragic about it too: just a decade or so after its construction the Reformation turned everything its builders knew upside down, and church building came to an almost complete halt for sixty or seventy years; this extravagant, confident porch is medieval England's last hurrah. (It's worth comparing the porch to the contemporary, but grander, one about 35 miles away in Pebmarsh, Essex.)

The much-moulded doorway has flanking diagonal buttresses, each of which has a niche. The buttresses rise up and culminate in hexagonal*** mini-turrets, with cute little ogee cupolas serving as finials. The top is castellated, and has a corbel table of shaped bricks. 

The corbel table is worth admiring. Each trefoiled arch top consists of two bricks which are shaped like a child's idea of the man in the moon, a crescent with a 'nose' in the middle. Above these are bricks which look as if someone's sat on them before they were baked, leaving a double indent in each; together with the crescent bricks, they create shapes like a squashed V. Altogether, this is Hertfordshire's best display of shaped Tudor bricks (the only rival - an honourable loser in this competition - is the north aisle of Wyddial church). Sadly, the porch has been brutally repointed at some time, the cement being slapped on like butter straight from the fridge.

There's a mystery, however: the Buckler watercolour doesn't show the turrets, and the crenellation is much smaller and less elaborate. Either he's for some reason misrepresented what was there c.1830, or they've been added later. There's another drawing of about the same date in the church, showing the same view, and it too shows the porch to be much less showy above the corbel table. 

A similar view today

Furthermore, the bricks above the corbel table are noticeably different from those below, being less flat, darker in colour and more regular in shape: in other words, more like modern bricks. Is it conceivable that the turrets and battlements, at least in their present form, are a result of the Victorian restoration? None of the authorities mention this possibility but it seems to be the inescapable conclusion. In which case, Blomfield deserves respect for a job well done, and for unintentionally fooling several generations of historians. (James Bettley, in his 2019 revision of Pevsner's Buildings of England: Hertfordshire, doesn't notice the different bricks, but in correspondence with me agrees that Blomfield must be responsible for the upper stages of the porch. I think I can die happy knowing I've spotted something like this that everyone else seems to have missed.)

The west turret, clearly showing the difference between the older brick at the bottom and the newer at the top.

The porch shelters a plain and unassuming early 12th century Norman doorway, proving the essential antiquity of the building. 

Sometime in the 13th century diminutive transepts were added north and south, with two-bay arcades as if they're aisles. The arcades are quite richly moulded for their size, and show that even before the building of the porch someone was intent on making the church seem grand. At some later date the transepts were demolished, leaving the arches trapped in the wall (as seen in the Buckler watercolour), but were rebuilt on the original foundations in the 1877 restoration.

In their usual position on the south side of the chancel are a piscina (used for washing the Eucharistic vessels) and sedilia (a seat for the priest), both dating from c.1300, and showing that this small church was frequently improved and altered. The second outstanding feature of the church, and for my money its star attraction, is the tile floor around the altar, from about the same date. 

To be precise, these are mosaic tiles; normal tiles are of course square or rectangular, but Meesden's are of numerous different shapes and sizes and must have been complex and expensive to make and lay. All the effort was worthwhile: they're magnificent. Although the area filled by the tiles is quite small, the pavement must be one of the most elaborate surviving. They spread out from the altar, first of all in a fan shape, which is surrounded by a rectangular border, which in turn is surrounded by a bigger, more complex border. This outer border consists of 19 circles, each of which contains a cinquefoil and which in turn are surrounded by four smaller circles. The colours have worn and faded over the centuries; what remains are mostly dusty yellows, dark greens, various shades of browny-orange and blacks. 

As well as being coloured and shaped, the tiles have been stamped with little designs; the more you look, the more you see.

The outer border has circles containing cinquefoil tiles, which in turn are stamped with cinquefoils within cinquefoils. The surrounding smaller circular tiles are stamped with sexafoils within sexafoils.

A sexafoil within a sexafoil on a square tile, from the border around the fan.

Quatrefoil within a circle, from one of the voussoirs.

A cross within a circle on one of the voussoirs.

Four octofoils within a circle on one of the voussoirs.

A sexafoil within a sexafoil on a circular tile, from the outer border.

Two opposed eagles volant (I hope I've got the heraldic jargon correct) within a circle, with two quatrefoils, from the voussoirs. 

Easy to miss, because they're so worn, are two heraldic shields in the corners of the inner rectangle.

These show the arms of the Monchenseys, the aristocratic family that held the manor of Meesden from the late 13th century, and hence the shameful pun in the title of this post. Apparently, the correct heraldic terminology for the design on the shields is Barry Vair and Gules (which sounds like a 1950s variety act, perhaps a ventriloquist and his dummy).

Looking down on the tiles from the north wall of the chancel is the bust of Robert Younge, who died in 1626.

The design is rather unusual: a roundel containing a quarter-length figure is imposed on a rather stumpy fluted column. He presses his right hand to his heart in a gesture of piety. There are numerous  biblical texts, notably two displayed on open books, one of which Younge holds in his left hand and which dangles down to break the frame of the roundel. This is an eye-catching device that adds realism to the monument; he seems about to deliver a hortatory sermon.

The monument was restored and repainted in 1979, and some may find the very pink face and hands a bit too much. They were probably just as garish when new, however, and I'm fond of a touch of colour in otherwise fairly monochrome churches.

The font is plain apart from some discreet panelling, which enables us to date it to the 17th century, probably the Jacobean period (not a very common period for fonts). The most interesting thing about it, however, is that it's evidently been broken into at least three pieces and stuck back together. When did this happen, and why? Such damage could hardly have been accidental. From the Reformation to the Restoration (ie from the 1530s to 1660) fonts had a chequered history, coming in to and going out of favour as doctrinal fashions tussled among themselves. (Read an article about the history of fonts, and especially miniature fonts, from the Church Times here.) In particular, in 1645 (during the Civil War) Parliament passed an ordinance that in effect required the abolition of fonts and their replacement with basins. Fortunately, this ruling wasn't carried out with any great rigour, otherwise no medieval fonts would survive. Some must have been destroyed, but a great many were 'only' defaced. Meesden's font was most likely attacked during this period (even though it was then practically brand new).

This sketch appears to be dated 9.6.13, which must be 1813, and shows the interior with a Jacobean screen and pulpit with tester, all of which must have been swept away in 1877.

The Younge monument seen through the bog-standard Perpendicular-style Victorian chancel screen.

Most marvellous, the church is open daily despite its isolation, and its parishioners obviously take pride in showing it off, as is right and proper. Other parishes should take note. Judging by the visitors' book, a steady stream of wanderers and wayfarers manage to find their way through the gate into the wood and up the sylvan path. I trust that they're as enchanted as me with what they find at the path's end.

* To find it, leave the village by the main street (there's no other road leaving it) heading roughly south-east, and at the first junction turn left, signposted to Meesdenbury. After a couple of hundred yards, and after Rectory Farm, on the right there's a five-barred gate on a track leading into a wood with a sign saying 'Meesden church'. The first time I visited, in the 90s, there was no sign on the gate and it was only my OS map that got me there. 

** This seems to be dated 1831 and is by John Chessell Buckler (1793-1894), who painted hundreds of pictures of Herts buildings, mostly in the 1830s. There are four big volumes of them in the Hertfordshire Records Office, in Hertford, freely available for anyone to look at. In his Confessions of an Un-Common AttorneyReginald Hine tells the story of how the watercolours came to be deposited there.

*** The official listing description (see here) says they're octagonal. I can't tell you what a nerdy thrill it gives me to catch the professionals out.